The Feminist Generation Gap

by Kim Allen

My sneaking suspicion is that much of what's behind the miscommunication between the Second- and Third Waves of feminism is the generation gap between the Baby Boomers and Generation X.

"Gen-X seems 'passionless'"

What's wrong with those 20- and 30-somethings? They just seem so.... inert. So passionless. Especially the women who have turned out to be such lackluster feminists. (This is usually accompanied by a pitying sigh from the aging second-waver, who fondly remembers bringing heavy bulgar-soy casseroles to consciousness-raising sessions in which they dreamed up phrases like, "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.")

Passionless? Let's look at this from a different point of view. The Baby Boomers are positively obsessive. They obsessed about the Vietnam War protests in the 60's, and then they swung 180 degrees and obsessed about making money and acquiring power in the "me" 80's, and now they are in full throttle reverse once again as they frantically save for retirement while getting misty-eyed over the "nostalgia" surrounding Woodstock and VW Beetles. (And god-save-us-all, their kids are wearing bellbottoms!!!).

Next to the Boomers, darn near anyone looks "passionless." My main hope is that the stock market can survive their latest obsession. "Boomer" is a great name for a hiccup in the population curve that resembles the proverbial bull in the china shop.

"Gen-X is so cynical"

Where's the idealism? Where's that lust-for-life that ran rampant during the Summer of Love and fueled the great radical politics of that era?

Well, let's see. Most of us became politically aware during the 1980's. Yeah, you remember-- the decade when big business was ripping off the consumer with greedy glee as the right-wing politicians looked the other way. Worse than that, most of the consumers seemed to be scrapping with each other over the chance to become part of the big business enterprise-- yuppies learned to drink martinis, play golf, and wear just the right designer labels to attract the attention of the influential boss. Women were supposed to be "supermoms," smiling like Dentyne commericals as they tripped off to important jobs all day, picked up the kids and a few groceries at dinnertime, made the family meal, and cleaned house all evening so everything would be spotless in case an important client dropped by. The government was worse than useless, spending most of its time puffing its chest at the USSR while shipping weapons all over the rest of world as bribes to get countries to act like they supported democracy. Then they claimed to forget that any of this had happened. Domestic policy consisted of declaring a return to "family values" and lambasting Democrats for "tax-and-spend" policies while simultaneously passing the biggest tax increase in American history and sending the Federal deficit over the trillion-dollar mark.

And you're surprised that we don't trust anyone????

We're not stupid, you know-- we saw how badly Big, National Organizations like huge companies, the US government, and conventional political parties screwed up. And we're the generation living with the fallout! Proposition 13 hurt our schools. The ERA never passed. Collectively, 18-35-year-olds understand that we need different strategies this time around. We'd rather trust ourselves.

The real kicker is when Boomers tell us how ideologically "pure" they are, while Gen-X is simultaneously confused and overly opportunistic. Shyeah, right. Don't forget what we see from our perspective: We see in the Boomers a generation who (1) did all that radical protesting, taking-over-of-buildings at Berkeley, and pot-smoking during the 1960's and (2) elected an extremely conservative B-movie actor who was in the early stages of losing his mind in the 1980's. OK, so maybe that was two different segments of your generation, one radical left and one radical right. Nonetheless, this harks back to the obsessiveness-- you guys are way out there in all directions. We feel a little nervous about trusting you, and we certainly don't consider you any more ideologically pure than the rest of us!

We grew up in a different world

We're a little harder-boiled than those who came of age in the 1960's, which isn't so surprising when you really look at the facts. We approach problems differently. We have different priorities, and place our trust in different methods. In particular, as feminists, we are more practical and less ideological than our second-wave predecessors. "The system" has failed us-- we want to do things ourselves because then we know they'll be done right.

We don't want a Women's Center on campus; we want a woman as Class President, making political decisions for the student body. We want women CEO's, venture capitalists, and funding agents, controlling the flow of cash and capital in modern business and research. We don't want "sisterhood"; we want independence, freedom, and as many choices as possible. It's the same dream, in modified form. And each day, it comes closer to reality.

But the generation gap persists. I can't make it go away, but perhaps by drawing attention to it, I can help the Second Wave understand where the Third Wave is coming from.

Copyright © 1998 by Kim Allen

07/04/07 at 22:26