Riding the Waves: Defining Young Feminism in Context

By Christine Miranda, Communications Intern

This is not my feminism. I was at my first NOW conference, sitting behind the registration desk, staff badge pinned proudly to my chest–and that was my knee-jerk reaction. A sea of members was approaching, and it was impossible not to notice: they were overwhelmingly white and what a teenager like me would call old.

My response wasn’t negative; it was more like culture shock. I knew what the membership of NOW looked like, but there was something different about actually seeing it, especially when its full force was descending upon our table of nervous interns and un-alphabetized voting cards. The whole exchange was a fitting preface to a weekend of peculiar generation gap interactions in which I tried to play assistant to women who have been fighting for their rights much longer than I have been alive.

I started identifying as a feminist less than a year ago. I absorbed theory by diffusion from my computer and let my “liberal” college campus teach me about misogyny. The only obstacle in my path was the familiar one: the stigma of being a feminist in our totally post-feminist, post-racial, post-everything society. Without even realizing it, I prepared my own mental rebuttal to the never-ending parade of criticisms (a soft chant of it’s just about equality mixed with feminism isn’t like that anymore) and joined the club.

Old feminism might be about “cranky white women burning bras,” by my feminism was robustly intersectional and lived in the Petri dish of the Internet.

Nine months later, face to face with what felt like the entire second wave of feminism, I realized that in accepting my own feminist identity, I had rejected all the women who came before me. Pinning all the movement’s “problems” (some real, some ridiculous) on the ghost of feminism’s past, I had invalidated the generation of fierce activists that became the backbone of NOW. And since we were spending a weekend together in the uncomfortable Baltimore heat, that was a problem.

The generation gap evidenced itself in a variety of strange snapshots:

  • After a long day, the NOW interns shuffle out to watch Magic Mike in a theater full of squealing girls; we aren’t sure whether this qualifies as feminist or unfeminist.
  • A woman stops me to hurriedly plaster an ERA sticker on my shirt. I am dumbfounded and lamely say, “cool,” to which she responds, no, the politics of the ERA are complex and can’t be summed up by my monosyllabic slang.
  • NOW Action VP Erin Matson introduces a plenary by saluting young feminists as the crux of the modern movement. The applause that follows is muffled, cautious, dispersed.

In a perfect world, the end to my story is the Saturday night dance party, where feminists young and old take to the floor in a cross-cultural haze of music, alcohol and sisterhood. We pass the night in feverish celebration, form a conga line and rally behind our shared beliefs, regardless of our differences. The waves of feminism finally ebb and flow in unison.

But that’s a lie. The puzzle pieces never fell neatly into place. And while a conga line did form during the crowd favorites, even our musical preferences were divisive. Truthfully, I’m not ready to inherit some great feminist legacy. Now that I’ve witnessed the intensity of a NOW conference (standing ovations, resolution debates, Ellie Smeal), I can’t turn my back on it either. My feminism might be SlutWalks and Sandra Fluke, but it’s also the ERA, Title IX and Social Security. And I’m not really sure what to make of that.

Fortunately, I’m ready to find out.

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