Learning To Play Nice: How Young And Old Feminists Can Work Together

We are fighting the same fight, so why can’t different generations of feminists seem to get on the same page, asks Niki Fritz?

I had been “warned” before the annual National Organization for Women Conference. The rest of NOW’s population doesn’t look like our Chicago Chapter, whose average member is in her early 30s. NOW members have a reputation for being older, often second wave feminists, who aren’t always super open and welcoming of younger members or their ideas.

I tried to not invest too much in these generalizations though. I was excited to meet the generation of Betty Friedan, the sexual revolution, and the fight for the legal abortions. There was so much to be learned!

But then at my first workshop titled “NOW 101,” a woman stood up and asked in a slightly accusatory tone “Where are the young women in the movement and why don’t they care?!”

I kind of stood there shocked for a moment. Did she not see the young woman seated two seats to her left? Or the other young woman across the aisle from her? Or the three seated at the table? Or the ones crowding the hallway? Did she not see me, the PR Chair for the Chicago Chapter of National Organization for Women and a young feminist eagerly awaiting her 28th birthday? Were we invisible to her?

I have to admit I was a shaken and a little angry. I had just organized our chapter’s third annual Give Your Choice A Voice event, which raised money for the Chicago Women’s Health Center. I have been a NOW member for three years, dedicating my free time to one of the oldest feminist organizations in the country. I regularly wrote feminist columns for the RedEye, a local daily focused on 20-somethings. I was as freaking feministy as they come!

I had to say something. I shot up my hand to speak.

I’m not a natural born speaker so my words came out a little shaky when I started. I told my feminist comrade who asked where the young feminists were, that I was right here, listening, learning, and leading; I was right here, my fellow young board members were downstairs manning the booths, my new young feminist friends sat beside me, behind me, and across from me. We are here, so please talk with us not at us.

There were general murmurs of approval from my fellow young feminists and lots of vigorous head nodding. Bonnie Grabenhofer, Executive Vice President for NOW also noted that young people today are actually more engaged than the women of the ’70s, we are just differently engaged. We are voting, we are signing online petitions, we are organizing causes through Facebook. You just have to look for us.

I’ll admit that my little soapbox speech came out rather passionately with a twinge of that defensiveness I try to leave out of feminist monologues. It is hard though not to feel sometimes like young people are being attacked for not being engaged as we are filling phone banks and organizing rallies. It’s hard sometimes to not feel invisible. But that is not what our feminist community is about. It is not about defending yourself but rather proclaiming yourself and trying to understand others.

So with that spirit in mind, the next day at the conference, I went to the Ageism workshop. I wanted to learn what it was like to be an “old” feminist, a term defined and owned in the workshop. I wanted to learn what their struggles were and if those struggles somehow were attached to why they felt that young feminists weren’t showing up.

The workshop changed how I viewed the young/old disconnect. One participant put it best when she explained how she felt that she was experiencing the exact same sexism in her 60s she experienced in her 20s. Back then she was “sweetie/honey,” and with her 60th birthday she became “sweetie/honey” again.

In our youth, we are visible in society, but we are silent. We are seen as sexual objects, we are seen only as worthy as our attractiveness, we are always less than men. As we age, we disappear both physically and societally. We are no longer represented in the media; we have no worth in society if we are not the definition of young beauty. At both ages, our worth is determined by our appearance and our voices are often muted even when we are screaming.

We are fighting the same fight. We are victims of the same societal fault, the same sexism. We both just want to be heard, so badly sometimes that we don’t listen to each other.

Luckily we can change this. We can learn to listen and to be heard. Here is what I propose to both young and old feminists.

What you can do for young feminists:

1)   Please talk with us not at us. I spoke with a very lovely woman in the ageism workshop who explained that in her generation they were to be seen and not heard. She had not been taught to talk with people. We need to start learning how to talk with each other instead of just yelling at each other.

2)   Do not tell us we have no idea what pre-Roe v. Wade life was like. Of course we don’t! We were born a decade after abortion was legalized! We will never know what that was like. So tell us. Tell us the dangers. Tell us stories. Don’t preach to us, but tell us.

3)   Let us lead. The only way we will learn is if you give us opportunities to lead, to make mistakes, and to get back up. Be our mentors, our friends, and our feminists comrades.

What you can do for old feminists:

1)   Ask old feminists for help and listen to the advice. They’ve been there and done that. They know the pitfalls and can help young feminists be successful.

2)   Stop assuming old feminists don’t understand young feminists. It is so easy to say “You just don’t understand!” like we are petulant teenagers. Of course old feminists understand a lot of the struggles, like what is it like to bump the glass ceiling, what it is like to be called a slut, what it is like to be silenced, what it is like to be heartbroken. These are human experiences we all share.

3)   Never tell someone again “You look young for your age.” Do not assume what an age looks like. See age as a tool of experience, something invaluable.

Personally, my pledge to my old feminist comrades is that at the next conference, I will not think of myself as somehow different because 40 years separates us. I will see you as my partner in this struggle for equality.

Niki Fritz is a freelance writer, nonprofit guru, and feministy type Chicago lady. She is the PR Chair for the Chicago Chapter of the National Organization for Women and writes for the RedEye and GapersBlock in the Second City. You can tweet her at @fritzfrack.

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