Older feminists aren’t the only ones who ‘lose their way’

Susan Brownmiller (image/The Makers)
Susan Brownmiller (image/The Makers)

The trend of ageism in feminism, popularized in the 90s by third wave feminists, not only has continued but seems to be the order of the day. The term “second waver” has become a slur used not only by out and proud misogynists, but by today’s liberal feminists, who appear to have carried the torch, albeit a refurbished one, covered in Swarovski crystals and paraded across the stage by a drag queen dressed as Beyonce.

Ageism is a terrifying trend, addressed by many in the past, but nonetheless ignored by the kind of folks who think that so long as they can maintain a “sexy” version of feminism they will be protected from the kind of misogyny they themselves use against their potential sisters. Why anyone would want to get on that treadmill, I don’t know. It’s inevitable that you’ll be forced off at some point, and when you do, where will you fall? Not into the arms of the sexists who propped you up before, not into your ageist sisters who’ve taken on that discourse, and now will level it against you.

While many of our elders have been subjected to attempted erasure by a culture that fetishizes youth, particularly in women, it’s the dismissive attitudes perpetuated by third wave feminists that are truly baffling. I mean, what is the possible benefit of rejecting history and knowledge that should be an integral part of the movement? What is the use of rejecting sisters who strengthen our movement? Are young women unaware that, one day, they too will be over 50 and potentially subjected to the same treatment they themselves are engaging in now? Are they unaware that feminism is about the liberation of all women, not just the ones male/mainstream culture want to look at? Ageism in feminism is self-defeating in the most obvious of ways.

Beyond that, we can see how an overemphasis on “youth culture” has turned popular feminism into a rather superficial conversation that is hyperfocused on American celebrities, self-objectification, and Instaempowerment achieved through selfies and male attention. These are things that may well be worth talking about, but they are not the only things and they are not the stuff revolutions are made of. Third wavers are busily turning pop stars into untouchable icons while simultaneously and viciously tearing down the women who built this movement and continue to do the work.

The most-recent victim of third wave scorn is Susan Brownmiller who, you could say, wrote the book on rape. Well, a book… An important one. In a controversial interview for The Cut, Brownmiller took aim at current anti-rape activism on American campuses.

To be clear, I actually think she’s right about a few things, namely that many of these new anti-rape activists “think they are the first people to discover rape, and the problem of consent, and they are not,” as well as the fact that more marginalized women and girls are often ignored by the more dominant conversation about rape culture on campus (though this does not mean we should not be having a conversation about rape culture on campus). The statements of hers that are more difficult to understand and digest are the ones that argue women are, in a way, “asking for it” when they drink too much or dress like, in her words, “hookers.”

I don’t agree that dressing in what some might call “slutty” clothes or getting drunk has much to do with rape. Not because I don’t think men target women who are incapacitated or because men don’t engage in victim-blaming themselves, justifying sexual assault by saying, you know, “She was wearing next nothing, obviously she wanted it,” but because men rape regardless. And the point is that men are fully capable of controlling themselves (i.e. not raping), but choose not to.

Likewise, I found her comments on women in situations of domestic abuse rather galling:

“Well, I take a hard line with victims of domestic violence, too. I feel it is my place as a feminist to say, ‘Get out, get out, get out of this relationship.’ They feel that we should respect their opinions and beliefs because they are survivors. If they can’t get out because they don’t want to reduce their living circumstances, or they don’t want to go, or they are passive people, then I am supposed to respect that. But I don’t. My feeling is ‘Get out.'”

I mean, women who stay in abusive relationships do not stay because they are necessarily “passive people.” They stay for many reasons, which are far more complex than Brownmiller acknowledges in her comments. Financial dependence plays a huge role, as does emotional abuse, which serves to convince women they are worthless, can’t leave, or simply that there is nothing wrong with their relationship or that their partner will change. Mothers fear they will lose their children if they leave and many women justifiably fear they will be killed if they try to escape.

Now, I have no real idea how well Brownmiller’s full position was conveyed in this particular interview. I would love to hear more from her. Perhaps I will hear more and find I still disagree, but one interview in The Cut is not enough to convince me that a woman who has contributed substantially to the feminist movement should be tossed aside, as so many have done.

All that said, this interview is not, in fact, what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the way this interview is being used to engage in subtle (and not so subtle) ageism and the reinforcement of mythical tropes about the feminist movement.

In a column at The Guardian, Jessica Valenti begins to address Brownmiller’s comments by stating, “There’s a generational tension trend in social movements.” But this is not true. There is an ideological divide. Third wave feminists and liberals often paint ideological divides as generational in order to both push older feminists into irrelevancy and in order to avoid acknowledging that, most-often, what we’re talking about is not a matter of young vs. old, but liberal vs. radical. While a “generational divide” might exist for third wave feminists, it does not, in fact, exist in radical circles, where we work within extremely diverse groups and listen to women young and old and in between. I feel sorry that third wavers have chosen to reject these opportunities and even sorrier that they’ve insisted on generalizing an entire movement based on their mistakes.

For example, I attended Take Back the Night in Vancouver last Friday. The event was organized by Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter and ReSisters (a group of lesbians, working class women, and women of colour formed for the purposes of organizing TBTN) and was attended by hundreds of women of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities. It was a truly incredible sight to see, especially when held in contrast to the popular internet tropes that paint radical feminism as a movement of white, middle class, older women. Laughable, in fact. That single action, in and of itself, was enough to dissolve said accusations and tropes into a joke. If only #twitterfeminism would show up to such events, I thought. Of course, if they dared, they’d have no way of dismissing our movement so dishonestly, so they don’t.

My point is this: radical feminism is diverse. There are hundreds of young women across the globe taking up the reigns, led by second wave feminism. Our movement and the elder women who came before us are not irrelevant or “out of touch,” they are right there with us, walking beside us, mentoring us, teaching us, working alongside us. We are sisters, working together, in a cohesive movement. I’m sorry if liberal feminists are missing this, but it says more about their politics than it does ours.

So when I see third wave, liberal feminists trying to paint second wavers as out of touch fuddy duddies I just think, jeez, you need to get out more.

In her article, Valenti is careful to point out that young people don’t make “those with their heydey behind them… irrelevant,” but rather that “living in your own bubble does.” She also says that the mere fact that young women are “doing the work” is a tribute to older feminists. And I’d agree, except that I see mainstream feminism, dominated by young, privileged, liberal women, engaging enthusiastically in ageist, sexist language and condescending to their elders. If you talk about “second wave” ideas with disdain, you aren’t paying tribute to anyone but anti-feminists who are surely giddy to see their efforts embraced with such fervour. What the third wave has done is not to pay tribute to their second wave sisters, but rather bulldozed the foundation they built and used them as firewood to heat their own homes.

If we are truly concerned with Brownmiller’s comments, why not offer her an opportunity to explain? Or invite her into a discussion? Why kick her to the curb without a second thought? This overzealous willingness to dismiss our elder sisters comes from an ethos that says, “out with the old, in with the shiny and new,” and it’s rooted in a version of feminism that has nothing to do with collective organizing and everything to do with showboating and a kind of celebrity culture that values icons over ideas. If we worked together instead of placing individual women on pedestals that are so easy to fall off of, if we looked to the second wave, which built a movement on the idea of women as a class and feminism as something that worked towards collective, rather than individual, empowerment, we wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with.

In her response, Kate Harding writes,

“If, 40 years from now, someone asks me what I think about young anti-rape activists, I hope my ego will allow me to profess admiration for whatever work they’re doing to better the new world they’ve grown up in. But honestly, there’s just as good a chance that I’ll respond like Brownmiller, carping about kids’ lack of historical awareness and respect for their elders, then adding a bunch of crap that sounds hopelessly outdated to anyone pre-menopausal. Either way is fine with me, really. If I get to the point where I have no idea what young activists are on about, or why they don’t seem concerned with what most concerns me, it will probably mean they’ve taken what they needed from my generation’s feminism and left the rest behind. I’m pretty sure that’s what progress looks like.”

Is it what progress looks like? Why is it that the concerns of older women are positioned as irrelevant here? Why, again, are we reinforcing this unnecessary and inaccurate “generational divide?” If something is irrelevant to us, as individuals, does that necessarily mean we should dismiss those interests?

Yeah, some older women make offensive comments about women. But you know who else does that? Third wave feminists, younger women, liberal feminists. This is not an age problem.

Because you know what else strikes me as enormously “old-school” and out of touch? Calling feminists uptight prudes. Also, arguing that men’s have sexual “needs” that must be met. Also, reinforcing old-fashioned, sexist ideas about innate femininity and masculinity. Arguing that clothing, makeup, and high heels are what makes a woman. Telling feminists who oppose objectification that they’re “just jealous.” All those things. Totally symptomatic of the fact that you aren’t keeping up with feminist discourse.

So where are all the arguments pointing out how “old-school,” out of touch, and offensive third wave and liberal feminists can be? Where are the columns arguing we must “let go” of all the liberal feminists who resort to cliches about prostitution being the “oldest profession in the world” and that therefore we simply must live with it? Or who trash older feminists the second they dare say a critical word about Beyonce or Miley Cyrus. I mean, who needs second wave feminism when we have Lady Gaga, amirite?

Valenti writes, “When we dismiss younger people’s ideas instead of engaging with them seriously, that is the moment we make ourselves a cliche — and yes, irrelevant,” but does that sentiment go both ways? Not so many years ago, Valenti argued that older women were “not very good at passing the torch” and that they prevented younger women from being “visible in the feminist movement.” But the idea that older women hold all this power in our society is false. Today, they are made invisible by popular culture and by the very same women who demanded they pass their torches. Robin Morgan’s response to young feminists who asked she “pass the torch” is as relevant as ever today, “Get your own damned torch,” she said. “I’m still using mine.”

The reason mainstream feminism is such a mess, so pro-capitalism, so superficial, so ahistorical, so willing to throw out our elders at a moment’s notice, so ready to erase history and the reality of our movement in order to quite literally whitewash feminism into obscurity, is because it has dismissed second wave feminists. It dismisses feminism that isn’t sexy, young, cool, and fun and, in doing so, ends up with a bastardized version of a movement that aspires to little more than individual, temporarily feelings of empowerment. That version of feminism might stay relevant, in terms of pop culture, but that’s only because it doesn’t actually threaten the roots of patriarchy or capitalism. In actuality, liberal feminism is only “relevant” because it is acceptable to the powers that be, and therefore is not really relevant at all, as far as effecting real change goes.

It’s not older feminists who’ve “lost their way,” it’s the third wave. They’ve thrown out the map, paved over the well-worn paths, buried their foremothers under a pile of sequined bras and feather boas, and are now walking around in circles looking for a vegan strip club.

Valenti says, “while some people’s best work comes from decades of experience, some comes from new sets of eyes,” adding that those who don’t recognize this “are only hurting themselves — because like it or not, the movement will go on without us.”

But it won’t. It absolutely won’t. The movement will go nowhere if we dismiss second wave feminists and older women. Because erasing or ignoring history and erasing and ignoring women will result in a movement without legs. And we aren’t going anywhere without those.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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