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26 February 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:45am

Kicking against our foremothers: does feminism have an ageism problem?

Older women and their concerns are often ignored by the media. Is the feminist movement guilty of the same thing?

By meghan murphy

In a culture that routinely erases and dismisses the older woman, what are we to make of a feminist movement that can be so contemptuous of our foremothers?

Stereotypes about second wave feminists abound — they are “stuck in the past,” “anti-sex,” dowdy, no-fun bra-burners. “That’s so second-wave” is not perceived as a compliment among many younger feminists. The problem with these sweeping accusations is not just that they are untrue, but that they are sexist.

Melissa Benn, author of What Should We Tell Our Daughters: The Pleasures and Pressures of Growing Up Female, sees a kind of ageism happening in feminism. “In general,” she says, “society does have a kind of horror of the older woman and I think feminism is no exception.”

In Western culture, a woman must be “fuckable” in order to be seen. This means she must be youthful, conventionally attractive, and sexualised. Older women – according to mainstream media – are not objectifiable, which renders them invisible.

Youth has always been overvalued in the media and pop culture. But we can see the way this applies specifically to women when we look, for example, at the fact that older men are given acting roles (and are still seen as handsome, virile, powerful men) well past middle age while women’s roles tend to disappear as they age, replaced by younger women.

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“You can’t help but notice that the media loves telegenic younger women,” Benn says. “Even if you look back over the history of feminism, beginning with the second wave, the media always made stars of attractive younger women – Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, Naomi Wolf…” This is not to say the women who end up in the spotlight aren’t doing important work, Benn points out, “but it is about what gets attention and what does not.”

What does popular feminism look like today, after all? It seems overly focused on the objectified female body – and not necessarily in a critical way. The notion that women are not sexual objects is something the second wave fuddyduddies say. Today, feminism is stripped down, on stage, and wearing nipple-tassles. Certainly the media’s love of the sexualised young female has something to do with the popularisation of “feminist pornography”, burlesque, pin-up girls, and the image of the empowered “happy hooker” which have become representative of today’s modern feminist.

“A woman who was 65 years old and wants to talk about her meagre pension or the fact that she is paid less than £10,000 a year would struggle to get the media attention of a young woman talking about pornography,” Benn says.

That the media ignores older women is not surprising, but it feels particularly disappointing when similar attitudes are replicated within the feminist movement.

Astrid Henry, the author of Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism, says that while there have always been generational tensions within feminism, “the third wave launched itself by either deliberately misconstruing the second wave and painting it with very broad strokes or simply not really knowing that much about the big range of what the second wave was and making statements that were factually false, as a result.”

And it feels as though the trend continues today. A lack of knowledge about the history of feminism, tied to a desire to build a platform or make a name for oneself can lead to a destructive form of “movement-building”.

“It’s easier to assert yourself on the political stage or as a writer if you say: ‘what I’m saying has never been said before – it’s all brand new,’” Henry says. “It’s a way of launching yourself – through critique of the past.”

These generational conflicts will be either more or less visible depending on the communities you engage with. Twitter, for example, is a place you are likely to find a lot of young feminists, new to the movement, eager to build a following. The vast majority of Twitter users are between the ages of 18-29, so if feels like dismissive attitudes towards the second wave are more common or commonly accepted there, it’s likely because they are.

I’ve argued before that “Twitter feminism” isn’t representative – in part because most older women I know and most women who were a part of the second wave aren’t on Twitter or don’t use it with any regularity. This undoubtedly has an impact on discourse if we are looking to social media as the place to understand what’s going on in feminism, as well as on the kinds of actions and ideas that gain traction.

While generational tensions were present in feminism long before the internet, the nature of the discourse has certainly been impacted by new mediums. “There’s a difference between politics where you’re sitting in a room together or on a march together and politics by social media where, in a sense, it can be consequence-free and very immediate,” says Benn. “More understanding is created by seeing peoples faces. It’s extremely easy to make caricatures of people if you don’t see them as full human beings,” she adds. In other words, it is easy to dehumanise an avatar.

The performative nature of Twitter, tied to a need to amass followers and retweets in order to make your voice heard, doesn’t encourage deep historical analysis. If you want to say something new and draw attention, it feels easier to throw out the past, stomp on it, and climb atop the heap, announcing “Out with the old! In with the feminist porn!”

In Sisterhood is Forever, Robin Morgan addresses young feminists, suggesting they actually read the work of the women they might dismiss as “anti-sex”, for example, rather than simply read about them.

To read about the history of the feminist movement and to study the work of women who came before you is time-consuming. “I can see why, if I was a blogger and not an academic whose job is to teach people about history and complicate simple understandings of things, it would be easier to just put something out there without feeling like a I had to read 400 books on it before I could do that,” says Henry. But the consequences of ignoring that work is that it can lead people to simplify history in a way that is inaccurate and play out the same battles over and over again.

“There has never been just one kind of feminism that ‘gets it right’ and many of the same debates have always been present,” Henry says. When people make sweeping generalisations about the second wave, it erases the reality, diversity, and work of women who were there, as well as the lasting and immense impact they had on society.

“It ignores the huge range of feminism and feminisms that have existed for ages,” Henry says. “I can see why it’s effective to simplify history in that way, if it serves your purpose, but I think we should be more critical of that.”

Beyond a kind of mass sharing of incorrect “facts” and generalisations, misrepresenting or ignoring older feminists can feel quite hurtful.

“I know a lot of second wave feminists who try tremendously hard and show touching enthusiasm for what younger women are doing,” Benn says. “And it can feel a bit sad because here are all these women in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, making visible and supporting what young women are doing and if that isn’t returned it’s almost mirroring the values of our society at large.”

Benn hopes younger women will speak out and say: “I think we need to listen to what older feminists have to say. Lets be intellectually, politically, humanly curious about our predecessors — what can we learn from them?”

“Political generosity is really important,” Benn says. “Diminishing each other is what wider society would like to see feminists do.”

Both Benn and Henry note that they know many young women who are interested in and work alongside older women, but in many spaces, a derisive attitude toward the second wave persists.

Morgan suggests that “the problem is with the mother-daughter model” – one that “is based on a patriarchal, hierarchical family.”

“If we must go to the family model,” she writes, “let’s do it as sisters.”

Meghan Murphy is a writer from Vancouver, B.C. Her website is Feminist Current. You can follow her on Twitter @meghanemurphy.