Guinea Pigs and Pioneers

by Janis Cortese

In Feminism's Double Standard, I discussed a bit about the way that the second wave seems determined not to let the next generation of women take part in the ongoing creation of feminism. (Go read it.) What I'd like to do here is explain why this is, not to put too fine a point on it, disastrous.

The Second Wave worked hard to create a feminist awareness, to outline the whole schmeer of gender relations and the issues confronting women every day. Their generation used the catchphrase "Question Authority" as their mantra. What they've failed to realize is that, to us, Authority now includes them. They are unable to realize that they were successful enough that they (and we!) are no longer on the margins, and that to the first generation of women to grow up not only hoping for equality but expecting it, they are not immune to being questioned.

The Designers and the Test Pilots

Alone among all the generations of women who have ever lived, mine is the first to grow to full adulthood with the following taken for granted: The Second Wave worked to create a theoretical construct called feminism under which a new generation of women could grow up free of the shackles that impeded their progress. Our generation is the test pilot for it.

That cannot be overstated. They created the theoretical construct of feminism. And we are the first generation of women to actually test it out from childhood to adulthood. We're the first. So far, the only.

You'd think that the Second Wave would be keenly interested in our experiences, seeing as how we alone of all women have hands-on dirt-under-the-nails experience with applying feminism to our lives, starting from the cradle. There is no other generation of women who can make that claim. No one more than we knows the practical considerations involved in applying feminism to one's life from the start.

As a result, we are far more interested in the down-and-dirty personal aspects of just how feminism affects one's life. For example, the Second Wave fought hard for the badly needed right to an abortion. Our generation is the first to have that accepted and understood as an option for us -- should it shock anyone then that we are far more likely to want to discuss how it actually feels to have one? The personal, emotional, physical aspects? We can't afford to stay in the Theoretical Plane of rights and laws with the Second Wave, keeping our feet clear of the murky puddle of what it actually means to have one of the damned things. Instead of telling us "Previous generation of women didn't have that right so stop whining," maybe they should tell themselves, "They're the first generation to have that right. Maybe we'd better listen to what they have to say about it."

Another example is motherhood and career. They fought like mad to change the perception of a working woman and a working mother, and (mostly) succeeded. But we're the ones who grew up expecting to have a career, and still wanting kids. They made up catchy slogans; we're going the distance. They stay up in the idealized universe where the whole issue is boiled down to a few cliches. A Second Wave feminist pushing 60 can afford to dismiss our concerns about the nuts and bolts of being a working mother and call our demands for attention to these problems a lack of consciousness; her kids are already grown! She doesn't have to sweat it out in a job market that demands dedication, and have a few squalling but much-loved kids on her hands to deal with at the same time.

We're not theoretical feminists -- we're applied feminists.

And this means that we're going to be the ones who will say things like, "No actually that's not the case." "No, that doesn't work this way." "No, I've found that it's more this way than that." "You forgot to include this other issue in your list of pet projects." They built the plane; we're in the cockpit.

What mystifies me is why on Earth they aren't taking seriously our feedback as to just how the plane is behaving. When designers create a test aircraft, they generally like and actively solicit feedback from the test pilots as to how it actually behaves in flight. If the pilot says, "You forgot to include a safety cutoff for such-and-such, and that gauge and switch really need to be relocated here," the designer would be stupid to ignore that crucial piece of information.

But that's what's happening with feminism! They created it -- we're the first generation to grow up under it, from the word go. Of course we're going to quibble, to say that it's not always perfect, to have noticed a few mistakes be they small ones or whoppers. But where we tell them that the instrument panel and the fuel lines need to be redesigned and we'd be happy to make the tweaks and adjustments, they complain about how we don't appreciate their hard work. We reach for the screwdriver to make a few changes, and they howl about how ungrateful we are.

We do appreciate their hard work -- we're living it. But if we don't get to participate in its creation, we might as well leave it on the tarmac.

Copyright © 1998 by Janis Cortese

07/04/07 at 22:25