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Feminists of the ’60s and ’70s should have passed the torch to Gen Xers

REUTERS/Fred Prouser
I recently read a quote from Steinem that said, “People often ask me if I’m ‘passing the torch.’ I explain that I’m keeping my torch, thank you very much — and I’m using it to light the torches of others.”

“We are the sons of nooo one, bastards of young.”

This Replacements song goes through my head as I’m trying to get these thoughts down on paper. It is the mantra of a lost generation.

M. Kathleen Murphy

I’m not a baby boomer. I’m not a millennial. I’m in that forgotten generation that is sandwiched in between. Remember us? We’re always overlooked or left out because there are not enough of us to matter, I guess. With 66 million boomers and even more millennials, my generation, the Gen Xers, is less than half of either of those, so we make up what — 20 percent or less of the American electorate.

Not only am I in that skipped-over generation, I’m also a woman in that skipped-over generation. What that means is I was born too late to be a part of the second-wave of feminism and then became just a bit too old to be a part of the third.

An epiphany in college

It’s not to say I didn’t try, though. I went to college; I took women’s studies classes. I remember learning then what apparently didn’t make it to my family’s political dinner discussions — that the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) never made it into the U.S. Constitution. That knowledge created an epiphany for me and directed my work toward social justice — specifically women’s rights, women’s leadership and gender equity. I helped to elect the first congresswoman from Minnesota since the 1950s; I became an abortion rights lobbyist for almost a decade; and I led a campaign to revitalize the ERA in Minnesota when no one else was talking about it.

I was a progressive feminist learning how to be a leader, trying to stake out my position to bring up the next generation of feminists.

It was during this ERA effort that I began working alongside the Gloria Steinem-aged activists and politically involved women (I actually did have Gloria at my 40th birthday party, but that’s another story). I learned first to disdain bringing up the hurtful memories of the second-wavers and their huge constitutional loss just a mere 22 years earlier; and second, their complete unwillingness to extend the ladder down to younger women to learn the ropes or follow in their powerful footsteps.

Insert song lyrics here: “God, what a mess, on the ladder of success, Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung.”

Not passing the torch

I recently read a quote from Steinem that said, “People often ask me if I’m ‘passing the torch.’ I explain that I’m keeping my torch, thank you very much — and I’m using it to light the torches of others.” During the ’90s and most of the 2000s, Steinem and her friends may have helped light a few candles of the next generation here and there, but they very firmly held on to that torch of power. She recently premised her unfortunate comments on the Bill Maher show (about why young women support Bernie Sanders — to chase boys) with the theory that men gain power as they age, so therefore they get more conservative, while women lose power as they age, thus they get more radical.

This comment is telling.

The white, middle-class women who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s should delight in the amount of power they took by the reins, entirely by themselves. They grabbed a lot and ran far and wide with it, making leaps and bounds of progress and breaking many glass ceilings in the man’s world. They were the firsts of this and that and the other thing. This was the Hillary Clinton crowd.

Let’s not forget during this time that the surge in divorces that liberated women from disastrous marriages also had the effect of freeing husbands to leave their wives for younger and younger women. Further fueling the distrust of women among generations is that patriarchal social construct that women are valued for their beauty more than anything, so youth is power. As women age, they become more and more invisible — just take a look at Hollywood.

And thus Steinem’s fear: As women age, they lose their socially constructed beauty, and therefore lose their so-called power. Along with that they lose their trust in younger women. It is because of this that the women of the baby boomer years as a whole have lost touch for a long time with the women of any younger generation. It is only in this decade that they’ve finally turned around and said, “We’re getting tired. Where is our next generation of leaders?”

Millennials to the fore

Well, Gen Xers waited patiently to step into their shoes, for a while. Before we could demand it, the next generation came out of the gate with the surge of technology-driven skills. The millennials pulled out not just ahead of us, but in spite of us. Women had made just enough gains that women’s studies departments became passé. The word “feminist” itself has been deemed antique and quaint. We don’t need to use, learn, or understand it because to this generation women are simply equal to men and that is that. End of story.

The next generation is not going to be associated with bra-burning lesbians. These women love men, are not shy about their sexuality, and dammit, some of them really need bras. Millennials are determined to chart their own course.

So that’s where we’re at with this perplexity of why young women don’t feel it’s their duty to “do their part” and support breaking this last ultimate glass ceiling, especially with a public figure who has been making the news since the day they were born. The Hillary generation unwittingly let us know that they didn’t need us, that they were still capable, useful and necessary to keep the torch going. Younger women be damned. It was their power and by God they were going to hold on to it as long as they possibly could.

Their mistake: They assumed we’d still be right there behind them.

An age-old practice

The big question now is: How do we bridge that divide? I don’t have an answer. What comes to mind, though, is the practice that men have perfected for centuries of giving up a bit of their power to mentor someone coming up behind them —it’s usually to someone who looks just like them, white and male. They learned long ago that the next generation needs to be trained in order to take care of them when they know they’ll eventually need to step down. It’s about grooming, filling the pipeline, helping them learn from mistakes.

This is the lesson that the second-wave ardent feminists forgot to consider with that tight grip on power. This is the lesson that women need to learn in order to not lose what progress we’ve made.

Women have to learn to trust women. Women have to realize that whatever power they may have, it still needs to be shared in order to keep that power in play. The Hillary women have to trust the millennials and the generation in between to do the right thing, not chastise us for doing it our own way.

M. Kathleen Murphy is a communications consultant and graphic designer for political candidates, nonprofits and small businesses. She is currently the chair of Gender Justice, a nonprofit litigation and advocacy organization that addresses the causes and consequences of gender inequality. She lives in St. Paul and works throughout Minnesota.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 02/23/2016 - 09:41 am.

    Some broad, sweeping comments here

    I am the son of, I guess, a first generation feminist. My mother established herself at the U, helped start programs and classes for and about women in the 60s especially. I think she was driven by a need to have a career and succeed on her own terms and as walls she faced had any universal application her struggle took on a cloak of feminism. She didn’t wait for a mentor. Later she helped many women from the power base she had established but she didn’t necessarily give up her power until she retired.

    I think some of your issues about generations in conflict are somewhat universal. I remember conflicts between older NAACP members and guys who were Black Panthers. Each generation has a struggle not just against the common foe but with the methods and sympathies of the other generation of their allies.

    You are right in that the term feminist seems passé now. I’m not sure if that is good or bad, maybe both. The struggle isn’t over but gains have been made.

    I totally disagree that looks and youth are power. That kind of “power’ is illusory at best, granted by powerful men who objectify them for their youth and beauty. I think the success of Hillary and other successful women is contrary to that argument. If the youth + beauty = power argument is true in any meaningful way then perhaps there has really been no progress.

    As I reread your article I pulled out a few quotes that I thought were too broad and sweeping to be practical.

    “…second, their complete unwillingness to extend the ladder down to younger women to learn the ropes or follow in their powerful footsteps.” (sometimes you have to pull the ladder down, not wait for it. If someone above helps you that is fine but to some degree you have to earn the right to learn the ropes.)

    “Let’s not forget during this time that the surge in divorces that liberated women from disastrous marriages also had the effect of freeing husbands to leave their wives for younger and younger women. Further fueling the distrust of women among generations is that patriarchal social construct that women are valued for their beauty more than anything, so youth is power. As women age, they become more and more invisible — just take a look at Hollywood.” (wow, what a cliché. This is hard to answer. I don’t look to Hollywood for anything but entertainment. My one word response to this is Hillary. By the way, browse through the Match.com ads sometime. You’d be amazed at how many older, divorced women are looking for men that are much younger than they are. Maybe the desire for youthful lovers is universal, or nearly so.)

    ” The Hillary generation unwittingly let us know that they didn’t need us, that they were still capable, useful and necessary to keep the torch going. Younger women be damned. It was their power and by God they were going to hold on to it as long as they possibly could.

    Their mistake: They assumed we’d still be right there behind them.”(Again, using a pretty broad brush to paint this picture. Each generation, each person, has their own issues and may not agree on everything even with their allies. Pioneers are hearty individualists and perhaps they expect the same from those that come after.)

    “What comes to mind, though, is the practice that men have perfected for centuries of giving up a bit of their power to mentor someone coming up behind them “(yeah, this comes up all the time in the secret men’s club meetings. I’m almost retired, still looking for my mentor.)

    Sorry for the load of criticism and not much obvious support. But I do believe in your goals.

  2. Submitted by Erik Hare on 02/23/2016 - 10:29 am.

    Gen-Xers

    There is no doubt that this is a difficult time for women of our generation, and I don’t want to diminish that. But for us men it’s even harder because it’s not clear when and how we should speak up.

    I greatly appreciate the perspective of the author – we’re all stuck in the middle as Gen-Xers. A lot of progress was made ahead of us and with us, but there is so much left to do. Millenials don’t understand far too much of this, and in some ways that is wonderful. But we never did set things up for constant progress in an organized way.

    That’s what we need. And it’s not up to me to lecture young women on what they should be doing, either. I’m perfectly willing to lecture young men to be kind, patient, and respectful first and foremost – and to understand that things are still harder for women in this world.

    Mostly, I want everyone to stop talking past each other and realize that we’re all in this together. Gender equality is a huge problem and there was no reason to believe it would simply be fixed in one generation – or especially by one gender.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 02/23/2016 - 01:17 pm.

      On each other’s side

      I think female feminists forget that there are men on their side. Certainly, the 1st and 2nd generation of feminists had a lot of hurdles with respect to gender roles, and there certainly weren’t as many men on their side. But I think that we can’t ignore that that has changed.

      I think the author of this article isn’t entirely wrong that the 2nd generation feminists seem willing only to pass on the torch when it’s pried out of their cold, dead hands. But, unfortunately, as an x-er and a feminist, I found many of the feminist x-ers wanting to take up that torch really wanted to just use it to burn down anyone who even breathed in a way that wasn’t feminist enough for them. They were unwilling to welcome men OR women who had a view that wasn’t terribly militant. I left a few forums because I couldn’t lock step with that type of feminist. Some of them would even argue that standards for some things should be different for women than men, and angrily (happily?) shout down anyone who might suggest that, hey, if you’re not physically capable of pulling me out of a burning building, I don’t think you should be a firefighter (male or female!).

      That angry, exclusive attitude has sadly resulted in a situation where we have made men who want to help carry the torch afraid to speak up for fear of angering the women who, under no circumstances, want help from a man. But, not just that, the angry feminist attitude has unwittingly reinforced gender stereotypes by often putting down ideas that liberate not just women, but men, to participate in roles that were frowned upon in the past. We’re waking up to that somewhat, but there is a long way to go. Once we stop pulling up the ladder, from both men and women, we’ll find that we don’t need feminism as it was once needed. We may all be able to feel fulfilled in whatever role we choose to fulfill, even if that means some women want traditionally feminine things and some men want traditionally masculine things, or some women fulfill traditionally male roles, and some men fulfill traditionally female roles.

      I do agree with the author that the 2nd generation feminists missed out on an important opportunity. They ignored a generation that could have better bridged the gap between the boomers and the millenials, in both age and experience. As a result, even after so many years of fighting, the millenials are going to have to deal with many of the same handicaps that generations before them dealt with. I disagree with the comment above that x-ers should have simply taken the mantle rather than waiting for mentoring. I firmly believe that the militant feminists actually were the product of a lack of mentoring, and that that attitude set feminism back in many ways.

  3. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 02/23/2016 - 03:59 pm.

    I am just an old fogey (sp?), but what I see in…

    …the millenials is that they are incredibly smart, collaborative, and aware, and they are leaving the drama to those who are drawn to it – and moving on.

    So when a Gloria Steinem or Madeline Albright try their cheesy manipulations (a la the Clinton campaign), yes, they quickly snapped back at those who address them as less than what they are – and then moved on, in no need of their approval. They expect to be treated as equals. For the most part, I think most people respond with a simple, straightforward respect.

    Bravo!!

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 02/23/2016 - 09:22 pm.

    Having it one way

    I don’t think demanding equality and wanting treatment as a protected class are at all inconsistent. Being a protected class is simply a means to end, that of equality, which recognizes that de facto , if not de jure, inequality exists under the present state of affairs. And trying to bring about equality in things like job pay and duties does not mean ignoring the basic biological differences between men and women and the natural feelings of modesty about loss of privacy in certain respects.

    As far as electing sugar daddy politicians, that’s really a bipartisan issue. The only difference between the right and left is that the left would like to see it spread around fairly whereas the right just wants to reward their close friends.

  5. Submitted by Sarah Janecek on 02/24/2016 - 01:20 am.

    Bully for Ms. Murphy

    Ms. Murphy hits this issue out of the park.

    There is a famous saying in MN politics which goes, “DFL feminists eat their young.” So true.

    The Steinem / Albright “stand by your woman” mantra has been obscene.

    Best news I’ve had all week is that someone like Ms. Murphy gets that.

    Unrelated but important: Look at the photo of Steinem with this piece. A woman with those fingernails can’t do much else but protect her decades-old turf.

    My point?

    You cannot dig new turf with those nails.

    But back to saying, “Good on M. Kathleen Murphy.” Go forth and change things, please!

    • Submitted by Patricia Bronstein on 02/24/2016 - 12:27 pm.

      Feminism

      Really, nails. That’s your comment?

      Why should “feminists of the 60s and 70s… pass the torch”? Feminists of the 60s and 70s were also the feminists of the 80s and 90s, perhaps the feminists of the 80s and 90s could have shared and added their generation to the numbers of feminists, and not wanted to be given the torch. That’s saying your time has passed, let go of the torch, why? Feminism is an issue for all ages, it doest pass from one generation to the next. As a feminist of the 70s I have been working, particularly on reproductive and abortion rights for the past 30 years. I work with women of all generations.

      I’m voting for Hilary because she is the most qualified, not because she is a woman. Senator Sanders is not as experienced or knowledgeable about the issues facing this country, both nationally and internationally.

      I hope M. Kathleen Murphy will join with feminists of all ages.

      • Submitted by miki polumbaum on 03/23/2016 - 10:01 am.

        I disagree with the notion that Sanders lacks experience.

        Sanders was not only in Congress for a number of years, but he was also a Senator and a mayor of a big city (Burlington, VT.) He’s got plenty of experience under his belt, and he knows what he’s saying and what he’s doing. That being said, he’s plenty qualified to be President of the United States.

  6. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 02/24/2016 - 09:08 am.

    Back in Steinem’s hayday….

    My mom, one of the first 500 NOW members and more of a Betty Friedan fan, thought Steinem was a shallow publicity seeker. Since my mom was one of the smartest people I ever knew and had thought a lot about these topics, I would follow her lead. Not to say I didn’t ruffle her feathers many, many times.

  7. Submitted by Jim Million on 02/24/2016 - 10:01 am.

    Another Perfect MinnPost Photo

    I have refrained from comment here, mainly to not accidentally step on Ms. Murphy’s excellent text.
    This is not a forum for opinions of old men of the ’60s, as enlightened as some were/are/attempt to be.

    At first I honestly did not recognize this person, truly. Then I immediately thought: OMG, would my daughter even know who this is? And, she’s directly on the Xer/Millenial cusp.

    Please correct my residual assumption (if need be) that few millenial women dwell on their grandmothers’ causes/histories.

    I also have a long-standing observation on “The Glass Ceiling,” never noted elsewhere, but likely also now irrelevant (I do hope).

  8. Submitted by Ginny Watkins on 02/25/2016 - 09:01 am.

    Passing the Feminist Torch?

    Concerning her disagreement with Gloria Steinem, is Ms. Murphy saying that women of a certain age just quit using their brains, back out of public involvement, be disenfranchised, even though they might have a repository of knowledge and wisdom? What became of the ethic of respecting elders? This sounds like ageism.

    I find clearly out of line the presumption that the women’s movement spawned a “surge in divorces that liberated women from disastrous marriages” which “gave men the opportunity to leave their wives for younger women; further fueling the distrust of women among generations”. How far-fetched. Feminism is not the cause of divorce. During that time my husband supported my feminism, and frequently assumed care of our children so I could be seriously involved. There were many husbands and other men who were helpful or directly involved.

    Bra-burning? It certainly was never a feminist practice. The myth about bra-burning emanates from an event in the eastern area of the country, when some women decided to have a public burning of many objects they found to be objectionable. Most of it was books and magazines. I have talked to one woman who was there, and said she couldn’t be sure whether or not a bra was thrown in.

    Many other concerns about this article were correctly voiced by Bill Schletzer, son of the distinguished Vera Schletzer who was even before my time.

    Finally: Hillary or Bernie? They are similar on the major feminist issues. The problem: Would Bernie really achieve his agenda in Congress? Will they cooperate with someone who didn’t align with their party until it became expedient for him? The other issue: It’s time for a woman. North America is the only continent on which a woman has never been elected to run a country. I would feel pride in having a woman president. Finally, think of the toddlers who will grow up with a woman president. I think witnessing that in their childhood will go a long way of achieving equality..

    Though I disagree with Ms. Murphy on some major issues, I appreciate her sincerity and her many efforts for women.

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