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10 February 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 8:35am

We Seventies feminists can learn from the fourth wave, but the generation gap is nothing new

I’m a baby boomer, which means I could easily join in with cynical dismissals of millennials, but I don’t want to. I’m listening to them, and I think they’re great.

By Tracey Thorn

There’s a bit of bristling going on at the moment between younger and older feminists, sparked off by the recent #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, and some negative comments in response from Catherine Deneuve and Germaine Greer. I’ve seen older women who can’t quite understand why “Grace” described her experience with actor Aziz Ansari as the worst night of her life, and I’ve seen younger women asking that older generation to stand aside, or hold their tongues.

It’s always awkward seeing one group of women pitted against another, or casting doubt and aspersions upon each other. This feels like a pivotal moment, with women shouting “we’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it any more!” and I’ve no time for anyone who is tutting that in their day they were perfectly able to look after themselves. That stance comes out of shame and defensiveness, like saying  “smacking did me no harm”.

But this generation gap is nothing new – each succeeding wave of feminism has seen daughters confront their spiritual and political mothers. Or in some cases, their actual mothers. Back in 1995, Rebecca Walker, third-wave feminist and Alice Walker’s daughter, wrote, “Young Women feminists find themselves watching their speech and tone in their works so as not to upset their elder feminist mothers. There is a definite gap among feminists who consider themselves to be second wave and those who would label themselves as third wave.”

My feminism was formed in the late Seventies, when my punk heroines were the Raincoats and Poly Styrene, and then at university in the early Eighties, where we read Kate Millett, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. We were decidedly anti-glamour, fiercely polemical, and a bit puritanical. But then, we’d read Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, which had defined rape culture in 1975 as “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear”.

I found the generation who came after me in the Nineties quite discombobulating. In that fem lit class of mine, we’d thrown Story of O across the room, but the new, third-wave feminists seemed to be OK with strip clubs and porn. They were outspoken and less cowed, but also had to deal with the “new lad” culture. Did they sometimes act like the “cool girl” Gillian Flynn would later describe in Gone Girl, emulating the actions of boorish men in order to win male approval? I wasn’t sure. Maybe this was a new feminism and I was a prude. Maybe it was another backlash.

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My daughters, aged 20 now, are fourth wave. They formed a feminist club at school, went to hear Malala Yousafzai speak when they were 15, and having grown up online have had access to a whole world of knowledge and experiences. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve learnt things from them. Their generation seems instinctively more intersectional, and they taught me about terms such as non-binary, and neutral pronouns, before that conversation had reached a wider audience.

And yet, because of selfies and Instagram, they’re also more anxious than I was about appearance, and have to endure higher grooming and beauty standards. In the Seventies everyone was hairy and smelt a bit and it didn’t matter, but today’s demands seem exhaustingly rigorous.

I was dismayed to read a news item about young women not going for a smear test if they hadn’t waxed. I remember thinking it was a feminist rite of passage to go for an internal exam – to be unashamed about showing that part of your body to a doctor was a mark of liberation, akin to Greer’s suggestion that you taste your menstrual blood.

But that was then and this is now, and we are all still in it together. Sometimes I can’t quite remember which wave I am, or which generation I’m part of. I think I’m a baby boomer, which means I could easily join in with cynical dismissals of millennials, but I don’t want to. I’m listening to them, and I think they’re great. Maybe it’s soppy of me, but I’d rather put all the waves together and be an ocean. 

This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry