Feminism in the Sandwich Generation

The other day my daughter asked me if I thought Winnie the Pooh was sexist because it only has one female character. I told her that any individual work only having one, or or even no, female characters wasn’t sexist. The problem is that the accepted canon of children’s literature doesn’t have equal representations of girls and women.

What I was thinking was, “Eleven seems a little young to be analyzing your childhood.”

Later, we were looking at pictures of her Halloween costume and I said, “I don’t know, you’re awfully pretty to be Ursula.” She said, “Mommy, Ursula is beautiful. She’s evil, but she’s beautiful, the two don’t have anything to do with each other.”

That night before bed she asked me if Peter Pan passed the Bechdel test. I said I wasn’t sure. She thought maybe Tiger Lilly and Tinkerbell might have some conversation at some point.

It was clear that she wanted the story she loves to pass so I told her, “You know honey, it’s not a real test, it’s just something a writer made up as a joke with a friend. Passing or not passing doesn’t make a work sexist or not sexist and just because a work is sexist doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it.”

The next day I heard Gloria Steinem interviewed on Fresh Air (or as my best friend and I like to say, FRESH! AIIIIIR!). In the part of the  interview that I heard, Steinem repeatedly talked about the apex of life being from 20-52. She said at 50 women were done raising their children and could return to the way they felt at 9 of 10, free of the constraints of gender.

I’m 46. When I am 50 my children will be 13 and 15. My friend is 50, her youngest child is 6. Most 50 and almost 50 and recently 50 year olds I know are still pretty much in the thick of things, raising children, looking for jobs, wondering what to wear, entering the dating market or working on their marriages.  We are nowhere near free of the constraints of gender.

Speaking of those marriages, Steinem’s newest book includes a passage that essentially says that liberal women who don’t support Hillary Clinton are unhappy with their own marriages.

I can not think of Steinem without thinking of my own second wave feminist mother, a few years younger than Steinem. As a teenager I often asked my mother questions such as, “Why did you get married so young if you weren’t ready?” and “Why did you change your name if you didn’t want to?” She would answer, “That’s just what people did.” And I remember, (with some shame now), throwing Gloria Steinem in her face. “Gloria Steinem didn’t get married.” “Jane Fonda didn’t change her name.”

I was a teenager and it was hard for a teenager in the 1980s being raised as a feminist to understand that if it is 1964 and you are 24 and smart, Jewish, and getting a PhD and your family has always worried how such a smart girl will get married and then a really good looking man who is also smart, Jewish, and getting a PhD asks you to marry him, even if you are not 100% sure that’s what you want, you say yes and you leave Columbia University and move to Indiana and finish grad school at IU. It is hard for a teenager to understand why an adult would spend years fuming at synagogue mail addressed to “Dr. and Mrs.” instead of calling the office and telling them to change it.

But as an adult, I understand. I understand that the world is not perfect and there are only so many battles any one person can wage at any one time. That sometimes you just go with the flow because it is exhausting to fight everything and if you want to live in a community and have friends you can not always fight the community.

So I appreciate Steinem. I appreciate the sacrifices she made. I appreciate that she did things differently. But she is out of touch and I bristle a little at the idea that she is still  trotted out as the voice of feminism. Steinem, and second wave feminism in general, has always faced accusations of ignoring non-middle class women, women of color, queer women. But at this point, Steinem doesn’t even know what’s up with white, middle-age, middle-class, liberal feminists, let alone anyone else.

This morning on BuzzFeed I saw an article entitled, “How to Be a Gender Queer Feminist.” The subtitle reads in part, “Feminism’s focus on women can be alienating to queer people and anyone questioning the gender binary.”

At the bottom of the article you can rate it. Some of your choices include, “Fresh,” “LOL,” “WTF,” a heart and a broken heart.

So on one side, there is my daughter, just learning what it means to look through a lens. On the other side is my mother’s generation, having at one point fought the status quo, now retreating in to their own version of it.

Along the way are today’s young campus feminists who want to censor syllabi and include trigger warnings on The Great Gatsby. Along the way is Nikki Minaj using Twitter to explain intersectionality to Taylor Swift.

I am also along the way, sitting in my work from home office, wondering if I should rate an article about questioning gender binaries with a heart or a broken heart. I am over here registering my kids for activities while I put in a load of wash and call my clients remembering when “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was a feminist anthem.

Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps eleven is not too young to begin analyzing. Apparently, it takes a while to get it figured out.

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