Letter to an Older Feminist

Letter to an Older Feminist

by Sanda Balaban

Dear Phyllis: As you know, I was born in 1972, the same year as your book Women and Madness. In the twenty-six years since the so-called Second Wave of feminism flooded the world, doors have been flung open, and young women of my generation have passed through them. And this, perhaps, is the problem that perplexes, even paralyzes too many of us: Where do we go when we can go anywhere, when the options and opportunities are countless? Or are they?

Today, feminists are divided into many factions. Too often, we have many causes, but no Cause. We have no unifying motivation for mobilization.

Existing in tandem with this freedom are insidious forces that operate to undermine the accomplishments of your generation. It seems there was backlash before many of us had even batted an eyelash. Coexisting with our feminist freedoms are restrictions on what we can be or do if we want to be “real women.”

Today, feminists are divided into many factions.Too often, we have many causes, but no Cause. We have no unifying motivation for mobilization.We become active only in opposition; that is, we are more likely to hit the streets to rally against than to advocate for. What if we were to come together to ask for — no, to demand — what we want: the elimination of the glass ceiling, the provision of adequate day care, the recognition of domestic partnerships (both gay and straight) etc., etc.? What if we could set aside our concerns about ourselves and our individual successes and come together as a community to construct the world we want to live in? Fear of flying was the metaphor-du-jour of some seventies feminists, but fear of failing seems to be the undoing of my generation. Even now, just a few years out of college, I fear that the revolutionary fire my peers ignited is being snuffed out, with only activist ashes left in our wake.

Where once we didn’t hesitate to question (and even to question the questions), now we are less vociferous. We are settling for, instead of struggling against. Or striving to create. Can it be that we feminist firestarters are ambivalent about our desires and abilities? How do we work toward our dreams when we have few models of what such radically reconfigured lives wIll look like? Too often, the only models society presents us with are Supermodels. Or Superwoman models. Or Anti-models.

In trying to create the kind of life that questions so many of the constructs society has historically set forth as “all-American ideals,” many former givens are called into question. Perhaps the most central question revolves around what we replace these rejected ideals with and how we gain recognition and respect for these alternative choices. For example, I (like many other “liberated liberals”) have no interest in ever marrying, and no fear of being alone. Instead of opting for a single romantic relationship, I prefer to immerse myself in a sea of significant relationships, which offer a variety of meaningful connections. Still, it’s sometimes hard to remain immune to others’ well-meaning “pity” about my unaffiliated status. When people ask, as people do, “Are you seeing anyone?” I reply, “Yes, I’m seeing many people.” And then I recount the recent accomplishments of my most beloved friends whose everyday victories make me extremely proud in the same way that a wife might extol her spouse’s virtues. While I experience utter fulfillment in my independence, I often feel like I’m fighting against a powerful cultural current.

I think what plagues me most is never knowing if I’m “right.” If I’m doing the “right” things, making the “right” choices. Not that there is a single, straightforward “right,” but I do think there is “wrong,” and so much of what I see in society — the savage inequalities between classes, races, genders, sexual orientations — seems more wrong than right. But in seeking out the right reconstructions, in listening for a different drummer and determining to move to her beat, how do I know if I’m engaging in the right dance? As feminists, how do we lead lives of “radical responsibility,” managing to stay true to ourselves while simultaneously serving others in worthwhile ways? How do we make necessary compromises without compromising ourselves and becoming complicit in the very complacency we currently criticize?

As a twenty-something feminist with the greatest admiration for my feminist foremothers, I frequently find myself frustrated by the lack of meaningful connections that are made and sustained across the generational lines. In a world where we barely take time to talk to one another, much less to write long letters and share seasoned secrets, I appreciate the overture of your letter, your willingness to open a dialogue with us young feminists. Too often, such conversations simply are not started, or squelched as soon as they are.

As products of our society (albeit critical ones), we are inevitably affected by the societal inclination to divide and dichotomize. As a result, unnatural separations and schisms are created among us, when our efforts would be better served by uniting our energies, insights, and experiences. We cannot afford this loss; we need every ally if we want to engage effectively in radical world-changing.

Strengthening feminist mentoring relationships is one important starting point for building intergenerational solidarity. What so many women of my generation feel need are mentors — wise, responsive women who will become our guides. But I fear we too often overlook the fact that mentoring is not a one-way street. Finding meaningful mentors entails that we be responsible mentees; reciprocity is a prerequisite if these are to be real relationships. We need to find ways of merging what we each have to offer, engaging in cooperative back-scratching instead of combative back-biting.

Feminist mentoring isn’t easy. It doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry and it doesn’t mean simply soaking up the attention of an experienced elder. It entails significant respect and responsiveness. It is an invitation to action. For me, the knowledge that someone I so admire believes in me (when I myself may feel skeptical about my abilities) is an inspiring impetus. Feeling connected to something larger than oneself to a movement like feminism that started before and will continue beyond our own time — is empowering.

The essential question facing my generation of feminists is this: How do we begin to understand that the issue is not that “we won’t go back,” but that we must go forward? How do we mobilize a movement in the midst of chronic complacency? Of course the fact that we’ve become so complacent is in many ways a sign of our success — many of us have achieved enough to be quite comfortable. But we must open the umbrella still wider, pulling our sisters, mothers, daughters up beside us and extending our individual and collective agency even further. We need to recognize that a significant fight remains if we are to level the field for everyone.

When you write that “Being a truth-teller and a warrior for justice is a great privilege; perhaps it is its own reward,” you offer me a reminder of the intrinsic satisfaction of the struggle, and the joy of knowing that others are engaged in similar efforts. I thank you for sharing your legacy with the next generation of female samurai.

Sanda Balaban, 25, is working toward a Masters degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.