Being A Young Feminist Can Turn A Girl Old

A therapist told me to try a women’s studies class, so I did that first semester of my freshman year. I still remember exactly what I was wearing that September morning in 1998, not because it was a cute outfit but because I was obsessed with my legs. The therapist had been treating me for an eating disorder that nearly killed me a few months before.

In this context, going to college was a luxury; hell, living was a luxury. I enrolled in Women’s Studies 101 to check a box. Instead a new world opened. I don’t say this hyperbolically — feminism helped save my life. I was able through relapses and hospitalizations and treatment to stabilize and beat down the anorexia. But what truly saved my life was making the connection that eating disorders are just one manifestation of a deeply sexist world that denigrates and trivializes women, weaponizes our bodies against us, and then tells us it’s all our fucking fault anyway.

With its radical messages of dignity, equality, and honesty, my feminism made it impossible for me to go back to the dark side. How the light went on! I dove headfirst into all the women writers. Kate Chopin, Sylvia Plath, Alexandra Kollontai, Shulamith Firestone, Valerie Solanis. Judith Butler. I told myself I wanted to be a women’s studies professor someday. Until I realized that a lot of this postmodern stuff was hard to read, and I could have an obscure argument in an obscure language with about three other people who maybe understood me, or I could try to work for justice out in the real world.

So this is the ironic thing. I had a series of proto-feminist moments (making GOTV calls for the woman who could have been Minnesota’s first woman senator when I was 11, writing about gender discrimination in the SAT for the school newspaper, the obsession with the Indigo Girls) well before I started taking women’s studies courses in college. But it wasn’t until I left the classroom and went into the feminist non-profit world that I became a “young feminist.” Even if by that time I was 21. Not 18. Or 11.

I’m 35 and I still get called “young feminist” in those contexts on occasion today, although that says far more about those contexts than my age. If 35 is young, it’s only to reflect our societal fears of identifying as old, and our societal inability to give our young people career opportunities with growth potential rather than a pile of student debt that’s damn near impossible for so many to repay. The weird thing is that the term young feminist exists at all.

This label, like anything that impacts a person’s identity, is complicated for me. Sometimes I love the term — you know, it is true that people will have different views of what equality will look like as they grow up in different generations. If all goes well, after all, what a previous generation of feminists fought for should be appallingly conservative to the next generation.

And yet sometimes I think the concept of a young feminist is total horse shit.  I identified as a feminist a few years before feminist non-profits taught me to identify as a young feminist. Just what was the point of segregating us?

I bristle every single time I hear someone say that young women need to be educated so they don’t take the freedoms they’ve gained for granted. First because not every woman has gained the freedoms we’re told feminism has won. But also and especially because it’s so insulting. Talking down to young women is anti-feminist. Presuming young women are not capable of identifying and articulating and fighting for what they need to live as full human beings is anti-feminist. Treating young women as sidekicks in a women’s movement is anti-feminist, particularly in a legislative context where older white men are obsessed with controlling and restricting younger women’s bodies, and demonizing those who dare to have sex and live their lives anyway.

And yet it happens all the time. Today was the latest entry with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) expressing regret over the “complacency” of young women born after Roe v. Wade (1973, how young!). Blaming apathetic young women for the declining state of abortion access has been something of a cottage industry hovering over the pro-choice movement ever since I’ve been around, but in the last few years the situation has gotten markedly better, in large part due to those with less power having the ability to present alternative views on social media. To my knowledge there wasn’t a similar mechanism to democratize voices between activists and the leaders making the big bucks before then.

You know, we should push back every single time someone ‘on our side’ tells us young women are apathetic about feminism or abortion or any number of concerns that impact our lives. We should push back that young men are somehow not included in the group who should take equal responsibility to work toward progress. But frankly I’m getting old (a privilege for which I feel blessed, not shamed) and sometimes I wonder if we will ever find that moment where we won’t have to fight for the full recognition of young people in a women’s movement that has a tendency to treat them as helpmeets or hire them as unpaid interns.

There are approximately two gray hairs on my head now, and I swear, at least half of them came from a vocal minority of older feminists who have been patronizing or worse about my work.

8 thoughts on “Being A Young Feminist Can Turn A Girl Old

  1. Stephanie

    And even in a movement as driven toward change as feminism (if it can really be called a single movement), I find it hard to deny that looking down on younger feminists might be a product of fear or confusion–that younger feminists might not be fighting for the exact same things as their predecessors.

  2. I don’t mind being called young. I don’t mind someone asking me for identification at the check out counter. There shouldn’t be divisions between young and old feminists but it can be helpful to put into context how different types of feminists have evolved and how they went through that process to get to a place where they identify themselves as being a xyz feminist. There will always be prejudice and other opinions. What matters in getting your opinion across and not letting it get to you too much. I do understand your point but I think the best way to handle it is take it as a compliment – that will really rattle people. I am part of a more out spoken and public new wave feminists who believes in pro choice . I say publice because I am not saying that fememinnst from previous decades didn’t believe in abortion but they didn’t have any rights and opinions and would be shunned for publicising their thoughts.

  3. Barb Miller

    I am a 63-year-old feminist who has used the term “young feminist” never realizing any of the points raised in your insightful article. I have meant to refer to the feminists who will carry on when I’m no longer here. It’s very very important for me to know that feminist struggles will move forward because, otherwise, much of my life’s work will otherwise seem without impact. I’ve meant to support younger women, who I’ve found appreciative of shared stories about the past, pointing out past strategic errors, like with the ERA campaign, and the joy of victories with firsthand accounts. The support and sharing, of course, goes both ways. I’m going to really think about the content of your article. I so much appreciate your sharing. Please just know that, sometimes, the term “young feminist” is intended as a reference to respectful intergenerational sharing. I love being the “older feminist”, but will admit that those in their 80’s give me a dirty look sometimes when I say that.

  4. I don’t for a minute question your experience of the way the term can be used. But as an old feminist, I’m just grateful that a new generation has picked up the banners. So I second what Barb Miller said.

  5. veronica

    I am now old (57), but when I was a university student I would bristle if anyone had said I was a feminist. Until the day I saw a NFB documentary. It was older women, scientists, engineers, artists etc telling their stories, the discrimination they faced, the obstacles they had to overcome to attain the things that I took for granted; an education, a job, a credit card in my name that belonged to me. I was INCENSED to think that someone, somewhere would think that I didn’t merit my own credit card in my own name!!! It was a lightbulb moment for me. I realized all the things I had been taking for granted, being on the pill, having my own bank account etc, was courtesy of the feminists that had come before me. From that moment on, I was PROUD to call myself a feminist.

    While you might not have needed the lesson, there were/are other women like me, that still need to be ‘woke’.

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