Feminism and Generation X

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.

8 thoughts on “Feminism and Generation X

  1. Jeff Birkenstein says:

    I’m always amazed (not really) how many men and women (especially women) in my classes deny their own feminist status when not a single one of them (ok, there are a few, and many of them men, sadly, but some women) would want to regress to a pre-feminist world.

    Something about the movement being too successful?


    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Definitely about the success of the movement–there are those in power who do not want to see equality, and they are the ones who shaped the dialogue that defined feminism as “militant” and “anti-men.” Your students are lucky to have you—I’d love to be a fly on the wall during some of your class discussions!


  2. Rachel Creager Ireland says:

    Oh wow, I just got around to reading that article about Mayer. That is chilling. She’s only taking a few weeks of maternity leave and working through that? Well, I thought all kinds of things before I had children, none anywhere near that extreme, but maybe nobody’s told her children change things. Good luck to both mom and child. They’ll need it way more than they know.
    It’s tempting to be bitter toward her, because she’s claiming to have what I perceive to be impossible, at least for me. I feel from women like her a lot of judgement and blame for whatever is difficult in my own life. I’m finding it very hard right now to sort through what are my own issues and what I perceive coming from others.


    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      You’re exactly right, Rachel–she is going to need more than she realizes…every mother does, because nothing can prepare you for the emotional and physical onslaught of motherhood.

      I hear you on the separation of issues–I think that is what makes all of this so difficult. It’s easy to feel judged by another woman, and by her choices, (and to make judgements ourselves) because society makes it so difficult for us to be our whole selves.

      I am still sorting through my own biases here, but where I keep trying to land is in the question of how can we allow women to be their full selves–moms who give their children what they need AND give ourselves what we need. And the answer, I believe, is in change–through legislation. And we’re going to need feminism for that. Which is what makes Mayer’s statements so chilling, as you aptly put it. My guess is, in five years or so, she’ll be wishing she’d written that article by Ann-Marie Slaughter–and the debate won’t be “having it all,” but “being who we are, and also being moms.” Because that’s what it’s really about.


      • Rachel Creager Ireland says:

        I linked this post on my facebook page, and there’s some interesting discussion going on. Most of it is about the need to do internal work, and to recognize oneness among all people, regardless of sex/gender, gender orientation, race, nationality, etc. Not hearing much in favor of feminism per se. Maybe everyone doesn’t need to identify as feminist, but we all need to be able to look at the world through a feminist lens.


      • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

        That’s interesting–thanks for sharing! I agree that the main work is internal, and that the important thing is to view issues in terms of equality and working together. I think it is difficult for many people to identify as feminist because backlash has given it a “bad name”–I had trouble with it myself.

        I’d like to reclaim the term because there is a ready-made framework and the necessary conversations are already going on–if people who believe in equality don’t realize that feminism is about equality, and not anger or negativity, then they are missing out on collaborating with lots of like-minded people who could work with them to achieve their goals. But in the end, if the term has to go by the wayside so that he goals can be achieved, it’s all good–it’s really just about getting there, and working together, one way or another.


  3. Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

    I do wonder this, though: if the term has to go by the wayside, and there are tons of people willing to do the work but unwilling to identify as feminist (and therefore not reading anything being written by the foremost feminists of the day), how is the work to be accomplished? Either feminists need to get in front of the dialogue that says we’re all “femi-nazis,” or we need to loudly proclaim a new name for ourselves, so that the conversation can go wide open. As it stands, the conversation has too narrow an audience–and feminism, as it is widely understood, is defined by Rush Limbaugh rather than Gloria Steinem.


  4. Cranky Technical Writer says:

    Some great quotes:
    “I’ll be a post-feminist in the post-patriarchy.” (seen on a bumpersticker)

    “I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.” (Rebecca West)

    And I’m sure you can think of more.


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