gender, language, other topics, politics

The Truth About Youth


It used to be possible (and maybe it still is) to get an apron with the legend, “Kissin wears out. Cookin don’t.” I want to propose a modernization: “Excitement wears out. Pragmatism don’t.”


Both of these useful slogans arise out of the experience that comes of age, that is, wisdom. The young are all for kissin and excitement, and believe that if they can achieve them, they will have them forever. Older people know better, having discovered that what works is what is conducive to a pleasurable life; the purely fun stuff can be interspersed, but is not the point of the exercise.


This thought occurred to me as I was reading an article in the Sunday New York Times’ “Week in Review” by Jill Filipovic, “Hillary’s Office Politics.” In it Filipovic defends the young women supporting Bernie Sanders. Her point is that these women reject Clinton not because Clinton reminds them of their tedious old mothers, but rather because they have not lived long enough to come up against serious sexism and misogyny. Their youthful sexiness gets them past many obstacles, and others they have just not yet encountered. When they have been out in the workplace and the world for a while, and are no longer able to trade cuteness for goods and services, they will understand (says the author) what the Clinton candidacy is about. Hence older women favor Clinton.


Furthermore, the piece continues, it isn’t that the young have discarded feminism. They just see it differently and so do it differently.


It’s not that young women aren’t feminists, or don’t care about sexism. For college-age women — Mr. Sanders’s female base — sexism tends to be linked to sex. Young women see their clothing choices policed as being too “sexy,” their birth-control options determined by their university or their boss, their right to abortion debated, sexual assault rampant and often badly dealt with on campuses.

In response, they are taking action. They are abortion-clinic escorts, they are reforming campus policies on assault and for transgender students, they are leading the Black Lives Matter movement. Young women are neither ungrateful to their feminist foremothers nor complacent; rather, they are activists for feminist causes that reflect their needs.

This argument, that they are already performing feminism their way, seems valid but isn’t. When we were young and the women’s movement was getting underway, back in the Middle Triassic, women did all of those things, and much more, and we did it at least at the start without a vocabulary or a rhetoric or much of a literature — or, for that matter, a generation or two of older women who had led the way. And without what women of our generation did (think Title IX), those young women would find the professional dreams they cherish now seriously circumscribed.


But you can’t choose only one: old-time feminist causes or newfangled ones. They are not separate, but ultimately the same. We cannot solve the problems of sexual harassment and sexual discrimination and the others mentioned by Filipovic by themselves. In sexual matters, the double bind and the double standard are both in effect: a woman is damned if she is sexual (“slut”) and damned if she doesn’t (“bitch”); and if she does, and he does, she’s a slut and he’s a stud. The cure for this double-dip shaming lies not in slogans or marching with mattresses (though there’s nothing wrong with those things). The cure lies in deep-rooted institutional change in the way the world understands what women are. The problem is less one about changing actions and more about changing ideas.


The sex-linked problems Filipovic cites will continue to exist, no matter how much the young fight them, unless and until the symbolic-power status of women undergoes major change. Unless and until that happens, whatever women do of any kind will always be seen as less and worse, and women will be perceived as correctly vulnerable to whatever men want of them. The business of changing the universal symbolic code is daunting; the first thing that has to happen is to place a woman in the Oval Office chair occupied by the most symbolically important and symbolically powerful person in the world. That’s why having a woman president is so important.


We have accomplished a great deal since the early 1970s, but it would be a grave error to believe that the battles are over. Everything women have gained has been gained at great cost and through great courage; everything women have gained is vulnerable to backlash. That includes the sex-related misbehavior that younger women prefer to fight: the retrenchment on Roe has continued for a generation, but depending on what happens in the next election (and, not unconnected, who gets onto the Supreme Court) Roe might fall completely – or, with a Democratic president whose priorities are elsewhere, it might just go into quiet abeyance. Hobby Lobby shows that Griswold (the 1965 decision legalizing contraception) might be more vulnerable than we believe. Universities could soft-pedal their investigations of sexual harassment and rape on campus, given the right signals from Washington. Of course these issues are vitally important, but the battles cannot be fully and finally won assuming that they themselves are about what they superficially appear to be about. Sexual harassment, discrimination, interference with women’s bodily autonomy, denial of access to contraception, and all the rest all stem from a single perception: women have no power and deserve no power. All of the laws and actions that young women are fighting exist because they are ways of proving that women have no power and do not deserve power. So to effect real and permanent changes, that assumption must be smashed.


And then there are the non-sexual bad actions that have not engaged younger women’s attention, but must be dealt with before full equality in all areas exists: pay inequality, job discrimination, protectionist laws, and the endless condescension and other putdowns, all contributing to the psychological angst so many women feel – another form of Betty Friedan’s “problem that has no name.”


The statement that must be made is ultimately a symbolic one, yet it must be strong enough to lead to the real and literal end of mistreatment and discrimination listed above. Literal misbehavior can be successfully countered at least in part through equivalent symbolism. I think the most potent possible form that equivalent symbolism must take is the placing of a woman in the presidency in 2016, and that woman of course must be Hillary Clinton.


And it really does have to be HRC and it does have to be right now. If she is beaten, for the nomination or in the general election, those who really don’t want her to win – because they are terrified of what it would mean to equalize the power of women and men — have a perfect argument: no woman can win and we must win!


So it’s Hillary now or no woman ever. It is necessary to be pragmatic, to elect someone who has shown herself willing and able to take the incremental steps to bring about the greatest change in human history. Piece by piece, it isn’t exciting. But if we work toward it and succeed, it won’t wear out.


And that’s exciting!