by " Stephanie Herman"
** Editor's Note: This piece was originally published as a two part series in
Volume Two, Issue Nine (May 22, 1995) and Issue 10 (June 14, 1995) of CGX.
Forty years ago John Clellon
Holmes characterized that Beat generation of the early
1950s as a myriad of variant faces behind which a generational line of thinking was
finding validation in the repetition of its expression. "What the hipster is looking
for in his 'coolness'... is, after all, a feeling of somewhereness, not just another
diversion. The young Republican feels that there is a point beyond which change becomes
chaos... Both have had enough of homelessness, valuelessness, faithlessness." This
observation could just as successfully be applied to the Generation X of today. Baby
Boomer feminists had hoped, however, to breach any generational divide that might
threaten the continuation of their cause. They've been somewhat disappointed.
According to a poll recently
conducted by R.H. Brushkin, only 16 percent of college
women "definitely" considered themselves to be feminists. Perusing the women's studies
section of any bookstore reminds us that the charter members of feminism's second wave
are maturing in age. The latest volumes published by Cathleen Rountree, Betty Friedan
and Germaine Greer discuss not gender issues of inequality but of aging and menopause.
That feminists as a group are aging is a superfluous observation without understanding
the fact that feminism--the very institution--is aging as well; a result of the failure
of younger women to pull the mean age of a feminist down from its fast approach of 50
or to infuse the feminist platform with discussion of the problems pertaining to this
But this point of contention
is one not limited to the '90s decade. Feminists have
wrestled with the problem of youthful conservatism and a lack of support for radical
feminist ideology as far back as the late 1970s.
In her 1978 essay, "Why Young
Women Are More Conservative," Gloria Steinem struggled
to produce some plausible reasons for the apathy of the young. Many of her arguments
were drawn from her own college years, which she laughingly admits were conservative
--a mistake she blames on a young woman's desire to gain public, i.e., "patriarchal,"
approval. While Steinem conceded that women in their late teens and early 20s--
generally students--are suspicious of continuing claims of female oppression, she
offered a simple reason for their errors in judgment: "As students, women are probably
treated with more equality than we ever will be again. For one thing, we're consumers.
The school is only too glad to get the tuitions we pay..."
Were these really Steinem's words?
Since when have feminists ever admitted that as
consumers women are treated fairly? It's been widely reported and believed that any
woman's attempt to purchase a car, an outfit, a hair cut, even her dry cleaning,
results not only in the chauvinistic condescension of salesmen who respect only her
husband's or father's purchasing power, but also in being consistently charged more
than men for the same product or service.
Furthermore, feminists perpetually
allege that college women are failed in every way
by their patriarchal learning institutions--citing date and stranger rape on campus,
phallocentric" curricula and gender-biased teaching methods. At a feminist conference
at City University of New York in 1992, Steinem herself claimed that male-dominated
schools were so bad, she was recommending an "underground system of education."
Then and today Steinem misses
the point. Instead of enjoying a false sense of security,
young women may be embracing conservatism for the proverbial reason that in the '90s
they finally have something to conserve. Feminists hesitate to admit it and the media
is reluctant to report it, but progress has and is being made in the fight for female
Gains in the fight for equality
are not lost on the members of Generation X, who grew
up in the Information Age. Founder of the MIT Media Lab and author of Being Digital,
Nicholas Negroponte admits a line of demarcation between informational "haves" and
"have-nots." And in the arena of information access, the youth is occupying an advantaged
position in relation to older enerations.
Such data so readily available
to young people today shows the situation for women is
not as alarming as feminists would have us believe. According to a 1994 study performed
by the National Women's Political Caucus, "women and men have won general elections at
virtually identical rates over the last 20 years." The study concluded that the only
reason we don't see more women in government is because they fail to run for election.
Historically, feminism has been
on the vanguard of assuring that women will have the
opportunity to compete in the workplace. The young people of Generation X, portrayed
as a hesitant group of incessant questioners, have been interested to know: Have these
efforts proved successful?
According to the U.S. Department
of Labor, women accounted for 60 percent of total
labor force growth between 1982 and 1992. By 1983, women held 40 percent (9.7 million)
of high paying managerial and professional specialty jobs and 47 percent (14.7 million)
in 1992. In fact, women are projected to account for nearly three-fifths of the labor
force entrants between 1990 and 2005 and will comprise 47 percent of the labor force
by the year 2005.
According to the Science &
Engineering 1993 Indicators, published by the National
Science Board, the percentage of bachelors degrees earned in all fields by women was
45.43% in 1975, rising to 54.07% by 1991. The procurement of masters degrees achieved
similar gains, from 44.79% in 1975 to 53.65% in 1991.
Encouragingly, women have actually
eclipsed men in their pursuit of an education. In
all fields, men earned 508,424 bachelors degrees in 1975 while women earned only
423,239. As of 1991, however, women had far surpassed the male figure of 508,952 by
earning a total of 599,045. In fact, women have earned more bachelors degrees than men
since 1982. The numbers are similar for masters degrees: 156,895 for men in 1991,
compared to 181,603 for women.
Although women are still under-represented
in the fields of science and engineering,
the gap is steadily narrowing. For example, while the number of men earning bachelors
degrees in science and engineering actually fell from 210,741 in 1975 to 189,328 in
1991, women's degrees in science and engineering rose from 102,814 in 1975 to 148,347
in 1991. And in the field of computer science, men's bachelors degree production
increased between 1975 and 1991 by a factor of only 4.38 as compared to the surge
of women's degree production by a factor of 7.86.
Such encouraging information
may partly account for the waning response to feminist
rallying cries among the ranks of Generation X. Members of Generation X, both male
and female, have been criticized for far more heinous crimes than simply our
disregard for Baby Boomer liberalism.
We've been dubbed the unlucky
13th American generation for the environmental,
economic and political problems we inherited. Further labels include "yiffies"
(young individualistic freedom-minded few) and, forever in their shadow, "Baby
Busters." We've been accused of being workaholic slaves of materialism, and in the
same breath, of being too lazy; of practicing generational self-pity and, at the
same time, setting our moral and political standards too high,all the while being
relentlessly pictured on magazine covers as straight-faced, albeit mini-skirted and
In Psychology Today's May/June
1992 article, "A Generation of Whiners," five
characteristics existing in childhood are said to have contributed to the
apprehension of the Xers' worldview:
 parents (or lack of them before 5:00p.m.);
 smaller demographic (in the Boomers' shadow);
 economic turbulence (70s inflation, 80s recession);
 TV exposure (violence); and
 stress (children's levels have risen steadily since '67). Can these five factors
also explain our female members' apprehension toward feminism?
The answer is clearly, "No."
These components are cited as catalysts for our
generation's ennui,our search for identity, our tendency to live with our parents
after college, to travel in groups and avoid early marriage. The list represents the
problems that Generation X faced growing up--problems that currently haunt us as we
make our initial and tentative adult decisions. Not surprisingly, gender discrimination
is not on that list. Though we grew up wary of our precarious place in a polluted,
violent and economically unstable world, the girls of Generation X always felt equal
to the boys with whom we grew up.
In fact, ours was the first generation
to do so. In her 1993 book, Daughters of
Feminists, Rose Glickman noted the same trend among the Generation X "daughters" she
interviewed: "In all the feminist families, fathers no less than mothers exhorted and
encouraged their daughters, in word and deed, to develop their minds and to strive for
and expect professional achievement."
Generation X girls were raised
to expect the same things little boys might grow up
expecting: the opportunity to earn a college degree, the opportunity to pursue a career,
in short-- pportunities. The parents of Generation X women warned their daughters en
masse that while marriage might or might not be in their futures, all women should be
able to individually support themselves. Glickman echoes this sentiment in her
findings,concluding that the young women of this generation,"begin their journey with
eyes on the prize of self-reliance."
In Paula Kamen's 1991 book, Feminist
Fatale, she explains, as a Generation X feminist,
why the cause is so misunderstood by her generation; then envisions its hopeful future
if, and when, young women can make the association and subsequent commitment to feminism.
"The great irony," she complains, "is that although feminism has generally made a
tremendous difference in the perceptions and opportunities in many of these people's
lives, it is something that they almost universally shun."
Rather than shunning the ideals
of gender equality and the past victories of feminism,
however, most women of Generation X are more apt to be shunning liberal feminist
ideology. At this point in America's feminist-influenced history, many young women
believe the law has been altered sufficiently.
Remaining gender discrimination
is considered to result not from a lack of legislation
but to the lingering chauvenistic attitudes of a small percentage of men and women.
If the law has had no effect until now on the attitudes of these individuals, further
marches and protests and legalized protectionism will produce no additional effect. As
potential victims of gender discrimination, young women tend to hold the belief that
the few unenlightened individuals they may encounter should be confronted on a personal
not political, level. Where feminist intimidation and social conditioning has failed,
a personal introduction to a truly hard-working,capable female may be the only solution
to changing biased attitudes.
Though a few final miles may
remain on the path to gender equality, the cause of
feminism is perceived to have long since eclipsed its original goal of basic equality.
Because the arena of gender discrimination offers fewer challenges, current feminist
motivations involve a conglomeration of personal rather than political convictions
regarding female sexuality,identity and expression. Kamen asserts that this cultural
component of feminism, "suggests...feminism would still be relevant even if
discrimination against women halted." We must ask ourselves, "Why would any young
woman want to devote her enthusiasm and energy to a battle already won?"
(to many, an oxymoron) would resemble a religion more
than a political movement. Furthermore, a platform consisting only of defining female
identity, striving for feminine expression and practicing goddess worship is no
foundation for the political activism feminists intrinsically pursue.
In fact, Generation X is increasingly
wary of feminism's refusal to give up gender
warfare, recognizing that while most of women's battles have been won, habitual
feminists are angry as ever. On the "Women's' Homepage" of the Internet's World
Wide Web is a list of resources for feminists, including one, entitled, "Marketing
Angry Women"--a formidable job, to be sure,but nonetheless indicative of the
prevailing feminist attitude. The fact that feminists continue to perpetuate
unnecessary gender wars causes skepticism in the minds of younger women who are
interested not only in fighting the right battles, but in affecting resolution.
Ostensibly, resolution is elusive
in the feminist's world. In her 1990 book, The
Worst Years of Our Lives, feminist Barbara Ehrenreich embraces a never-ending story:
"The original idea of feminism as I first encountered it, in about 1969, was twofold:
that nothing short of equality will do and that in a society marred by injustice and
cruelty, equality will never be good enough." This revelation occured to Ehrenreich
21 years before publishing her book; in that time,nothing for her has changed.
Is it, after all, in a career
feminist's best interest to admit that any progress
has been made? In 1964, as feminism's second wave was igniting, well-known biographer
of the Beat generation, John Clellon Holmes, wrote that no group defined as "outcast"
--what today we would label as "victim"--ever desires to give up that title. His words
illustrate a crucial and controversial misunderstanding in today's debate over welfare,
affirmative action and feminism: "For the outcast instinctively knows that when he is
accepted with such a show of tolerance it is his very outcastness that is his meal
ticket, and so he emphasizes it..." Are feminists refusing to acknowledge the current
reality of gender equity, "emphasizing" instead their own hated label of "outcast?"
In 1978, when women enrolling
in college outnumbered their male counterparts for the
first time,unimpressed feminists couldn't refrain from "emphasizing." Though many men
and women concerned for gender equality celebrated in the light of this progress,
feminist attitudes remained bitter.
Gloria Steinem reduced the victory
to women's pathetic attempts to participate in a
man's world. "This hope of excelling at the existing game is probably reinforced by
the greater cultural pressure on females to be "good girls" and observe somebody
else's rules." Steinem had transcended the idea of an "equal playing field," now
demanding a brand new playing field wherein women would be dominant: "One day, an
army of gray-haired women may quietly take over the earth."
The young women of Generation
X are not interested in taking over the earth, as
twenty-somethings or in our dotage. Instead we are searching for ways to incorporate
man & woman, Jew & Christian, black & white, into a cooperative,peaceful world. To
reattract our interest (or our dollars) feminist leaders will have do more than
simply give angry speeches in college auditoriums or women's studies classes; they
will have to redefine the problems faced by young women today (problems faced by
young men, as well) and offer hope and resolution--not in the form of more social
welfare, protectionism or reverse discrimination,but in lessons of personal
responsibility and cooperation between the sexes.