January 21, 2011

Young — and not so — feminists speak out in Santa Monica

Written by Hugo Schwyzer. Originally posted at Hugo Schwyzer. Cross-posted with permission.

Last night, I went with some friends to the Young Feminists Speak Out event in Santa Monica, co-sponsored by Ms Magazine and other progressive organizations. I knew several of the organizers through Ms and the Feminist Majority (the offices of which are walking distance from my house).

The gathering was at a fun and funky clothing store. Boys with long hair were jamming on guitars when I walked in and made my way to the “bar” for a diet Coke in a plastic cup. I joked to my friend Monica that it was like going to progressive events in the Eighties: the same music, the same plastic cups, the same sorts of flyers on tables. I had a flashback to Berkeley, circa 1985: back then the flyers at feminist gatherings decried militarism and encouraged organizing to support the Sandinistas and divesting from South Africa; today, they decry militarism and demand withdrawal from Afghanistan and the closing of Guantanamo. It’s a mighty over-used cliché, but plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

But the speakers were terrific, including Melanie Klein (of Feminist Fatale and a fellow community college women’s studies prof); Morgane Richardson, Brie from Revolution of Real Women and Miranda Petersen and Myra Duran, both from Feminist Majority. (I’m sure I’m leaving someone out.) I got to meet some great folks whose work I admire, like Pia Guerrero, the founder of Adios Barbie. We had many of the heavy hitters of SoCal feminist activism all together, and that was wonderful.

Events like these, as several people pointed out, are less common in Los Angeles than they are in San Francisco or New York. Angelenos famously have a reputation for refusing to drive long distances for events on weeknights, though that’s more a stereotype than reality. I had students who came from the northern San Fernando Valley and from east of Pasadena, spending more than an hour on freeways to get to the event on Lincoln Avenue. Whatever the reason, gatherings like this are rarer than they probably ought to be.

The discussion got off to an awkward start, as the older folks in the room picked up on what we know was unintentional ageism. One panelist in her twenties said that an “older generation of feminists had fliers, we have Twitter.” My forty three year-old self looked at my dear friend and collaborator Shira Tarrant, who was standing with me in the back of the room. Shira and I are old enough to be the parents of most of the speakers – and we were the ones with our iPhones and Blackberrries in hand, tweeting live updates. (Check the hashtag #femla.) It was an innocent but annoying mistake that we hear a lot: the speaker had confused the kind of tools we used for organizing when we were their age with the kind of tools we use for organizing now. At least in my circle of activists, some of the most social-media savvy feminists (the ones with heavy Facebook, blogging, and Twitter presences) are old enough to remember Watergate. We don’t stop learning new tricks when we turn 40, people!

Shira and I posed for a photo, playfully flipping off the camera, and giving the bird to ageism. I put it on my Facebook, and a healthy conversation about feminism and ageism promptly ensued. (And I’m happy to accept FB friend requests from readers, btw.)

Intergenerational conflict in feminist activism is famously oversold. The use of the term “waves” to describe different generations of the movement is also clumsy. Sometimes, young feminists cluster “older” Second Wavers together, so that everyone born between 1920 and 1980 gets thrown into the same category. Shira and I are old enough to be the parents of most of last night’s speakers — but young enough to be Gloria Steinem’s children, and Betty Friedan’s grandkids. To the extent that generational conflict exists, it does so in complicated and not easily reducible ways. Young people do tend, at times, to imagine that they are the first to have certain concerns, the first to do battle over what they see as new issues. Some of the time, they’re right: old problems do get solved, new challenges do arise. But when those new challenges arise, they often arise for the “old” as well as the young. We may all be of different ages, as I remind my students, but we often face the same problems. (For example, the idea that eating disorders and body dysmorphia don’t happen in the lives of women over forty is a commonly held misconception by the young. Wishful thinking or myopia, it just ain’t so.)

In the great scheme of things, we are contemporaries. And kids, take note: your teachers sometimes tweet more than you do.

But to reduce the discussion down to that one problem would be unfortunate and unfair. There was much in the presentation that was good and valuable. I was heartened to hear not only the commitment to intersectionality (meaning the insistence on connecting violence against women to a larger culture of racial, economic, and cultural oppression), but also to hear speakers like Brie and Melanie make the case that body image and self-esteem matter politically. Far too often, there’s a tendency on both the left and the right to be dismissive of eating disorders and body dysmorphia as serious, even central issues that deserve to be on the front-burner. The far left, stuck in a Marxist analysis, tends to think of these concerns as “bourgeois navel-gazing”; the right tends to think of them as questions of individual concern that don’t require a collective response. But as was pointed out last night, and as all of us who do this work with young women know well, self-esteem is always political. Young women who aren’t happy with their bodies, who feel overwhelmed by the pressure to pursue an unattainable ideal, are suffering. That suffering is real, and it’s not something that they can be dismissively told to “get over”. And if feminism is concerned with anything, it’s concerned with ameliorating — and ultimately ending — suffering.

I’m deeply appreciative of the young activists who organized this event, and I look forward to many more.

1 Comment »

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Melanie Klein, Left of Liberal. Left of Liberal said: Young — and not so — feminists speak out in Santa Monica http://bit.ly/he2RYP […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Feminist Fatale » Young — and not so — feminists speak out in Santa Monica -- Topsy.com — January 21, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

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