By Micah Clark
I will never forget what a female community leader and women’s rights advocate told me at a leadership retreat I attended just this May. It reminded me just how much gender traditionalism meant to second-wave feminists and how little value millennial women contributed in their eyes.
“I believe God gave men authority and women influence.”
Coming from the mouth of an experienced advocate, I was alarmed that such an inspirational woman would say something so outdated to a large group of young women looking to our elders for inspiration. In the same short time with us, this woman demeaned selfie-culture, women who have multiple sexual partners, and sugar coated it with good intentions. Many bought into the leader’s kind words, but it hadn’t sunk in that she had backhanded every woman in the room, at all women’s leadership retreat.
After the time with her, I learned several attendees weren’t happy with her response. Why was taking a selfie so bad? What’s wrong with being sexually liberal? And if that’s what God gives people on the binary, what do trans and gender nonconforming folks get?
When you attend a women’s college in the South, it’s a bubble. You meet inspiring leaders, strong women, passionate educators and advocates, and you get charmed by the hard work all the women at your school do. For a moment, I believed all feminists were there to uplift the future of young women leaders.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Though, I cannot say I’m surprised. Growing up as a person designated female at birth (DFAB), my body, actions, and words were always policed. Love yourself, but not too much. Wear what’s comfortable, but don’t let too much skin show. Speak your mind, but not like that. And too often, those enforcing the gendered rules are your fellow women.
When we police the modern lives of young women in America, we are sending them messages that they aren’t good enough. This constant bombardment of negative messages brings down a woman’s self-esteem and confidence in her abilities as a leader in her community.
In a world that is already so violent against young women, young women do not need to be discounted by their fellow women. They are already being raised in a world where Donald Trump, a man who has openly spoken about sexually assaulting women, is president. The most powerful person in the United States is someone who speaks freely of hurting women.
And yet, we still drive wedges between the second and third wave of feminism. Previous idols like Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton are beloved, but too often do not reach young feminists. This generation wants more women of color, trans women, LGBTQ+ women, disabled women, and women of religious backgrounds outside of Christianity. We want to see women who reflect our population leading the way for change. Instead, we get told things should change when we change our attitudes and how we dress.
What many second-wave feminists don’t understand is that you cannot pass the torch of historical social change if you’re always complaining about who will carry on the legacy. You cannot raise strong young women who are empowered feminists while saying we need to stop being ourselves and participating in our own culture. You are discounting their agencies as voters and leaders when you police their very beings. Selfies, fashion, sexual practices, styles of friendship and family structures, and the ways we show interest and affection are all cultural and they change with each generation. What’s always surprising to the previous generation is that things have and always will change. Even now, as I interact with my little brother’s friends (all around 11 and 13), I feel shocked by their behavior and differences from when I was a kid. But you know what? Move on with my life because I’ve accepted that they are shaping their future culture and norms. This is completely normal and will no way disavow America’s moral structure. That will be the task of the current president and his administration.
What I call on second wave feminist to do is this: check yourself. How can we show young women that feminism is a working, powerful social movement if we constantly act as gatekeepers? We cannot police a young woman’s participation in her own modern culture and demonize it as counterproductive to feminism. To do so is to put the same restrictive boundaries on millennial women as were put upon second wave feminists in their youth. We have to trust that young millennial women will carry on the movement with pride, strength, and commitment just as the generations before us have. Feminism is founded on a woman’s right to chose. Let women chose to take selfies and dress as they’d please. Let women be as sexual liberal or conservative as they’d prefer. Let young women live.
Micah Clark is a freelance writer, full time Social Work/Sociology student, and perpetual political commentator. When not shouting from a soap box, they are found sitting in the aisles of bookstores reading novels, comic books, and magazines. As a dfab non-binary trans person, Micah strives to educate people on the struggles and histories of the trans community. They are a reproductive rights, education rights, and economic justice activist. Their vision is a future where all communities in need have access to health care, food security, and education. A future without people emboldened to commit violence against innocent marginalized groups.