From a Young Woman to (Some) of the ‘Menopausal Militia’


I write as a member of the so-called “millennial generation” that’s been the subject of several lectures from older feminists this week, from an article proclaiming our ignorance in the New York Times to Rebecca Sive’s lecture demanding my generation “wake up and realize that women’s reproductive rights can only be secured by battling to secure this human right.”

Well, excuse you.  Some of us have been here the whole time. And we’re damn tired of our experience being disappeared by older activists who, in their (sometimes) valid critiques of portions of the younger generation who aren’t as engaged as we are, seem to forget every single young activist who ever crossed their path.

I’m not arguing that some young women aren’t apathetic about reproductive rights. Some young women don’t identify as feminists and some are as caught up in maintaining the patriarchy as Congressman Stupak and his clan of faux progressives. Women are the only group that grows more radical with age and the gains of the Women’s Liberation movement shield many young women from blatant sexism until they start to see pay disparities, or discover that their workplace has no childcare plan, or that the sexual power they thought liberated them one day disappears. It is both my responsibility and yours to raise the consciousness of these young women. I know how I do it. Besides screaming at them, what may I ask are you doing on this front?

So no, I’m not talking for or about these young women. I am addressing you as a sister. I am not your daughter, your niece, your granddaughter or your goddaughter. I am your colleague. I’m 23 and I’ve been in this movement for eight years, more than a third my lifetime. I was not raised with “feminism in the water” nor am I an anomaly – I travel across this country organizing with young women on campuses and in communities for reproductive justice, better sex education, access to birth control and pre-natal services for teen mothers. And yes, abortion rights.

As a colleague, a bit of friendly advice: it does nothing to build our movement when you channel frustration about the rollback of women’s rights in this country onto young women in general, as if we more than any other group can be considered a homogenous lump. In fact, it does the opposite, perpetuating the generational divide that has weakened our movement since even before Betty Friedan had select words for a young writer named Gloria Steinem.

Yesterday at the National Day of Action, every speaker fell all over herself to thank young women for simply showing up. The stage behind the podium was carefully dotted with young faces sporting bright pink t-shirts and signs. Yet only one speaker was under the age of thirty – a white woman from a private college whose only role was to list the universities from which student activists had traveled.

But, behind the scenes, young feminists who are dedicated organizers crafted a youth specific response. Sarah Audelo, a twenty-four year old organizer at Advocates for Youth, created  The Hanger Project, which mobilizes college students to distribute wire hangers with facts about illegal and inaccessible abortion on their campuses and send pictures of their actions to elected representatives. The team of twenty-something organizers from the Feminist Majority Foundation coordinated with young activists across the country to plan local call-ins and rallies to coincide with the national day of action. When buses from New York and Philly and Toledo and Atlanta descended on the Capitol yesterday, many of the riders were students taking time out during the last week of classes to fight for the right to control their bodies.

Sadly, many gender justice minded young women have abandoned mainstream feminist organizations after realizing their pleas for young voices were really nothing more than casting calls for politically expedient window dressing – a position none of our barrier-breaking Second Wave sisters would have settled for, either. As any veteran of social justice movements knows, tokenization without a real seat at the table is just another form of oppression.

Still others leave our movement because, after making the signs and running registration and sending out the email blasts and designing the social media campaigns and taking the pictures and doing all the things young women happily do in this movement, we still have to listen to our bosses and sheroes bemoan young women’s apathy and inaction. It’s disheartening. It’s hurtful. And, it’s not true.

The road to “generational cooperation” is a minefield, with ageism as well as racism, classism, homophobia, and cissexism from both sides mixed in with very valid ideological disputes that can only make our movement stronger. Feminists of all ages have a responsibility to do better – to see ourselves as both pupils and teachers and to remember that our movement is about at it’s very core honoring and celebrating one another’s lived experience.  But most of all, we can’t be throwing each other under the bus because that’s what everyone else is trying to do!

Sister, are you with me on that?     

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  • christinam33

    As a Gen X feminist, smack dab between my mother (the hippie radical feminist) and my daughter (the millenial feminist), I don’t understand this acrimony. I mean, it’s not as if all of the 60s generation women identify as feminists, or are active in the movement. As a matter of fact, many of them are the staunchest enemies of feminism and have been for 40 years! So to decry the state of the millenials because some of them are [insert negative stereotype here] is just rank hypocrisy.
    Oh, and it would be nice if the Gen Xers were even noticed. I wonder which is worse…being called frivolous little fluff heads or being invisible? Both pretty much suck.

  • rebecca-sive

    Dear Shelby,

    I’m very pleased that we, and almost everyone else who has commented to day, are in this work together. We need to be.

    And,yes,there aren’t enough women of any age who have worked as hard as you,I and countless others have. Perhaps if there’d been more, we wouldn’t be in the fix we’re in.

    Like you,I write strictly from my own experience. The fact is that I haven’t seen enough young women in the work–for what’s needed right now: in fact, I think yours should be the loudest voices and the most radical actions.

    When I wrote my comment yesterday,I drew on my experience from back-in-the-day, just because I know how much being a young woman mobilized me, at a time like today. And because I don’t want to lose something we’ve all fought so hard for, and because I know that the women around me then were mobilized for the very same reason, I think we need the same thing to day. I hope, fervently, that millions more young women join you and your colleagues.

    Rebecca Sive

  • freewomyn

    You put this so well. Thank you for an excellent comeback!

  • joyfulc

    …and believe me when I say that it was always this way with some feminists. Some had a very parochial vision of the struggle for our rights and freedoms, and if you weren’t wearing the uniform, you were excluded — ostracized. This is going back to the 70s.Feminism will never really succeed until it respects the rights and wishes of ALL women. Until that happens, all the formal feminist movement is really doing is mimicking the dogma of the patrilinealists.

  • ahunt

    Shelby…reiterating here, but I think some of my appreciation of Rebecca’s post lies in experiences outside the formal structures of feminism. You yourself have noted the apathy of some young women…and I’m more unnerved by the polling suggesting that the "comers" are less inclined to support choice.

     

    I’ve employed some of these young women who were apathetic about reproductive rights, and even judgmental of other women who chose abortion, because "she never should have gotten herself in that position in the first place." It is as if these young women are indifferent to abortion rights because they have convinced themselves that they would never have the need.

     

    And then they DO have the need, and the pattern of "it is different for me" plays out. I’m certain you know of "the only moral abortion is my abortion" justification.

     

    The disconnect has frightened me. I wonder if the opposition has so successfully demonized abortion that young women are unwilling to share their experiences with one another. So I play the elder scold…urging solidarity and warning of the bad old days.

     

    Certainly the message is not directed towards the amazing work you and others are doing. But I do think the admonishment reflects our experiences of young women judging and criticizing other young women.

     

    So yeah, I’m scared…and so tired. Don’t know how much I have left in me. And if young women are in fact not reaching out to one another, in understanding and compassion…then we’ve fucking failed our daughters.

     

    Babbling now, Shelby. Just wanted to let you know that some of us are coming from a POV outside of feminist activism, and more importantly, how grateful all of us are for the the bucketloads you are carrying.

  • heather-corinna

    I’ve employed some of these young women who were apathetic about reproductive rights, and even judgmental of other women who chose abortion, because "she never should have gotten herself in that position in the first place."
    It is as if these young women are indifferent to abortion rights
    because they have convinced themselves that they would never have the
    need.

    And then they DO have the need, and the pattern of "it is different for me" plays out. I’m certain you know of "the only moral abortion is my abortion" justification.

     

    Do you find, though, ahunt, that this only happens with younger women?  Because, personally (I’m 39, for the record: wedged in between women in or through menopause and women in their teens and twenties like Christina), I don’t think I can point these attitudes down to an age: I have heard them from women of all ages through my whole life, in all kinds of work.  Heck, I’ve heard them from women getting abortions.

     

    By the by, can someone toss me some links to the polling that’s been referenced in these pieces?  I’d be really interested in seeing them. Thanks!

  • ahunt

    Do you find, though, ahunt, that this only happens with younger women? 
    Because, personally (I’m 39, for the record: wedged in between women in
    or through menopause and women in their teens and twenties like
    Christina), I don’t think I can point these attitudes down to an age: I
    have heard them from women of all ages through my whole life, in all
    kinds of work.  Heck, I’ve heard them from women getting abortions.

     

    Oh yeah, Heather…at 52, I’ve been around the block. But here’s the sandpaper… roughly 1/3 of American women have chosen abortion, and in my age group…we all know one another. (metaphorically, in case I’m unclear) We’ve lived long enough to either experience the dilemma, or know and love someone who has.

     

    That experience matters…and again my fear is that we have not communicated that young women need to communicate with one another.

     

    Because if we had done our job…we would not STILL be encountering these attitudes so often.

     

     

     

  • iamdrtiller

    Thank you, Shelby, for articulating what so many of us have been thinking. Frankly, it makes smoke come out of my ears when I hear the women who were my mentors, my inspiration, saying that I’m not worthy of the movement, I haven’t done enough, I can’t possibly understand. You’ve let me down. You are lucky that our passion doesn’t rely on your support. The fighting words you throw at us are enough to make any reasonable human quit. To answer a query by ahunt, as to why some younger women don’t support abortion rights, I think that opinion may sometimes come with experience. A woman of any age may not support abortion rights or access until it impacts her life in some way, or the life of someone she loves/cares about. This is unfortunate but sometimes true. I wish it wasn’t this way, but sometimes experience is the best teacher. It’s our job to help make this less and less of the case. But we need to work TOGETHER, not to scream at each other about our inadequacies. For the record, I’m 22 and have been working in reproductive health/rights/justice since I was 18, working for sex ed/gay rights since about 14. Look around, "menopausal militia." We’re here.

  • heather-corinna

    I totally hear and appreciate that (and deeply appreciate the responsibility piece in what you said), and I also agree that women — of all ages — communicating with one another is, as ever, a big problem, just as it tends to be with any oppressed class who has been schooled in competition vs. connectivity to serve the dominant class best and to have the best chance of getting what crumbs that class will give them. Friere is great on this.

     

    But I also wonder if in hindsight, it might look like more communication between women — not just feminist women, all women — 40 years ago was happening than it was. My mother and a lot of my friends and colleagues who are older women have spoken and written before of feeling isolated from other women, of having challenges connecting with other women, when they were young, too.

  • 1949

    You have expressed the thoughts and feelings of many young supporters of HUMAN rights. BRAVO! My daughter has experienced the very thing you describe almost daily! (Yes I am an OLD MAN!!)I have been a backer and FEMINIST for many years!! Let’s promote the "MENOPAUSE MAJORITY" to the BOARD ROOM !! There they can help direct and guide the younger, active, and much more tech savy among us, allowing more progress in the future!

  • kinsd

    I too would like to see this polling. I’ve seen several studies and polls that say the exact opposite.

     

  • janeseymour

    Hi Shelby,

    Thanks for taking the time to acknowledge so many of the young women doing great things in this movement and the struggles that they sometimes encounter.

    As the white woman from a private college that spoke at the rally last Wednesday, I’d like to take a moment to let you know how I saw things. While I appreciate that I may have been seen as a token, I hope that I represented one part of our movement–yes, I am white and yes, I am from a private college, but I don’t think that that makes me any less qualified to speak for the youth membership of this movement. And just so everyone out there knows, I felt entirely welcome on that stage. Rather than feeling put off, I was inspired by the cross-generational nature of that rally. I wonder if what you’re describing as women falling over backward to acknowledge young people is simply a pride in the passing of the torch.

    I also would like to acknowledge Choice USA and the wonderful work that they do with other organizations like Advocates for Youth. Choice USA, founded by the once maligned younger woman, Gloria Steinem, works solely with college students to help us gain the skills necessary to advocate for reproductive justice. On Wednesday there were Choice USA students from as far away as Ohio. I was one of those students.

    So, I’d like to take a bit of issue with your saying that I was a token white, privately educated woman whose sole job was to list the schools that were there. I am a member of this movement and was there to represent just one more group of people that are involved–students at the rally and those back home doing great work on their campuses.

    Thank you for your post, Shelby, you are shedding light on an important issue and I hope that together, we youngsters can show the older members of our movement that we’ve got tons of fight in us!

    In Solidarity,
    Jane

  • miznichola

    I just wanted to add that I am SO sick and tired of older women bemoaning that a whole generation has grown up with abortion being legal, and therefore don’t have those memories of botched abortions seared into their minds. This is FALSE! First of all, for all the organizing we do to try to break down barriers to abortion, it is clear that many women still endanger their lives to perform unsafe abortions. Second, Dr. Tiller was murdered only a few months ago- was that not a devastating, horrifying death? Third, it is a very US-centered view. Abortion has only been legal (restricted to dr.s performing it and unfunded by the gov) for the past 36 years in the UNITED STATES. For anyone who has traveled outside the borders of this country, they likely have been in a place where abortion is not legal. I, for one, am a 21 year old who apprenticed midwives in Uganda for 4 months last year and I absolutely carry the same images of women with their uteruses torn, who have died or had to have total abdominal hysterectomies (some at the age of 15 or 16). So please, stop claiming there is nothing to motivate us to the struggle. Youth struggle every day to raise funds, to get to the clinics, to help friends, to raise children. There are plenty of images, namely the faces of women we love, to motivate us to this struggle.