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Sisterhood, Interrupted… by misleading media and popular culture

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July 23rd, 2007

By Guest Blogger Deborah Siegel

‘Tis open season for intergenerational warfare between older and younger women — or so the mainstream media would have us believe. While on the road with my new book, Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild these past two months, I’ve caught, in my peripheral vision, glimpses of this latest so-called catfight writ large. NBC’s “Age of Love” aired while I was gone—a show where, as written about here on WIMN’s Voices, “cougars” and “kittens” are encouraged to duke it out for the (fake) love of a fickle bachelor. Snarky Washington Post coverage of a block party for Hillary Clinton pitted younger women against their older counterparts as well.

At the same time as we’re bombarded with images of claw-bearing and tension, I’ve been heartened by the conversations and connections I’ve seen happening among women across ages at my readings. Getting beyond the stereotypes we have of each other is key. So is a mutual understanding of our different contexts, as I write about in the following excerpt adapted from my book:

It is ironic, perhaps, that members of a generation raised on the Barbie slogan, “You Can Do Anything” and philosophies that emanated from hit albums like Free to Be You and Me today demonstrate scant awareness of women’s collective power. Younger women, who are more likely to be single, are portrayed on television, in Hollywood and in the news as being more concerned with dating than changing the world. Polls proclaim that only 22 percent of unmarried women under thirty regularly vote. Popular culture reinforces — by amplifying — this assumed image of apathy. On shows like Laguna Beach, or in starlets-turned-role models like Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson, younger women are portrayed as more obsessed with lip gloss, Manolo Blahniks and “hotness” than liberation, critical mass and social change. What has happened to us, the daughters of women’s liberation? This is hardly the world the architects of a movement for women’s social, political and economic equality envisioned. It’s no wonder the aging visionaries seem upset.

But these are stereotypes. It’s not as if women of a younger generation are sitting on their duffs. They are coming of age in a world that has changed—though, as many of them recognize, not enough. Yes, women of Generations X and Y live in a different environment, but it is no less complex than the one Boomer women faced. The difference, and the problem, is that they often lack an awareness that many of their conflicts are shared. In a recent book on how the stakes have changed for a new generation, Midlife Crisis at Thirty, Gen X-ers Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin offer their personal anxiety attacks as evidence of a broader generational angst. That angst, they argue, is a response to the lingering social and economic contradictions that continue to affect women of all ages—or, as they put it, the gap between women’s progress and old-school corporate structures and rigid social conventions. It’s the gap between What Has Changed and What Has Stayed the Same. In this breach, confusion is born: We’ve come a long way . . . maybe.

So where do we go from here?

The trendy notion that we are living in a “postfeminist” era has lulled many young women into inertia. Younger women assume their equality and take it for granted, but they aren’t the first to dismiss the movement prematurely. The word “postfeminist” was first uttered in 1919—just a few decades after the coining of the word “feminist”—by a group of female literary radicals in Greenwich Village who rejected the feminism of their mothers, one year before women won the right to vote. To the generation that came of age in the 1920s—many of them dancing, bobbed-haired fun-seekers—feminism seemed unfashionable and obsolete. The word “postfeminist” was resurrected in the backlash 1980s to describe an era in which feminism was, once again, deemed unhip and unnecessary. In a New York Times Magazine article published in 1982, Susan Bolotin popularized the idea that women in their twenties were fast becoming “postfeminists.” The media ran with this term, as did conservatives pundits, who were all too happy to dance gleefully once again on feminism’s so-called grave.

If “postfeminist” is a word twice coined to describe an era that is past patriarchy, surely the word—though popular—is woefully premature. Without a doubt, second-wave feminists opened doors. Title IX. Roe v. Wade. Later, the Violence against Women Act. But today, two of these crowning and hard-won achievements are in danger of being yanked away. Having made tremendous inroads in politics, business and law, in 2006 still only 14 of 100 U.S. senators and 67 of 435 representatives were women. Following the 2006 midterm elections, there will be more women in Congress than ever before, but so far the percentage has only gone up from 15.4 to 16.4. The number of female Supreme Court justices has recently been reduced by 50 percent (from 2 to 1), and the only female president this country has seen is Geena Davis, the doe-eyed movie star who played President MacKenzie Allen on ABC’s short-lived drama Commander in Chief. Despite the significantly high numbers of women receiving law degrees, PhDs, and MBAs—more, in some cases, than men—women are only 20 percent of full professors and 15.6 percent of partners at law firms. Thirteen years after feminists switched the voice boxes of Teen Talk Barbie doll (“Math is hard!”) and Talking Duke G.I. Joe (“Eat lead, Cobra!”), we have Harvard’s then-president, Lawrence Summers, telling us that women might be biologically inferior in science, and one of the world’s leading advertising executives, Neil French, telling us that women creative directors are “crap.” Only 2.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and, according to The White House Project, an organization that tracks women’s political influence and authority, women make up only 14 percent of guests on the five Sunday morning talk shows.

Equal pay for equal work is still a joke. For every dollar a man earns, a woman still earns only 77 cents—an increase from the 59 cents she earned when the second wave of feminism began, but still far from equal. Women own only 1 percent of the world’s assets. We continue to make up the majority of the world’s poor. We are disproportionately victims of violent crime.

How do younger women reconcile the gap between the tremendous opportunities they’ve been given and the inequalities that persist? How do they continue the fight for equality when they are constantly told—by the media, by each other, and often by their leaders—how good they already have it?

Guest Blogger Deborah Siegel is the author of Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild

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