Pollitt Masks the Realities of Generational Dissent in Feminism

10 Jan

In Response to The Nation’s Young Feminists ‘Rankling the Old Guard’ and the Future of Feminism: A Conversation with Katha Pollitt

Pollitt answers the interview questions without decrying the work of young feminists. I read articles all the time that claim that young women don’t care about feminist issues, young women just blog about their feelings and post links but don’t ever do the “real” work that previous feminist generations did. But Pollitt seems to understand that for this generation of feminists, online activism is the weapon we’ve chosen.

She says, “The new cohort of young women—those in their 20s and early thirties—is much feistier, I’m happy to say. The Internet has helped young feminists find each other, and has given them new ways to discuss, debate, and organize. The blogosphere has its limits, but it has allowed a lot of new voices to come to the fore without having to be approved by gatekeepers like the New York Times.” Exactly! Even though I go to a very liberal, feminist-thought oriented college, I never routinely discussed feminist issues until I began to find other young feminists online. Often, too, the feminists I connect with online are demographically different that those I could meet offline—they vary dramatically in age, geographic location, race, and—I think most importantly—in how they came to feminism.

Past feminist activism has been largely in real life—that is to say, offline—and so old barriers are bound to divide. Since the suffrage movement, racism, classism and the limits of transportation have kept feminists stuck in old patterns of interaction. But through online connections, I am able to hear diverse opinions—all while I procrastinate my homework from the comfort of my room. Many of the big names in feminism of the past few decades came to feminism through academia—but online, you find women—and a growing number of men—who have come to feminism through blogs, through music, through friends of friends.

Pollitt makes a good point about the solutions that younger feminists tend to seek: “Feminists who came of age in the 60s and 70s take government solutions for granted. We need government-funded daycare, for example, like they have in France. Younger feminists, who never experienced a US where government was seen as a good thing and where public institutions like public schools and hospitals were reliably excellent, tend to seek individualist or personal solutions.” As actively as I follow legislation concerning women’s health and well-being, I don’t believe that governments are the end-all-be-all of solutions to women’s issues—because I don’t believe that the government should be the gatekeeper of what women are allowed to do and have—just like my online contacts do not need a degree in gender studies to do incredibly important activism. Yet, as young feminists we must not neglect the impact that the government can have on our choices and our bodies—but we cannot wait for change to come to us, we don’t want to wait for the institution to finally come around to the our point.

On the whole, this interview is incredibly supportive—but without the backdrop Pollitt’s recent essay “Feminist Mothers, Flapper Daughters” (and could she have picked a more condescending title?) her perspective on young feminists seems more welcoming than it truly is. In the “Flapper Daughters” piece, Pollitt criticizes young feminists on everything from their vocabulary—‘“I’m tired of their constant use of teeny-bopper words like ‘amazing’ and ‘awesome’’– to their desire for a bigger role in the feminist organizations of the old guard.

In this piece, Pollitt names Jezebel, Feministing and Salon’s Broadsheet as websites that young feminists frequent. While Jezebel is often synonymous with online feminism when being covered by the old guard or mainstream media press, it is hardly a hotbed of activism, what with their regular “Snap Judgment” features and the lack of diversity among their contributors and editors. Feministing is a fair representation of what online activism can accomplish—but not what it’s doing now. Feministing editor Jessica Valenti has best selling books, for crying out loud—she’s respected in the feminist blogosphere—but it seems that the non-institutionally associated young feminists—those with personal blogs, who write in their free time, without non-profit status—are neglected again and again. Furthermore, Salon’s Broadsheet can hardly be said to be representative of online feminism since it shut down this past week.

Pollitt also cites the book Manifesta by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards—a book published eleven years ago. Baumgardner has also recently come under some criticism for working with Maxim in 2008 on a piece entitled “How to Cure a Feminist.” Pollitt seems not to know what’s happening with feminism right now, but she wants to appear to support it.

Ultimately, both pieces are interesting reads, but they leave something to be desired. As pleased as I was when I initially read the interview, I realized that it was masking the harsher realities of dissent in the feminist movement that often prevent meaningful change. And I’m tired of every article about generational feminism using the phrase “I’m not a feminist but…” to describe younger activists. It is not a betrayal of the women who have gone before us, but a disavowal of their mistakes—and plenty of us use the word anyway.

3 Responses to “Pollitt Masks the Realities of Generational Dissent in Feminism”

  1. Jessica January 10, 2011 at 6:13 pm #

    Thanks for the excellent piece…I just wanted to clarify a couple of things you mentioned about Feministing and my work, though. While I’m really happy that my books sell fairly well, they’re definitely not “best-selling” (though I appreciate the compliment). Feministing is not an institution or a nonprofit (though both are things we’ve been discussing for some time), and everyone at the site has other jobs and writes in their spare time – the project is still very much a labor of love. I appreciate what you’re getting at though – and agree that there are generally only a handful of online feminist spaces that get recognized (and that we tend to be one of them).

    That’s why I think it’s all of our jobs – feminists from Pollitt to me to you to folks on Twitter, whatevs – to stay on top of what the newest and most cutting edge work, writing and activism is and where it’s being done, online and off.

  2. Sarah F January 10, 2011 at 7:14 pm #

    Jessica: thanks for the clarification. I should have used “well-known” instead of “best-selling” because “The Purity Myth” is probably one of the most name-dropped books in young feminist circles online. Also should have fact-checked on the non-profit status.

    I don’t resent the place Feministing has in the feminist blogsophere, because on the whole I find it to be one of the most well-balanced, well-respected feminist blogs. Indeed, I was just attempting to make a point about what spaces are recognized/respected/mentioned by the mainstream, non-feminist media. And certainly online activism is not a substitute for on-the-ground action and the work of those volunteers, dedicated employees and institutions.

  3. Jessica January 11, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    Oh, I didn’t think you “resented” at all – apologies if that’s what came across in my comment. (And thank you for the kind words about the blog) And I think you’re absolutely right on all counts. I’m optimistic (tho cautiously so) that in the same way feminist blogs weren’t recognized at all a couple of years ago, more personal blogs, people on Twitter, and activists without institutional ties will start to get more media play – because that’s the way the movement is heading anyway. But I’m always a bit too optimistic, so maybe I’m wrong!

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