Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo! and a fellow member of Generation X, has declared that she is not a feminist, saying she wants to distance herself from the negativity associated with feminism. Her attitude is not uncommon among women in my generation. By and large, we bought the ideas that the backlash against the sexual revolution fed us: feminists are people with “chips on their shoulders” (as Mayer put it), and all you need to do to be sexually empowered is to have the perfect body and then decorate and display it, whatnot like a cupcake.
My generation came of age when backlash was coming of age (the book of that name was published in 1991, when I was a sophomore in college). Unless we sought out the information in Women’s Studies classes, we weren’t going to learn who Margaret Sanger was or why she is important. We would know some names as a matter of course: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gloria Steinem. Our mothers and grandmothers stoked the fires of feminism, but we were toddlers when that stuff happened. By the time we were teens, culture had supposedly moved on. Despite Madonna’s valiant, though self-serving, efforts at turning objectification into empowerment, it was a man’s voice that set the tone for my generation and those to come: Here we are now, entertain us.
For most of my adult life, I was no exception to Generation X’s lackadaisical attitude about feminism. I had to educate myself before I realized that I am truly, deeply, and forever a feminist. I’m still educating myself: I have become immersed in what is, unfortunately, a discourse community.
To clarify: a discourse community is a group of people who work together and use a common language. Everyone within the community knows the lingo (phrases like “rape apologists” and “female impersonator” and “backlash” and “objectification”). To further clarify: it is unfortunate that feminism is a discourse community because, as belle hooks asserted, it is for everybody. And everyone needs to understand that if we are to heal the wounds that only feminism can heal.
Fortunately, some very successful and vocal women in my generation do understand that. Many of the strongest voices in the current feminist movement are Gen-Xers: Amanda Marcotte, Jaclyn Friedman, Jessica Valenti. (And, of course, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.) Read these women and listen to them—help them break out of the discourse community and into the whole community. They might occasionally sound angry (and rightly so), but they aren’t about creating some sort of Amazonian world in which militant femi-nazis glory in the destruction of men and children. They’re about the things Melissa Mayer benefits from and claims to support: equality and opportunities for women. They’re also about creating a culture in which men and boys get to be their whole selves, just like women and girls do. Yep, they’re feminists.
It’s too bad that most of Generation X seems to agree with Melissa Mayer, because if we instead called bullshit on backlash and reclaimed the language we’ve inherited from the women who made sure we could vote and choose how many children we have and wear pants and run big companies, we’d be able to answer the painful questions of our own experience. We are at just the right age to do that—old enough to be cynical and young enough to be hopeful, with an awesome combination of energy and expertise.
If the women of Generation X put our minds to it, we could connect with one another, agree on the need for cultural change, and get it done, just like women have been doing for centuries.
But we have to wake up first.
I think too many of us don’t understand that the insane state of our media (have you seen Newsweek’s cover this week?) and the political firestorms that are brewing (have you seen a map of the states that are fighting over women’s bodies and sex?) are on a collision course. And smack in the middle of that course is—us. Our bodies. Our daughters’ bodies. Our jobs. Our lives.
We need to reclaim feminism to reclaim ourselves. To stop thinking we have to be and look perfect. To make as much money as our male counterparts. To choose how many children we have. To stop trying to balance too much with too little for too long.
Marissa Mayer might not ever realize this, but once motherhood hits her upside the head while she’s trying to play a male game according to male rules (a game and rules that don’t even serve men that well), she’s going to wish she could open a bigass feminist book and find the answers. Let’s just hope the rest of our generation finds that book and gives it to her—wrapped in blue and pink ribbon—by the time her kid graduates from college.