This excerpt by Jennifer Baumgardner from the new anthology,Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists, shows that a feminist identity takes time to blossom, and the bumps along the way are assets, not roadblocks.
When I was a little girl, I played with Barbies religiously. They weren’t my only pastime—I also loved the Carol Burnett Show in reruns, singing Barbra Streisand songs at the top of my lungs, and roller-skating. But the summer of 1979, Barbie reigned supreme. I played Barbies every day with my next-door neighbor Missy, a green-eyed ten-year-old (I was nine), who was the daughter of the pastor at United Methodist. I had Malibu Barbie (who had straight hair with bangs, a tan, and suggestive lighter lines of paint where her bikini had blocked out the sun) and another Barbie with knee-length wavy hair and an opulent pink evening gown (Vegas Barbie? Barbie Dream girl?). Each day I would drag my Barbies, Barbie furnishings, Barbie car, and Barbie clothing over to Missy’s. We established a narrative: the Barbies were in college and living in dorms and were always getting ready to go out on dates. They were, while possibly not gay, bi-curious—in the sense that I often positioned them to lie on top of each other naked. Missy had a Ken, and that came to no good end. Pretty soon Malibu Barbie was pregnant and needed an abortion. She got pregnant many times and always chose to have an abortion. After all, she was in college, bisexual, and popular, and abortion was legal.
I was raised steeped in a brew, however weak at times, of feminist values and culture. It was a function of era (the ’70s) more than location (Fargo, North Dakota) or sensibility. During the Vietnam War protests and drug experiments of the 1960s, my parents were struggling young marrieds, scraping by while dad finished med school, and then we spent five years on army bases while my dad did his military service. Still, my mother read Ms. My father wanted everything for his three daughters that sons would have gotten. We talked about abortion and gay rights at the dinner table—the whole family was for both. My childhood was invisibly, but perceptibly, enhanced by Title IX, access to birth control and abortion, and a Free to Be . . . You and Me attitude. But these gifts from the women’s liberation movement weren’t clicks, as made famous by Jane O’Reilly’s 1971 “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth”—they didn’t unlock a feminist consciousness but rather enabled me to live a pretty unencumbered life without having to be part of a movement.
By college, 1988 to 1992, I was a passionate, if conflicted, feminist. I danced suggestively at frat parties in miniskirts with my friends while yelling, “Don’t look at me!” at any oglers. I read the big authors: Millett, Firestone, hooks, Dworkin, Anzaldua . . . still nothing had occurred that could be called a “click.” It was more like I was channeling clicks from another generation, nodding my head in agreement with “all men benefit from sexism” and “abortion on demand without apology!” I quoted from brilliant, outraged manifestos written by women who were raised in the 1950s, women for whom feminism landed like a meteor in their lives, initiating cataclysmic change in their carefully laid-out existences. I laughed ruefully about my preconsciousness nine-year-old self who played with Barbies, those pink, plastic, acceptable versions of womanhood.
By age twenty-one, the ideas of feminism thrilled me. The power the movement had put in so many women’s hands was palpable to me. Its recent history was so glamorous and righteous; I was sad I hadn’t been around for it. Jealous, even, of these revolutionized housewives and women who had been excluded from jobs, college, the military, leadership, and drinking at McSorley’s Ale House. Why couldn’t I be one of the women so angry about the high-dose pill (which caused blood clots and strokes and had been unethically tested on women in Puerto Rico with no attempt at informed consent) that I broke up the Senate Pill Hearings in 1970? By the time I was on the Pill, the hormones were at a mere fraction of the previous dose, safe for most intents and purposes.
But later, at the magazine where I worked after college, I got my click. It came not from desperately defying the housework my husband didn’t help me do (I was unmarried and dating a girl), nor from learning that men in my office were paid more for the same work (I worked at Ms. magazine; there were no men). My click came from having an ally—a peer raised in much the same brew as I had been—who could reflect back to me what I was experiencing as a feminist raised after the Second Wave. If not for her, would l have continued recognizing feminism only if it looked and sounded like the Second Wave? Would I have continued to pile on to my own generation, agreeing with sentences like, “young women are so much less radical” and “so much less pro-choice” and “there are no young leaders”?
The ally was Amy, also born in 1970, though in a different kind of family than mine. She was raised by a young single mom, had never met her father, and had attended boarding school and Barnard—a somewhat common trajectory in New York City, but exotic to my Midwestern perceptions. I worked at Ms. magazine in the editorial offices, total peon job; Amy worked down the hall in Gloria Steinem’s office.
At first, our interest in one another was social—two young colleagues, one new to the city, going out for a drink or to hear a band or dance at Nell’s. But within a few months, we began talking shop: she would tell me about the younger activists she had met at the women’s conference in Beijing or through her foundation, Third Wave, which at the time was basically Amy and a recipe file box with names of a few hundred donors and members. I would share my increasingly confident belief that women who were creating—not just critiquing—culture were the new generation of feminist leaders, the dearth of whom was so bemoaned at meetings we attended. Through Ms. (and my own initiative), I was meeting writers, musicians, and activists like Kathleen Hanna, Christina Kelly, Nomy Lamm, Ani DiFranco, Debbie Stoller, and Farai Chideya—women my age who were feminist and responding to their own era.
Those first heady conversations prompted an independent and accurate assessment of my own world and generation, its problems and potential solutions. Rather than my continuous repetition (and romanticizing) of feminist truths that came before me, I began to look in the mirror and see myself as important to feminism as the women who had come before me. I believe what I went through was entirely natural. When you are becoming radicalized, you gravitate to recognizably radical spaces. I felt I was a feminist but wasn’t totally secure in what that might mean in my life. Therefore, I pretended to have Andrea Dworkin’s life—or at least her perceptions, which were, of course, born of her personal and generational experiences.
At times, this new ability to see my own generation and myself as powerful and relevant felt like a betrayal of—or at least a conflict with—the Second Wave. I saw that social justice has a natural evolution to it. The ’60s were a Big Bang. Abortion was illegal, contraception was illegal, black people were actively barred from rights of citizenship and living with dignity—or even living. To be gay or trans was to live in secret or face constant ridicule and prejudice. Women were hostages to a single stray sperm, allowed to be educated without a chance to apply this education in meaningful work. People protested their exclusion and oppression—they kicked open doors, they demanded to be let in.
But that way of being activist is less germane today, when exclusion is not the primary oppression. The activism of today is subtler, intersectional, individual, and sensitive. It requires listening as much as, if not more than, speaking out. It is the activism of inhabiting a space once the door has been kicked open, warming up the chilly atmosphere, creating the infrastructure for a healthy social environment.
I now lecture widely across the country. I’ve visited more than 250 schools, and at every school there is this anxiety that students today are too apathetic, that they are not angry enough about the wars, about abortion rights, about capitalism. When I was in college, I felt that anxiety and made the exact same indictment of my generation—not being angry enough—a direct comparison with the ’60s. But I’ve come to realize that the job of each generation is to make sense of its own era—to understand what is needed now, when some past issues of oppression are not so in-your-face. To acknowledge that I am living a far more socially free and empowered life than my mother could have imagined at my age. I want to thank her and her generation for that groundwork, but more importantly I want to commit to inhabiting the rooms they helped to open up, and not continue banging loudly on a door that is unlocked.
Identifying that distinction between my generation’s feminism and that of the Second Wave was a critical step in seeing what truly ties the eras, generations, waves (whatever you want to call it) of feminism together. It’s this: it’s a relationship with an ally that enables you to inhabit your feminism. The women of the 1960s and 1970s talked at kitchen tables, held CR meetings, formed countless groups, but the main thing they did was reflect back each other’s experiences and call them, not just valid, but political.
One day in 1998, when Amy and I were in the middle of writing our first book together, we were struggling with our resistance to some earnest, feminist magazine targeted at girls. It might have been New Moon; it might have been Teen Voices. Something about it felt inauthentic to young girls today and imposed from another era—that whole aping of ’70s feminism we felt encouraged to do early in our consciousness. Then we began to talk about Barbie. It took a while to jog my memory, but I recalled how much fun I had imagining adult life via that doll—and how much my Barbie was expressing the changes wrought by feminism, from sexual freedom to legal abortion. Meanwhile, Amy recalled that she would take photos of her Barbies, as if they were her older siblings, filling out her female-only family of two. “I liked Barbie,” said Amy, decisively. “She was sort of a friend.”
“Yes,” I said and sent up to the gods of feminism a silent word of thanks for this ally with whom I reliably, and powerfully, clicked.
From the book Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2010.