NOW and Young Feminists

by Janis Cortese

There is, on NOW's official website at, a subsite devoted to third wave feminism. One of us, Alana, checked it out and was disquieted by the fact that, out of all of the problems confronting women of the third wave that they identified, almost all of them were sexual in nature.

There's a lot going on here, and upon reading that page, I realized that it also rubbed me the wrong way. It took a little bit of thinking before I realized why. First, I want to quote the site a bit, and reply to the individual things they raised as major concerns for "young feminists," and then start discussing from there.

You're tired of taking the long route to class to avoid the staircase landing where guys hang out and make lewd comments. You notice your own posture in the showcase reflection -- you're creeping around as though you're trying to hide. Reading these examples made me wonder what planet I was on, where NOW can pretend to care so deeply about the sexual difficulties and dangers that young women face, while their founder, Betty Friedan, openly says in TIME Magazine that all the sexual activism that young feminists engage in, "is stupid." They fawn all over you while you're miserable and weeping, but the second you read a book where Naomi Wolf talks about the positive ways in which men in some cultures have been held responsible for female sexual satisfaction during your recovery, you're told that you forgot what it felt like to be raped!

Oh, by the way -- don't buy a gun, either. Just get a rape whistle. Yeah, that'll work.

You stopped seeing the guy who raped you on a date, but you haven't forgotten what he did. His friends smile suggestively at you. You're growing so upset that you can't sleep and can barely eat.
As a young woman of color you are irritated at the way shopkeepers seem to shadow you more than your white friends. When you take out your credit cards at the checkout counter, you're the only one the clerk asks for a picture i.d. This is hardly uniquely an experience of minority women! How many women in NOW get a little jittery when a black guy gets in an elevator with them?

When you discover you're pregnant, your boyfriend bolts. You can't tell your parents, so you have to face a judge to get the legal go-ahead your state requires for an abortion. You've never felt so alone. But if in ten years, you want to start recuperating, start reclaiming your sexuality in a positive light and find some joy for yourself after years of fear and isolation, be assured these same women will tell you it can't be done. As a victim, you're useful to the Suffering Sisterhood's propaganda machine. As a recovered woman who prevailed, or even who is hurting and wants to learn to prevail, you're deluded. Plainly, you're of more use to their propaganda machine while you're weeping, so they have no real desire to see you bellylaugh or even smile for the first time in years, much less have fun sex.

Your women's soccer team is still wearing the uniforms from the 1970s, and the grass on your field is overgrown. Meanwhile the lines on the football field are repainted weekly and each player has his own personalized helmet. But where was NOW when the WNBA hit the sports scene? It seems that the vast majority of the fans were young women, because older feminists think the WNBA stars aren't "real" feminists-- that's all just pop culture nonsense.

Also, according to NOW, we shouldn't encourage female athletes too much. Sports glorifies competition and makes you violent. And besides, there are much more romantic burdens to be shouldered. Why waste your time with things like recreation?

A friend of yours has just tested positive for HIV. Clearly, some of your friends need concrete suggestions for prevention. But your school's sex education course never even mentions condoms. There are things NOW never mentions either-- like female heterosexuality -- at least, unless prison time or death is the ultimate outcome. Don't dare try to do anything that will improve your position, lighten your depression, make you feel better about yourself, or make you laugh out loud.

What's Missing

There are a number of things that jump out at me after reading this page. First, let's take a look at what's there by examining what's not.

Money issues. Equal pay? Child care on the job? The plusses and minuses of working a mommy track? Paying more than men for everyday things, from an extra buck-fifty for a dry clean to an extra $3,000 for a new car?

How about the fact that women nowdays don't feel nearly as victimized as we used to, but instead feel exhausted and frustrated? Where are those issues? All the sorts of things that run real women ragged every day, ethnicity and sexual orientation notwithstanding? (If you think lesbians don't have kids, think again.) And they aren't there. Nowhere to be found.

What is there in its stead? Parents, high school sports, and avoiding boys in the hall.

Put simply -- nothing of present import to anyone over 25 is on that site. The generation of peace-love-boomers who control NOW have completely bypassed my entire generation of women to concentrate instead on today's teenagers. Motherhood? Oh, that's just a concern of those ex-slackers. Let's talk about junior high instead. Investment? Naah, let's talk about high school softball.

Let's ignore and pass over an entire generation of women that we can't seem to communicate with in favor of our own kids -- who we fool ourselves that we can talk to because they wear bellbottoms and little orange daisies just like we did.

My entire generation of women -- a generation that, contrary to what you think, out numbers baby boomers by 10 million -- has been entirely written off by official organized feminism, and rendered invisible. We, who have lived feminism from our first sight of the world outside our mothers, don't exist in their universe. And in the meantime, they get mad at us for not calling ourselves feminists.

Because we want to talk about power? Motherhood? Money? The things that might really help to even out the inequity between men and women?

Oh, but by talking about money, I'm disregarding the problems of poor and Minority[TM] women. After all, black women are all poverty-wracked welfare mothers and crack addicts with AIDS, right? And this segues nicely into the next thing that struck me wrong about this page --

Minority Women And Feminism

As far as NOW is concerned, the status of minority women has changed in feminism, but it's not necessarily an entirely good change. Initially, in the 1960's, minority women were ignored, brushed off, or argued with as women who were introducing too many icky variables into the discussion. They didn't want to hear about how they were contributing to these women's problems through white racism, so they hushed the minority women's voices until said women just round-filed feminism, pegging it as a white woman's club.

Now, the concerns minority women originally brought up are being considered, but not always in the most productive way. Sometimes it seems that these issues are being talked about in the same way that housewifery was in the 1960's. Housewives were akin to "heathens" who had to be shown the nature of their oppression, and enlightened through the sisterhood of second wave feminism.

Housewifery indeed had problems, just as it does now. It's godawful demanding, gets no respect from anyone anywhere, the pay is for shit, and you sure can't retire on it, can you? Plenty of right wing dorks in Congress blow a lot of sunshine up our butts about the sanctity of childbearing, but when it comes time to help moms out with some solid cash, you can't pry the $20 bill out of their cold, dead fingers. But did the feminists of the 1960's embrace housewives? Not exactly. It was more like trying to show them how pathetic their lives were. There was little attempt to improve housewifery; instead, the solution was to join the sisterhood and sing the blues.

Now that scads of women are working outside the home, NOW has dropped the housewives as stand-ins for the ignorant savage. This means that they have had to find a new ignorant savage to save -- minority women! And best of all, there's the added benefit of answering back the people who have accused them of being racist! See? We're not racist! We talk plenty about welfare and AIDS!


While I agree that these problems do seem to be particularly bad for minority women and men, I'm getting a little bit squicked by the way that these problems have been seized on by a still-overwhelmingly-white population of women in NOW as problems that "those people over there" have. They are still envisioning helping with such problems as sending bibles and shirts to "those people over there." You know, the ones who live a million miles away from me and have nothing to do with my life.

You can see that older feminists think this way by the fact that if a black or hispanic woman tries to talk about investment issues and how to start a business, she is gently remonstrated with by these white women for forgetting her "sisters" who aren't so lucky as to have spare change to bandy about. In other words, the second you start talking about anything that smacks of having or learning to use power, you aren't acting black/hispanic/poor enough for them anymore. Just keep talking about AIDS and how your black husband beat you up.

Young Women And Feminism

In fact, they seem to be talking about young feminists in a very similar way. It's plain that they don't consider us one of their number, else why would they condescend to us so much at the same time they completely disregard anything that really matters to us? From our perspective, they are trying to tell us what our problems are. They are trying to paint us as suffering little doves, and are annoyed when we try to ameliorate our our problems because then we aren't conforming to their picture of us.

Did you know that young feminists suffer sexual harassment in public?
Gosh no, I just thought that those guys who scream shit at me out of pickup windows were asking for directions.

Did you know that young feminists don't get funded for sports as much as men?
Why gee! Come to think of it, there weren't any women on the Penn State football team! I hadn't even noticed!

Did you know that young minority women are looked at funny by white people?
Yeah, and sometimes white feminists, too.

And did you know that rape really sucks?

They tell me that I put up with sexual harassment, something that I already know just fine, and don't need them to tell me. Then, when I try to do something like, oh, put up a subsite at about women and positive sexuality to help solve this problem, I'm told that I must not know what sexual harassment is like.

My ears just popped. Since when is attempting to address and solve the problem the same as not appreciating it? I'd much rather do something about it, thank you, because I'm living it.

Abortion is the same way -- don't forget that we're all still premenopausal. We'll tell NOW what it's like to get an abortion today. We don't need to read about it on their web site. And you know something? No woman, no matter how pro-choice she is, has awakened after an abortion thinking, "What a wonderful thing that was!" They suck, like many rough choices you have to make in life. But NOW is notoriously unreceptive toward women who are trying to understand the strong emotions that abortion evokes, even for those who favor choice. We want to use our newfound freedoms, and talk about them, and maybe even modify them a bit, but older feminists seem more concerned with just sitting on them, sticking blindly with a single political agenda. No deviation allowed!

We'd like to communicate with some of the organizations of older feminists, but to us, they aren't really listening. The NOW website demonstrates that all too clearly. As stated previously -- as far as they're concerned, our generation simply does not exist.

(No fear, though -- as soon as they find out that they can't control today's teenagers, and mold them like clay, they'll write them off as worthless, too.)

Copyright © 1999 by Janis Cortese

07/04/07 at 22:23