Feminism's Generation Gap

By Stephanie Herman

Originally published in Hatteras, The PostFeminist Playground's Monthly Mix, and What's the Point?

Feminism, like genetic attributes and a belief in liberalism, seems to be skipping a generation. Rose Glickman, who recently published a book on the perplexing women of Generation X who aren't living up to feminist ideals of activism, entitled it not "Feminist Daughters," but rather, "Daughters of Feminists." This simple generational gap in commitment to feminism should come as no surprise; it's only natural that the Baby Boomers, who revived feminism, would be at odds with the generation to follow, just as they struggled against the notions and tendencies of the Beat generation preceding their own. Forty years ago John Clellon Holmes characterized that Beat generation of the early 1950s as a myriad of variant faces behind which a generational line of thinking was finding validation in the repetition of its expression. "What the hipster is looking for in his 'coolness'... is, after all, a feeling of somewhereness, not just another diversion. The young Republican feels that there is a point beyond which change becomes chaos... Both have had enough of homelessness, valuelessness, faithlessness." This observation could just as successfully be applied to the Generation X of today. Baby Boomer feminists had hoped, however, to breach any generational divide that might threaten the continuation of their cause. They've been somewhat disappointed. According to a poll recently conducted by R.H. Brushkin, only 16 percent of college women "definitely" considered themselves to be feminsits.

Perusing the women's studies section of any bookstore reminds us that the charter members of feminism's second wave are maturing in age. The latest volumes published by Cathleen Rountree, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer discuss not gender issues of inequality but of aging and menopause. That feminists as a group are aging is a superfluous observation without understanding the fact that feminism--the very institution--is aging as well; a result of the failure of younger women to pull the mean age of a feminist down from its fast approach of 50 or to infuse the feminist platform with discussion of the problems pertaining to this new generation. But this point of contention is one not limited to the '90s decade. Feminists have wrestled with the problem of youthful conservatism and a lack of support for radical feminist ideology as far back as the late 1970s.

In her 1978 essay, "Why Young Women Are More Conservative," Gloria Steinem struggled to produce some plausible reasons for the apathy of the young. Many of her arguments were drawn from her own college years, which she laughingly admits were conservative--a mistake she blames on a young woman's desire to gain public, i.e., "patriarchal," approval. While Steinem conceded that women in their late teens and early 20s--generally students--are suspicious of continuing claims of female oppression, she offered a simple reason for their errors in judgment: "As students, women are probably treated with more equality than we ever will be again. For one thing, we're consumers. The school is only too glad to get the tuitions we pay..."

Were these really Steinem's words? Since when have feminists ever admitted that as consumers women are treated fairly? It's been widely reported and believed that any woman's attempt to purchase a car, an outfit, a hair cut, even her dry cleaning, results not only in the chauvenistic condescension of salesmen who respect only her husband's or father's purchasing power, but also in being consistently charged more than men for the same product or service. Furthermore, feminists perpetually allege that college women are failed in every way by their patriarchal learning institutions--citing date and stranger rape on campus, "phallocentric" curricula and gender-biased teaching methods. At a feminist conference at City University of New York in 1992, Steinem herself claimed that male-dominated schools were so bad, she was recommending an "underground system of education." Then and today Steinem misses the point. Instead of enjoying a false sense of security, young women may be embracing conservatism for the proverbial reason that in the '90s they finally have something to conserve. Feminists hesitate to admit it and the media is reluctant to report it, but progress has and is being made in the fight for female equality.

Gains in the fight for equality are not lost on the members of Generation X, who grew up in the Information Age. Founder of the MIT Media Lab and author of Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte admits a line of demarcation between informational "haves" and "have-nots." And in the arena of information access, the youth is occupying an advantaged position in relation to older generations.

Such data so readily available to young people today shows the situation for women is not as alarming as feminists would have us believe. According to a 1994 study performed by the National Women's Political Caucus, "women and men have won general elections at virtually identical rates over the last 20 years." The study concluded that the only reason we don't see more women in government is because they fail to run for election.

Historically, feminism has been on the vanguard of assuring that women will have the opportunity to compete in the workplace. The young people of Generation X, portrayed as a hesitant group of incessant questioners, have been interested to know: Have these efforts proved successful? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women accounted for 60 percent of total labor force growth between 1982 and 1992. By 1983, women held 40 percent (9.7 million) of high paying managerial and professional specialty jobs and 47 percent (14.7 million) in 1992. In fact, women are projected to account for nearly three-fifths of the labor force entrants between 1990 and 2005 and will comprise 47 percent of the labor force by the year 2005.

According to the Science & Engineering 1993 Indicators, published by the National Science Board, the percentage of bachelors degrees earned in all fields by women was 45.43% in 1975, rising to 54.07% by 1991. The procurement of masters degrees achieved similar gains, from 44.79% in 1975 to 53.65% in 1991. Encouragingly, women have actually eclipsed men in their pursuit of an education. In all fields, men earned 508,424 bachelors degrees in 1975 while women earned only 423,239. As of 1991, however, women had far surpassed the male figure of 508,952 by earning a total of 599,045. In fact, women have earned more bachelors degrees than men since 1982. The numbers are similar for masters degrees: 156,895 for men in 1991, compared to 181,603 for women.

Although women are still under-represented in the fields of science and engineering, the gap is steadily narrowing. For example, while the number of men earning bachelors degrees in science and engineering actually fell from 210,741 in 1975 to 189,328 in 1991, women's degrees in science and engineering rose from 102,814 in 1975 to 148,347 in 1991. And in the field of computer science, men's bachelors degree production increased between 1975 and 1991 by a factor of only 4.38 as compared to the surge of women's degree production by a factor of 7.86. Such encouraging information may partly account for the waning response to feminist rallying cries among the ranks of Generation X.

Members of our generation, both male and female, have been criticized for far more heinous crimes than simply our disregard for Baby Boomer liberalism. We've been dubbed the unlucky 13th American generation for the environmental, economic and political problems we inherited. Further labels include "yiffies" (young individualistic freedom-minded few) and, forever in their shadow, "Baby Busters." We've been accused of being workaholic slaves of materialism, and in the same breath, of being too lazy; of practicing generational self-pity and, at the same time, setting our moral and political standards too high, all the while being relentlessly pictured on magazine covers as straight-faced, albeit mini-skirted and dreadlocked, malcontents.

In Psychology Today's May/June 1992 article, "A Generation of Whiners," five characteristics existing in childhood are said to have contributed to the apprehension of the Xers' worldview: [1] parents (or lack of them before 5:00 p.m.); [2] smaller demographic (in the Boomers' shadow); [3] economic turbulence (70s inflation, 80s recession); [4] TV exposure (violence); and [5] stress (children's levels have risen steadily since '67). Can these five factors also explain our female members' apprehension toward feminism?

Not really. These components are cited as catalysts for the generation's ennui, our search for identity, our tendency to live with our parents after college, to travel in groups and avoid early marriage. The list represents the problems that Generation X faced growing up--problems that currently haunt us as we make our initial and tentative adult decisions. Not surprisingly, gender discrimination is not on that list. Though we grew up wary of our precarious place in a polluted, violent and economically unstable world, the young girls of Generation X always felt equal to the boys with whom we grew up.

In fact, ours was the first generation to do so. In Daughters of Feminists, Rose Glickman noted the same trend among the Generation X "daughters" she interviewed: "In all the feminist families, fathers no less than mothers exhorted and encouraged their daughters, in word and deed, to develop their minds and to strive for and expect professional achievement." Generation X girls were raised to expect the same things little boys might grow up expecting: the opportunity to earn a college degree, the opportunity to pursue a career, in short--the opportunities. The parents of Generation X women seemed to warn their daughters en masse that while marriage might or might not be in their futures, even a married woman should be self reliant. Glickman echoes this sentiment in her findings, concluding that the young women of this generation, "begin their journey with eyes on the prize of self-reliance."

In Paula Kamen's 1991 book, Feminist Fatale, she explains, as a Generation X feminist, why the cause is so misunderstood by her generation; then envisions its hopeful future if, and when, young women can make the association and subsequent commitment to feminism. "The great irony," she complains, "is that although feminism has generally made a tremendous difference in the perceptions and opportunities in many of these people's lives, it is something that they almost universally shun." Echoing Kamen's frustration, feminists in their early 30s, just beyond the reach of Generation X, believe that this next generation of young women--who generally espouse feminist ideals, if not the label--just haven't experienced the gender discrimination a formal introduction to the "real world" will eventually bring.

Assuredly, most women of Generation X do admit a great debt of gratitude to feminists for earlier victories, but at this point in America's feminist-influenced history, many believe the law has been altered sufficiently. Remaining gender discrimination is considered to result not from a lack of legislation but to the lingering chauvenistic attitudes of a small percentage of men and women. If the law has had no effect until now on the attitudes of these individuals, further marches and protests and legalised protectionism will produce no additional effect. As potential victims of gender discrimination, young women tend to hold the belief that the few unenlightened individuals they may encounter should be confronted on a personal, not political, level. Where feminist intimidation has failed, a personal introduction to a truly hard-working, capable female may be the only solution to changing biased attitudes.

An illustration of this fact was recently highlighted on an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show. A young white man, who considered blacks an inferior race, explained that the more the world tried to force him to change his attitude--the more NAACP protests and politically correct supplications he witnessed on television--the more angry and prejudiced he became. His bigotry did not end until he actually had the opportunity to get to know a young black man. The two became close friends and though it took more time than a sound-byte could provide, a positive, personal experience melted away what years of social conditioning and intimidation could not.

Because the women of this generation have been raised with an innate sense of equality, the reverse discrimination of feminism exists as one reason many of them fail to allign with the movement. The double standard regarding women's use of male slurs and put-downs is repugnant not for the jibes allowed women, but for the simultaneous censorship forced upon men. In a recent radio commercial, while jokingly referring to her son and husband, a female voice claimed that she was now raising two boys. Her joke is perfectly acceptable in American society because no political censorship regarding the foibles of men (not to mention foibles of the government, politicians or public figures) currently exists. But let a commercial suggest that a woman is valued for her sexy appearance, is behaving in a childish or immature manner, or is dependent, in any way, on another person, and the National Oragnization for Women will immediately boycott the advertised product. Women of any generation concerned with gender equity would condemn this flagrant use of a double standard.

What residual discrimination does exist in our vigorously "sensitized" and censored society, women admittedly have a hard time detecting. Kamen concedes that most of the women she interviewed "expressed confusion and helplessness at detecting sexism, which they suspect as a subtle undercurrent in both professional and personal relationships." It is peripheral to suggest that the crisis of sexism may not be living up to its representation; more importantly, it is this charge of "subtle" sexism that appears somewhat paranoiac and often alienates young women who sense that sexism isn't always the reason the woman isn't picked for the job.

One of the most active areas of involvement for feminists today involves the problem of domestic violence and, more specifically, violence against women. While the members of Generation X are extremely sensitive to the problems of violence present in our society, some are abandoning feminist solutions to these problems on a purely ideological basis.

Betsy Hart, reporting in The Women's Quarterly, explains that last year's "Violence Against Women Act," included in the president's crime bill, was authored in response to inaccurate figures put forth by the Battered Women's Justice Project and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "But the truth is," states Hart, "the number of sexual assaults actually fell last year from the year before--by as much as 20%, according to the latest National Crime Victimization Survey issued by the Bureau of Justice Statistics." Hart is not dismissing the problem of violence against women, but makes the point that the current crisis "will not be addressed by the Violence Against Women Act," citing that most of the 1.5 billion dollars earmarked for women's protection will be "allocated to advocacy groups that generate distorted and hysterical statistics rather than to efforts that might really help women--and all crime victims--such as increasing police forces, building prisons, and jailing repeat offenders."

This is not the first accusation made against feminist advocacy groups regarding their practice of doctoring the books to make a problem appear worse than it is. In Christina Hoff-Sommers' Who Stole Feminism?, raw data is presented that disproves many erroneous albeit widely-reported feminist statistics. For example, Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf have both published figures suggesting that roughly 150,000 women and girls die of anorexia per year; the actual figures, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, are on average less than 100 per year. Similar claims, including that battery of pregnant women accounts for the leading cause of birth defects in the U.S., that levels of domestic abuse rise by 40 percent on Super Bowl Sunday, and that annual levels of assault on women hover between 500,000 and 6 million, have since been proven to be distorted and inaccurate. Hoff-Sommers contends that while the motivation of those she calls "gender feminists" to cure the ills affecting women is certainly noble, their willing and conscious dissemination of false statistics steals credibility from the fair fights being waged everyday by and on behalf of women.

Though a few final miles may remain on the path to gender equality, including the all-important narrowing of the gap between male and female compensation for equal work, the cause of feminism has long since eclipsed its original journey of basic equality. Because the arena of discrimination offers fewer challenges, current feminist motivations involve a conglomeration of personal rather than political convictions regarding female sexuality, identity and expression. Kamen asserts that this cultural component of feminism, "suggests... feminism would still be relevant even if discrimination against women halted." Many would argue that this halt has virtually been achieved, but limiting ourselves to Kamen's hypothetical future: why would any young woman want to devote her enthusiasm and energy to a battle already won? Post-discrimination feminism (to many, an oxymoron) would resemble a religion more than a political movement. Furthermore, a platform consisting only of defining female identity, striving for feminine expression and practicing goddess worship is no foundation for the political activism feminists intrinsically pursue.

In fact, Generation X is increasingly wary of feminism's refusal to give up the ghost, recognizing that while most of women's battles have been won, habitual feminists are angry as ever. On the "Womens' Homepage" of the Internet's World Wide Web is a list of resources for feminists, inauspiciously including "Marketing Angry Women"--a formidable job, to be sure, but nonetheless indicative of the prevailing feminist attitude. The fact that feminists continue to perpetuate unnecessary wars causes skepticism in the minds of younger women who are interested not only in fighting the right battles, but in affecting resolution.

Ostensibly, resolution is elusive in the feminist's world. In her 1990 book, The Worst Years of Our Lives, feminist Barbara Ehrenreich embraces a never-ending story: "The original idea of feminism as I first encountered it, in about 1969, was twofold: that nothing short of equality will do and that in a society marred by injustice and cruelty, equality will never be good enough." This revelation occured to Ehrenreich 21 years before publishing her book; in that time, nothing for her has changed.

Is it, after all, in a career feminist's best interest to admit that any progress has been made? In 1964, as feminism's second wave was igniting, the above-mentioned biographer of the Beat generation, John Clellon Holmes, would write that no group defined as "outcast"--what today we would label as "victim"--ever desires to give up that title. His words illustrate a crucial and controversial misunderstanding in today's debate over welfare, affirmative action and feminism: "For the outcast instinctively knows that when he is accepted with such a show of tolerance it is his very outcastness that is his meal ticket, and so he emphasizes it..." Are feminists refusing to acknowledge the current reality of gender equity, "emphasizing" instead their own hated label of "outcast?"

In 1978, when women enrolling in college outnumbered their male counterparts for the first time, unimpressed feminists couldn't refrain from "emphasizing." Though many men and women concerned for gender equality celebrated in the light of this progress, feminist attitudes remained bitter. Gloria Steinem reduced the victory to women's pathetic attempts to participate in a man's world. "This hope of excelling at the existing game is probably reinforced by the greater cultural pressure on females to be "good girls" and observe somebody else's rules." Steinem had transcended the idea of an "equal playing field," now demanding a brand new playing field wherein women would be dominant: "One day, an army of gray-haired women may quietly take over the earth."

The young women of Generation X are not interested in taking over the earth, as twentysomethings or in their dotage, and a perpetually angry outlook on the world is no longer considered constructive. Instead these young women and their male counterparts are searching for ways to incorporate man & woman; Jew & Christian; Muslim & Hindu; black & white into a cooperative, peaceful world. To attract our interest, feminist leaders will have do more than simply mouth angry rhetoric and hurl false accusations. They will have to redefine the problems faced by young women today (problems faced by young men, as well) and offer hope and resolution--not in the form of more social welfare and quotas, but in lessons of personal responsibility and cooperation between the sexes.