Monday, October 11, 2010

In Response to Feminism's Generation Wars: An Open Letter


Here an introduction for the layperson. The past several months have seen a flurry of postings and columns in which Generation X and Y Feminists have expressed exasperation at the ways of their Baby Boomers mothers. Snark and sarcasm factors have been high. This argument has quickly grown very personal indeed. Linked below is the latest salvo in a growing war of bitterness and resentment. What I have written here may not be worded as tactfully as it needs to be, but I wrote it feeling decidedly annoyed and opted to keep my initial response. The essay I have referenced is snide and condemnatory, so I couldn't help but return a volley or two of my own.

Dear Ms. Pollitt,

In response to your recent column on the subject of Feminism’s generation wars I decided to draft this open letter. To some extent, (and to your credit, you acknowledge this) there is friction between each generation of every movement. I myself am about to turn thirty, and find myself sometimes exasperated at the conduct and behavior of those much younger than myself. Yet, I do recognize that there are eighteen and nineteen-year-olds who are currently doing impressive work, work the envy of those three times their age.

Sometimes stating the obvious is helpful. What we are taking on here, regardless of age or generation is a massive task known as “changing the world”, hopefully for the better. The world is a very complex place, with lots of people in it. Not all of them are white, educated, middle class, or baby boomers. So, as I have written before, it would seem that diversity and inclusiveness goes beyond just being fair or nice. Both ensure that reform might actually succeed. Young people are part of that great wealth of alternate viewpoints, and, taking your advice to heart, I suppose we could form our own organizations, provided we were ready to accept failure. The problems facing us now are too crucial and too imperative for that. Future generations need our cooperation, else their challenges will be more daunting then our own.

Though you may not even consciously realize it, Ms. Pollitt, you want to live forever. Identifying strongly with your generation’s crop of Feminists, you wish for their accomplishments to persist eternally. This is an understandable, very human impulse. You desire others to appreciate your hard work well past your own earthly demise. You wish to be noted in books, documentaries, and magazine articles. This is an easy enough temptation to succumb to, particularly for those who achieve some degree of fame or renown in their own lifetimes. No one wishes to have their own toil and sweat utterly forgotten by future generations or, worse yet, to experience the indignity and loneliness of being an afterthought in one’s own time.

I’m very different from you. Admittedly, I am also a complete unknown in most circles, only marginally known in others, and influential to a very modest few. But our ways of looking at achievement could not be more different. If I give an inspirational message in Quaker meeting, compose a decent song, or write a well-received short essay, I fight against the impulse to accumulate more attention and more adoration for my own sake alone. Unlike many, what I bring forth into the world is not about me. That which I create or cast into the universe may come from my lips, my brain, or my fingers, but each of these gifts from God are for the benefit of everyone who might find them helpful.

Remember, we are trying to change the world here, not ensure that our names will grace buildings, scholarship funds, or charity runs to benefit a debilitating disease. Those feed our egos, but they do not feed our souls. I know you did not write your original critique through the lens of religion, Ms. Pollitt, but as a spiritual person, I have a tendency to look for faith as a successful means of smoothing away interpersonal division. If I did not, I too would be worried about whether I was leaving an indelible mark. Truthfully, I sometimes still do, but I have the means in front of me to stop it, provided I listen to that plaintive voice.

I’d like to respond directly to one particular passage that you wrote.

But you know what? People in their 20s and early 30s don't usually get to run big established national organizations – groups with large budgets, and lots of staffers, and donors who need care and feeding, and certain set ways of doing things. In 2001, when Anthony Romero became executive director of the ACLU at 36, its first Latino and first gay leader, he was replacing Ira Glasser, who at 63 had been running the show since 1978! The changeover was a very big deal and rocked the organisation for several years.

I try to keep many things in mind. I never forget that my own faith was founded by a twenty-four-year old spiritual seeker, wanderer, and itinerant preacher. Jesus was thirty-three when he started his ministry. The Buddha was thirty-five when he is said to have reached enlightenment. Joan of Arc revitalized the French army at the age of seventeen, eventually being burned at the stake as a heretic at nineteen. Aisha, one of the prophet Muhammad’s wives, became a major scholar of the law and military leader in her own right. She is even now a looming inspiration to Islamic Feminists. There are other examples of those who revolutionized the world at a tender age, relatively speaking. Knowing what I do about the human spirit, I have no doubt that some driven, opinionated, charismatic, passionate young adult may make the world over anew once more. Leaders come in many forms, of course.

We are, and should be, in the business of rocking many an organization. What happens often is that those who have poured their life energies into something, as you put it, want to live in the memory of past triumphs. In effect, one begins to live in a time warp. Have no fear. No one will forget the good things you’ve done, mainly because you won’t let us forget. New times call for new solutions. We could start our own spaces (and we have) but what good does it do us if we’re working at cross-purposes? Embrace that you are finite and that there is a finite amount of work anyone can accomplish in one lifetime. When the day is done, no one could ever accuse any of us for not having given it our all.

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