It was a big weekend for elderly feminists implying that young feminists are doing it wrong. On Friday, 81-year-old Gloria Steinem told Bill Maher that young women voters were supporting Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign because young men were. “When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie,’” she said.
The next day, while introducing Hillary Clinton at a rally, 78-year-old Madeleine Albright criticized women who think electing Sanders would create a political revolution.”We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done. It’s not done,” she said, before reciting a line that has become her trademark: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”
I read the headlines and immediately felt angry and defensive — and I’m not even a Sanders superfan. Taken together, the two quotes distilled every criticism older feminists have made of the younger generation. They think we’re ungrateful brats. They assume gender should be the primary lens through which all women view the world — a ridiculous proposition for most of us, especially those who aren’t white, wealthy, straight, cis, skinny, the list goes on. And they’re straight-up admitting they aren’t clued into the wild and varied and wonderful forms of modern feminist activism. Because no one has invited them to a march or sit-in lately, they assume that there’s no organizing going on at all. They jump to the conclusion that anything less than full-throated support of Clinton means we’re complacent, not that we’re actively exploring our options.
Except it wasn’t so simple. After I read Albright’s and Steinem’s apologies on Facebook, I went in search of their full remarks. And I quickly noticed that a few things were missing from the inflammatory headlines and reaction articles about the feminist generation gap: that Albright had criticized Sanders’s foreign experience and policy positions, and Steinem’s remarks about Bernie boys had been prefaced by a lengthy comment about how active and engaged young women are. In other words, the full story was not as simple as two feminist elder stateswomen hating on the new class. It was as complex and substantive as women’s politics truly are.
When narratives pit women against each other in such a direct and obvious way, that usually means it’s time to start asking deeper questions. Why do we care what two 80-year-old women think of young women’s feminism? Why aren’t we asking young women which candidate they’re supporting and why? Why aren’t interviewers asking older women why their contemporaries aren’t exactly raging for Hillary either? Women young and old still experience sexism, and they want to end it. The difference is that some women see electing Clinton as part of how to end it, and others do not.
If there’s a generational component to this, it’s that feminism itself has changed since the heyday of Steinem and Albright. Feminism used to be more akin to a formal organization. Maybe you didn’t carry a Women’s Liberation membership card, but there were meetings and marches. There were icons, like Steinem, who planned national summits and served as spokeswoman for the movement. There are still some rallies and traditional campaigns these days, of course. But there is no Big Feminism anymore, and no agreed-upon figureheads — at least no one to rival Steinem’s fame and iconic status.
Today feminism is more about personal identity. As an ideology, it informs my actions, shapes my life choices, and guides my political leanings. There are points of collective action, but mostly it’s a belief system that we adhere to individually, and in highly individualized ways. I call myself a feminist, but I don’t much care if other women choose to use the label in the same way — or at all. Thanks in large part to the political and legal gains won by older generations of feminists, the problems that young women face today are less explicit and can be harder to identify — let alone find a single point of action to rally around. Most of us also consider problems like racism and transphobia to be just as pernicious as sexism, which means the list of issues we consider important to feminism can vary greatly. We don’t attempt to hold national conferences at which we decide which issues to prioritize and which candidates to support. In the past, that perceived unanimity gave feminism more political clout, but made it less inclusive. We just don’t work like that anymore.
This issue-based generational divide also popped up in Steinem’s interview with Maher — to much less fanfare. After Maher made an offensive comment about Caitlyn Jenner’s genitalia, Steinem smiled gamely and added that the “highest-earning female in the corporate world was a male previously.” She then gave a small laugh, and Maher added, “There’s no rules anymore.” Steinem’s feminism apparently doesn’t require her to call out anti-trans sentiments when she’s faced with them on national television. But mine does. And I think it’s possible to question her actions without trying to throw her out of feminism completely.
Which brings us to Albright’s famous quote about “women who don’t help other women.” It sounds truly outdated when deployed on the campaign stage in favor of Clinton — especially given that there are women candidates running in two other parties, too. I don’t believe I’m required to “help” Carly Fiorina with my vote, nor do I think I’m obligated by my gender to help Hillary.
But I’ve always interpreted Albright’s quote as a more general call to work with women rather than undermine them. It doesn’t mean you have to ally yourself with every woman you meet on the basis of gender alone. It doesn’t mean you have to agree on all of the issues or how to prioritize them. But it does mean that when you find yourself pitted against another woman — perhaps on the subject of which candidate would make the best president — that you help her to have her opinion heard, and you refrain from attacking her personally. Even if you don’t support her views. Even if your feminism is very different from hers.