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Feminists from 3 different generations talk #MeToo

“For my generation, we thought, ‘We can handle it.’”

Javier Zarracina/Vox

The backlash to the #MeToo movement has started, and some younger feminists are blaming the previous generation of feminists — the so-called second wave — for failing to appreciate its importance.

In a recent Jezebel piece, Stassa Edwards writes that “liberal second-wave feminists have been a prominent voice in bringing the reckoning to a premature conclusion, suffocating this deeply-needed cultural moment.” Edwards argues that second-wave feminist thinking, which first came to prominence in the 1960s and emphasized equal rights and representation for women, has been all too receptive to the idea that the #MeToo movement encourages an exaggerated sense of victimhood among young women.

Second-wave feminism mainly serves “well-to-do white women who were born with the ability to navigate power structures they inhabit, while leaving those very structures perfectly in place,” writes Edwards.

The first wave of feminists is typically defined as suffragettes, while the second wave in the 1960s and 970s included equal rights feminism, which focused on workplace equality and reproductive justice, as well as radical feminism that emphasized unconscious oppression. The third wave continued to fight for many of the same issues as the second wave, while embracing individual agency and intersectionality.

We invited three feminist thinkers to discuss whether and how generational differences are driving debate within the current movement.

Elizabeth Velez, 72, is a professor in the women’s and gender studies department at Georgetown University. She was joined by April Sizemore-Barber, 34, an assistant professor in the same department, and Hanna Chan, 20, a Georgetown undergraduate and women’s and gender studies major.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Elizabeth Velez

My coming to feminist consciousness was the civil rights movement. That movement superseded everything. But there was another moment that I can really pinpoint. My husband and I were both in school. We’re living in a five-floor walk up on the Upper West Side. It’s a summer day, and I have lugged some five pounds of laundry to the laundromat on Broadway. I lugged it all the way back, and there was my husband, sitting in a chair drinking iced tea, reading Proust.

I threw the laundry at him and I thought, “Wait a minute, what is this?”

Again, the civil rights movement was the most crucial, but for me, that was the moment when this idea that for women, there were still many issues that we had not addressed. That was the moment “the personal is political” spoke to me more than anything else did. Since then, my ideas have certainly evolved and changed. I would not necessarily define myself as a second-wave feminist at this point, but I would say that I have roots in second-wave feminism.

April Sizemore-Barber

I was raised as a feminist — there was no question. My parents were both very politically active and engaged in social justice issues. The feminism part has always been there but had very rarely been my focus. When I went to college, I suddenly was like, “I’m queer! Woo!” That identity kind of eclipsed a lot of other things — and an awareness around racial politics and intersectionality.

I feel like until I became a gender studies professor, feminism was my baseline politics, but not for myself, because I felt like in some ways, I opted out of gender. When I returned to feminism, it’s been through my students — just seeing how deeply they are affected by, for instance, Georgetown’s birth control issues, or sexual assault issues.

Hanna Chan

I guess looking back, I would probably say [I became a feminist in] high school. I didn’t have the language to articulate how I felt in terms of being both a girl in a pretty male-dominated space but also being a nonwhite girl in a very predominantly white space.

It was hard to understand why I felt the way I felt, like it didn’t really matter how smart I was because I was going to be judged for things that have nothing to do with my intellect. Also, beauty standards and lots of other pressures that for me seemed very tied to gender.

I took my first justice and peace studies class in college. While it wasn’t focused really on feminism the same way women and gender studies would be, it kind of gave me the language to articulate these feelings.

Elizabeth Velez

I’ve been teaching feminist theory for 20, 25 years. The students we have now are incredibly activist. As April was saying, they are so aware and feel all these restrictions. Before, I saw women come to Georgetown, take women’s and gender studies classes, and say, “I never thought about that.” It’s like their eyes were opening. Now I see more students like Hannah and April who come having already grappled with some of these issues.

Although we were recently discussing Harvey Weinstein during class, and a couple of students said something like, “Ugh. I’m a senior, I’m thinking about going to the professional world, and it never occurred to me that this kind of harassment would be a part of what I have to deal with.” In spite of the fact that our students are so much more conscious now, they haven’t thought so much that once they go to work, this will follow them. They will have to deal with it, and they need to start thinking about it now.

April Sizemore-Barber

I think our generation bought into this idea that things were better than they are. They are perhaps better.

Elizabeth Velez

They’re better.

April Sizemore-Barber

Yes, but I think the big fallout of the 2016 election has shown just how awful everything is — how superficial change has been and how quickly it can be turned over.

Hanna Chan

I think it’s better in some ways. But a lot of these things are just far more insidious because now it’s trendy to be progressive and liberal, whatever that means. There’s a lot of men — a lot of people — who will latch onto the buzzwords that have become mainstream, but they don’t know what they mean.

I was walking home from the library one Friday night. I got stuck behind these two boys who were drunk. One guy was saying something like, “I was talking to this girl at the club. She wasn’t even that pretty, but I grabbed her, and she still didn’t want to hang out with me.” I was thinking, “I can’t believe this. This is so not okay.”

Once they turned around and saw me, they stopped talking. I was like, “It’s not like I didn’t hear you.” There’s a lot of boys my age who know the language now to convince someone that they believe in gender equality and that they respect women — but it doesn’t translate into their actions. That, for me, was really scary. It’s become so trendy that there’s an ability to fake it.

Elizabeth Velez

I read that Jezebel article saying that second-wave feminists are really the problem when it comes to responding negatively to #MeToo. Here’s what I would say to that: Sexual assault, rape — all those things have, so far, been defined by men. If you even look at the definition of rape, it includes penetration in some states. There are some states where it actually includes ejaculation. You’re like, “Wait a minute, who wrote that? Oh, somebody who ejaculates.”

Now, for the first time, women are trying to define these things. What is harassment? What is assault? What counts? I feel like with “Grace,” the girl in the Aziz Ansari story, she’s trying to figure that out for herself. It was the same with the girl in [the New Yorker short story] “Cat Person.” So for any of us to jump in and say, “You’re just a little snowflake. You’re just a little victim,” is not helpful at all. Let us talk about this. Let us think about this.

April Sizemore-Barber

I think a lot of women are very invested in showing how strong they are, and showing that they aren’t weak.

Elizabeth Velez

My generation especially. I have friends close to my age who would certainly call themselves feminist who think that Grace should have known what she wanted, or that she shouldn’t have taken her clothes off. Not all of them, but I would say the majority of them feel this way. I feel like it does come back to this idea that with my generation, we went through a lot of this stuff, and some of us are like, “We’re going to be able to hang with the boys at work, and we’re going to prove how strong we are.”

I remember I was at a meeting years ago talking about something important, and somebody who was my [male] superior looked over and said something like, “My god, I never noticed how gorgeous your legs are.” I’m like, “Excuse me? What are you talking about?” and then went on with the subject. Then I’m proud of myself because I didn’t cause a fuss. Still, there’s a part of me that thinks, “He doesn’t care about my work.”

For my generation, we thought, “We can do this. We can get past this stuff. We can handle it.” I think that was a mistake. Some of my older friends, they don’t understand that asking this particular generation to do the same thing is wrong. This generation — you guys are our hope right now. You’re gonna figure it out, and I want to be there with you when you figure it out.

April Sizemore-Barber

Hanna, do you feel like people your age are more supportive of Grace [the subject of the Aziz Ansari piece]?

Hanna Chan

It really depends on who you talk to. Painting things as a generational issue is also just inaccurate and kind of lazy. Every generation has key tenets. I would say my feminism is postcolonial and there’s intersectional and all these things, but that doesn’t mean Professor Velez’s isn’t. It varies individual to individual.

In general, though, if I talk with my apartment mates, they’re all going to be like, “[What Ansari did] was sexual assault.” But because we’re still in college right now, we’re still developing these ideas.

April Sizemore-Barber

College spaces are one of the few that have been really leading the way about this discussion on consent. You’re required now to discuss consent. It is, I think, maybe overdone to a degree because it obviously isn’t always catching on. People can, once again, talk the talk but not walk the walk in a real situation.

Hanna Chan

People take it to heart at different levels. I think it’s good that there’s baseline programming [on the subject of consent]. I think there is a basic awareness among my generation that you need to, at some point, figure out what consent is.

Elizabeth Velez

I think in the same way that sexual assault, sexual harassment, and rape have all been defined by men, women’s sexuality has, so far, been defined by men. We know what sex was for the girl in “Cat Person,” and for Grace — it seemed, to me, fairly male-driven.

Men have said, this is what sex is: Sex is this particular act, and it’s over when they’re done. Then girls learn to accommodate what boys want. I’m hoping for younger women that’s not true anymore.

April Sizemore-Barber

But for many women, accommodation is seen as strength. Women say, “We’re strong women. We can put up with it.”

Hanna Chan

Pleasure is liberating, but it becomes a superiority complex. If you know how to pleasure a man, as a heterosexual woman, and you can do that despite whatever circumstance, that means you’re a powerful person. The fact that the idea of pleasure just still goes back to accommodating.

Elizabeth Velez

The #MeToo movement is getting so much media attention, but I think the best conversations we’re having are actually ones like these. And what the media wants is absolutes, and the media also loves to see feminists and feminists of different generations attacking one another.

April Sizemore-Barber

I feel the second- and third-wave metaphor for feminism — and the wave periodization — is really useful from a historical standpoint and to think about how we got here. But I don’t think we are in a wave right now. I think that now feminism is inherently intersectional feminism — we are in a place of multiple feminisms.

One thing I have been grappling with is how we can hold nuance, how we can be generous to each other while still being critical and rigorous. When we think about call-out culture, I think it has been incredibly generative in evening out the playing field so that you don’t have to be Gwyneth Paltrow to be believed. But I think the danger of that is that everybody has to be perfect. I think we tend to tear each other apart as feminists, as critical thinkers, as left-leaning people, or just as people. It becomes an echo chamber of “woke.”

But at the same time, especially in sexuality studies, we have to understand that what we’re dealing with are not hypotheticals. You cannot be the devil’s advocate about someone’s dignity and someone’s humanity because these are such personal things. Those who don’t have the experience [of sexual assault or harassment], need to know this is very much real.

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