BOULDER, Colo. — Shira Frank and her grandmother, Helen Redman, sat next to each other on a couch in a living room lined with art, talking about the things that connected them: namely, blood, love and a deep-rooted passion for feminist causes. They also talked about the things that separated them: the 43 years of life, the vastly different eras in which they came of age, their sexuality and relationships. Despite the shared blood and the shared movement, the vision of feminism held by each was virtually unrecognizable to the other.
“I know the younger women feel we didn’t do enough,” said Redman, 75, a prominent Second Wave feminist artist. “We didn’t do enough for black women. We didn’t do enough for gay women. We were not powerful enough.”
She turned to her granddaughter. “What is the stuff you blame us for? You have a bone to pick with us.”
“No,” Frank, 32, replied, somehow sounding both sensitive and firm, “it’s just a statement of fact: that feminists of your era did not include men, did not work on issues like the multiracial system of oppression and how they cross class lines and how they cross gender. The point is, you can’t do it all at once. It has to be progressive. Any movement has to have steps. I don’t blame you for it.”
On one thing, however, they agreed: “The feminist movement,” Frank said, “needs a revival.”
If there were ever a new feminist revolution, Frank would be the first to sign up. If it needed leaders, she would be the first to raise her hand. In many ways, she would be perfect for the job. She is young, educated — a Smith College graduate — and engaging. She is politically connected, as the deputy director of development for J Street, a nonprofit, pro-Israel advocacy group in D.C. She has the pedigree, descended from two generations of feminist artists.
And despite her youth, she has little use for the “hashtag feminism” popular with millennials or for friends who define their version of feminism as representing personal freedoms. She longs to get her boots on the ground. She is ready to join the fight.
There’s only one problem: She doesn’t know where that fight is.
“I think feminism is playing out too individually in people’s lives,” Frank said. “I don’t see anybody who’s trying to rebuild the movement. Tell me who they are if you meet them. I’m ready to join their cause. [Hashtag feminism] is not a movement. . . . I mean, ‘#thisiswhatafeministlookslike’? What does that say? What does that mean? There’s no ask of ‘this is what a feminist looks like.’ There’s no ask in there. There’s no demands.”
As someone who identifies as queer, Frank has no problems plugging into an active LGBT movement. “I could tell you exactly what it’s battling, and the structures and institutions and individuals,” she said. “But If I was asked, ‘What’s the women’s movement?’ I wouldn’t know where to go.” As for established organizations such as NOW or Planned Parenthood, she said, “That’s only for the women who are already converted.”
At first glance, Frank seems like a throwback to the Second Wave of feminism, full of activist passion and a hunger to effect change. And while that much is true, her view of feminism breaks off from that of her grandmother in significant ways — beginning with Frank’s lack of use for women’s-only spaces.
“Women’s-only spaces feel too small, and women’s-only discussions feel too irrelevant, because none of us live in a women’s-only world,” she said. “And second wave feminists don’t get it. They beat their heads against a wall: ‘Can we have a women’s forum? Can we have a women’s trip?’ [But] this isn’t just about women. This is about the position of women in relation to men.
“I’m not denigrating or belittling what my grandmother and my mother did, [but] you can’t [advance] women by taking men out of the equation.”
She isn’t ungrateful. She understands and appreciates the debt to older generations. “Thank God for the Second Wave,” Frank said. “I didn’t have to fight to define my sexuality, and I didn’t have to fight to be able to [be] allowed to work. From [childhood], I knew, ‘Of course, my opinion matters!’ ‘Of course, I can choose whatever partner I want!’ Those two things were ‘of courses’ for me.”
But she also has no qualms with taking her grandmother and her cohorts to task for not going far enough — for preaching independence, for example, while still relying on a husband as a breadwinner, and especially for instilling what she sees as a false sense of empowerment by focusing on only one end of the gender-power dynamic: the women’s end.
By making women feel falsely empowered, Frank said, “now we’re encountering male-dominated workplaces and arenas, but we don’t know how to create support systems outside it — because we thought we already had power, and we go in and realize we don’t. We’re still dealing with massive sexism, and we don’t have the structures [to fight it].”
On the other side of the couch, Redman thought perhaps a history lesson was warranted. Some perspective. She recalled a time when she couldn’t get full-time teaching jobs because she was a woman, or when any woman who asserted herself was described, in her words, as “sick, bad, stupid or crazy.”
“We moved [society] to the point where Shira can be who she is,” Redman said. “I always felt, whenever I opened a door, it wasn’t about me. I was opening it for other people. And to embody what Shira embodies — we all wanted that. But it takes that timeline unfolding. [Women] had to be together to find our strength [and] to build that base, to overthrow, to redefine who we were.”
Some of what passes for feminism these days mystifies Redman. No vision of feminism that she and her friends propagated, for example, could have ever included half-dressed pop singers embracing feminism as if it were a marketing tool.
“For my generation, the hypersexualization is disturbing,” she said. “I appreciate they cut the edge, someone like Beyoncé. They’re presenting their own body their own way. But they’re still choosing the sexuality that [plays to] the male gaze. People are dressing it in ways that we were fighting to get rid of.”
Nor can Redman get her head around the concept of feminism that is detached from the political sphere. When Frank told her grandmother about all her millennial friends, content in their individualistic form of feminism — “They think, ‘Feminism is about my lived experience as a woman,’ ” Frank said — it simply didn’t compute.
“I can’t get that,” Redman said, “because with everything going on, and all the threats to [women’s progress] — do they not get that? How can you not get that there’s still oppression going on for others who don’t come from your place of privilege — who aren’t in that spot, where you get the freedom to just be yourself? I have a hard time believing that’s true, Shira.”
Frank doesn’t buy into that view of feminism, either, but at least she understands it. “You fought so they could do these things,” Frank told her grandmother, “and they are excited that they can. They understand it was something that was hard-won. It’s like, ‘You fought for this, and I’m going to take it. I’m going to be it.’ ”
Redman considered that for a moment and thought of her own feminist journey. In all her years in the movement, the overriding goal was to improve the lives of future generations of women, but now she seemed to be wondering if any of it took.
“We’re still facing the same issues for young women,” she said. “I’m concerned for younger women. I’m concerned for Shira. What is the world we’ve given her? I feel like every issue we fought for is still out there. . . . I’m afraid women like Shira who move up the ladder, they will be shredded alive. I’m not terribly optimistic we’re changing the world.”
At this, Frank laughed out and grabbed her grandmother’s arm.
“Well,” she says, “good thing I am.”
Krissah Thompson and Soraya Nadia McDonald contributed to this report.
Illustrations by Olimpia Zagnoli.