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Looking to the Future, Feminism Has to Focus

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But recently, the feminist movement hit an unexpected bonus: The Millennials, the generation born roughly between 1977 and 1996, have started re-engaging with feminism. In the last 10 years, all the major feminist organizations -- NOW, the Feminist Majority Foundation, the National Council -- started campus programs and outreach initiatives for 20-somethings. Organizations such as the Center for New Words, Women in Media and News and the Women's Media Center represent the young generation's interest in the media and its representations of women's lives. Feminist blogs -- Feministe, Feministing -- have sprung up. You "cannot overestimate the impact of the Internet on feminism's outreach potential," says Feministing founder Jessica Valenti. "We reach women who never had a class in women's studies, women in towns with no NOW chapter or any other explicit feminist organization."

Feminism's sclerosis problem seems to have found a cure. Valenti's writing has a wonderful defiant quality reminiscent of the days of the movement's youth. "A lot of feminist organizations are so accustomed to backlash that everything they put out into the world is very thoughtful, deliberate and safe," she says. "Feminists are always going to encounter backlash no matter how careful we are, so why aren't we saying exactly what we want?"

So what's the bad news? A lot of millennial feminism simply magnifies the weaknesses of the old movement. As Burk says: "When we started the [younger women's] task force, the young women wanted to identify it with environmentalism and prison rights and, and, and. . . ." Sound familiar?

Many young feminists, ironically, are frank about wanting to keep people who don't sincerely embrace intersectionality out of the future feminist movement. And it's true that, despite their intersectional mission statements, mainstream organizations such as NOW did endorse the white female candidate, putting gender first. Contemplating reconciling feminists now that the primaries are over, Valenti writes that she isn't interested in reconciliation unless "intersectionality is used as a lens and not just as a talking point." Older intersectionalists chime in. Anticipating Obama's victory in a recent interview in the Nation, Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice predicted the end of traditional feminism: "If [Clinton] doesn't win, it will be a death knell for those people. And that may be a good thing -- that a younger generation will start to take over."

As someone who has been faithful to feminism since I received a first edition of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" in 1964, I can't help saying: "Be careful what you wish for." The process of shedding potential allies can be hard to control.

After the Center for New Words's diverse and inclusive "Women, Action and the Media" conference this past April, the blogosphere erupted with charges and countercharges. Bloggers like "Sudy," a self-described "Filipina of mesmerizing volcanic eruptions," declared some of the conference's female subjects to be synthetic: "I . . . don't believe that simply putting a womyn's face where a man's face once was is going to solve our problems . . . by Real Womyn I am talking about womyn of color, incarcerated womyn, migrant womyn, womyn at the border, womyn gripped in violence, rape, and war."

Participant and blogger Brownfemipower accused participant and blogger Amanda Marcotte, who wrote an article on immigration after the conference, of not coming up "with all these ideas on her own," and a supportive commenter on her blog, high on rebellion, put the accusation into the broad context of it being "all too easy for white women to get away with stealing the ideas of women of colour."

A movement that uses intersectionality as a lens but banishes white, bourgeois, corporate older women might be a vehicle to glue what remains of feminism together, but it will struggle to achieve social change for women. The Clinton campaign has, perhaps unwittingly, revealed what many in the movement know -- that if feminism is a social-justice-for-everyone (with the possible exception of middle-class white women) movement, then gender is just one commitment among many. And when the other causes call, the movement will dissolve.

What remains? Not that some female candidate with no baggage is going to rocket out of nowhere as Obama did. The Brookings Institution just released a study revealing that, after 40 years of feminism, the number of women entering politics has leveled off. Only eight of the nation's 50 governors -- the most common White House track -- are women. Men don't recruit women, women bear the lion's share of household work, and few husbands seem to quit working to support their wives' careers.

The good news is that just because a movement fails as an electoral force doesn't mean that it's meaningless. As Gloria Feldt, former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says: "Elections come and go, but feminist issues are forever." The young feminists are networking and coordinating. The New York City chapter of NOW works its feminist agenda every day -- this year, they successfully lobbied the state legislature to repeal the statute of limitations on rape and ran a campaign against sex trafficking. But even chapter president Sonia Ossorio doesn't think much about using her victories for movement building: "I don't have time to sit back and the luxury of thinking how to market," she says.

The absence of realpolitik is serious. Sooner or later, the same lessons always emerge. When the four Southern Democratic senators voted to put Thomas on the Supreme Court, liberal women got mad. But they didn't get even. Leave the party? "Where do they have to go?" asked Birmingham-Southern College political science professor Natalie Davis.

This is probably the moment for me to admit that I am a Chris Matthews-inspired Clintonite. I started out feeling very lukewarm toward Clinton, but every time someone on cable television called her a bitch or a pimp, my interest in her candidacy went up. A lot of the feminists for Obama were also horrified at the tone of the Clinton coverage, but they maintained that you could be mad at Matthews and Tim Russert and Alex Castellanos and the guys on the Internet and in your office but still support Obama. I am, as my young feminist friends and Obama supporters keep reminding me, old.


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