Who is the Next Gloria Steinem?
When we think of our feminist foremothers, it’s easy to conjure a slightly embarrassing, if not face-palm worthy image of matronly ignorance.
They called our LGBT sisters the “lavender menace;” makeup was an oppressive tool of the patriarchy; and try as we might, we just can’t get them to understand that you text with your thumbs.
My mother is my hero – so much so that in seventh grade, I was a winner in a essay contest in which I wrote about her transition from stay-at-home mom back to the nursing career she left to raise me and my brother. Before I could spell “feminist,” she taught me what it meant to be a strong, free-thinking woman; and despite our oh-so-clichéd angsty teenager vs. stubborn mother arguments, she still teaches me every day.
Which makes me wonder from whom my fellow 20-somethings, dubbed the privileged, tech-savvy “millennials,” learned the skills we use to fight for equality almost a century after women gained the right to vote.
We, the feminists who know one day soon will have to face the question, “Can we have it all?” The feminists who 50 years after the release of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” can automatically answer the question, “Can women have a career outside the home?” with a resounding “No shit.”
We, the members of a movement we kinda-sorta refer to as Third Wave, but understand only a limp hand can salute a movement that lacks utter inclusivity.
What are we missing? Is it a goal, with a checkered flag waving at the end to signify victory? It’s true: “Equality” is a purpose akin to “happiness,” which everyone defines differently, and you can’t reach out and touch like a voting ballot.
Do we need the thrill of holding a sign at a protest? We still gather at Take Back the Night and Slut Walks to show solidarity. And it’s hard to deny our online organization, while existing in the virtual world, doesn’t affect change.
Rapper Rick Ross wrote about his “high class,” “fly as shit” lifestyle in the song “U.O.E.N.O,” including women only in the sense that he “Put Molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it/I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” One of his sponsors, Reebok, didn’t drop him of their own accord because of his obviously blasé attitude toward rape. They only ended their endorsement deal after two weeks of social media outrage led by online feminist group UltraViolet. Within 24 hours of posting an online petition calling for Reebok to kick Ross to the curb, UltraViolet had 50,000 signatures to prove to the athletic apparel company that music that perpetuates rape culture is not acceptable.
UltraViolet co-founders Nita Chaudhary and Shaunna Thomas know that our generation has a global reach far beyond what “The Feminine Mystique” or Ms. Magazine had for Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem. And maybe that’s just what we need.
No, not Twitter or Facebook: We need a Chaudhary or a Thomas. We need a leader.
Part of what is keeping the Third Wave and today’s feminists so disjointed could be the lack of a singular champion of our cause. One person with a bullhorn leading our virtual march, screaming, “This is who we are, this is what we demand, and we won’t fucking quit until we’re living in a changed world.”
In the PBS documentary series “MAKERS: Women Who Make America,” Rita Mae Brown, author, feminist and gay rights champion, recalls what – or who – helped make the Second Wave successful in its dissemination of knowledge: Gloria Steinem.
‘“She had all these media skills that were so superior to anything anybody else had. Plus she’s drop-dead gorgeous,” Brown says. “She transformed the movement; all of a sudden we had a face.”
A face who reported what went happened in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion in her 1963 essay, “A Bunny’s Tale.” A face to appear on talk shows and tell women that this movement was for everyone (whether or not it actually was is another issue entirely.) A face to start a publication for women, by women: Ms. Magazine, which discussed issues like domestic violence and female sexuality in a way never before brought to light for American women.
For thousands of women, Gloria Steinem was an unshaved, outspoken Statue of Women’s Liberty, a shining beacon saying, “Give Us Your Housewives, Your Secretaries/ Your Huddled Masses!”
“What about your lesbians, your sex workers/ Your women of color?” we ask today, as a petchulant child might stamp their foot in protest of an early curfew. “Where, Mom?”
Why hasn’t today’s feminism found its Gloria Steinem? An embodiment of the very different, but very real struggles the Third Wave? It isn’t as if we don’t have strong women with powerful messages to be our voice … or at least ONE of our voices.
The Web 2.0 Feminists
Today’s feminists were born to the sound of an AOL dial-up modem and learned to speak abbreviations as a second language. Everything we could ever want to know is but a Google search away, yet so many renounce the label of “feminist” because they don’t know what it means.
We have a lot to learn, and fortunately, a lot of women willing to teach. Take Laci Green, who runs a peer sex educator vlog called Sex+ At only 23-years-old, Laci runs a biweekly show featuring information on everything from masturbation to body positivity, all around five minutes in length. Her experience in high school and college level sex education through the University of California, Berkeley, make her a knowledgeable and relatable online personality, not the last stop on any quest for sexual knowledge.
There are also feminists looking to critique societal norms and help us think through a lens we might not have before. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist FrequencyFeminist Frequency fights through online misogyny and harassment to create webseries such as Tropes vs. Women and Video Games. Anita explores unchallenged ideas in male-dominated game creation, despite the near even number of men and women playing games, which utilize clichés such as the “damsel in distress” and feature female side characters in scantily-clad costumes. When the announcement of the “Tropes” webseries was met with threats of death and sexual assault, Anita led by example, not backing down from the attacks of those who felt threatened by her brazen questioning of authority, and was met with support in the form of monetary backers for her project.
But for every Anita Sarkeesian, we have a Jenna Marbles, making us laugh in one moment with her hilarious commentary on how girls watch TV, and cringe the next at her description of “slutty” girls, who have one-night stands and more sexual partners than she sees fit. In a recent New York Times article, Jenna recognized she was “crucified”(her words) online by the “feminist blogosphere” (the New York Times’ words) after publishing the video “Things I Don’t Understand About Girls Part 2: Slut Edition.” At least some good can come out of having the Internet as a platform for any and all voices: Vloggers Laci Green and Franchesca Ramsey made their own well-argued and emotional rebuttals on the harmful repercussions of slut shaming.
Laci makes no claim to be the spokesperson for sex positivity, which is good, because plenty of valid criticism on the way she, as a cisgender (a person who identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth correlating to their genitalia; for example, a person born with a vagina who identifies as a woman), white, and otherwise privileged, has a voice in issues where other individuals could better speak to personal experience. This arguments holds for almost any person with a recognized presence on the complex issues feminists discuss today.
The Feminist Authors
Ms. Magazine is still printing hard copies of printed word, sadly on issues that haven’t changed since its inception. The current issue of Ms. shows the silhouette of a wire hanger on hot pink background, with the headline, in all capital letters, “WITHOUT ACCESS, THERE IS NO CHOICE.”
With declining advertising revenue looming as the “death of journalism,” women like Arielle Loren have started magazines that can only be read on a laptop or tablet. Arielle’s Corset magazine is everything Cosmo isn’t:
It’s the place where women have their inner sexual thoughts heard, where men can be tender and express their sexual hang-ups, where LGBT readers can experience affirmation, where sex workers and human trafficking activists can strategize for dual-sided legislative protections, where people, in general, can speak and feel respected.
Issues on oral pleasure, kink and BDSM, and nudity, all featuring the latter in some form on their covers, educate and offer a multitude of voices the chance to speak out.
For an even younger audience – those same women who follow Katy Perry’s lead and dismiss “feminist” as an identity – we have Julie Zeilinger, who as a HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT, wrote “A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism is Not a Dirty Word,” which details the history of the women’s rights movement and why today’s texting, Tweeting teen should give a shit. Part of creating a legacy is about finding younger and younger candidates to, for lack of a better word, “groom” into capable leaders. The Second Wave left women running from slogans like “the personal is political,” and craving the sexuality their predecessors called oppressive, which could be a reason so much girl hate exists in our camps. When we teach our children (that includes all gender and sexual identities) that they can be whoever and do whatever they want when they grow up, we should also explain why equality, not tolerance, is necessary for society to grow
Jessica Valenti, author of “Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide To Why Feminism Matters,” was called the “poster girl of Third Wave feminism” by Salon. She is similar to Steinem in many ways: A beautiful media and tech-savvy white woman offered newspaper columns, books, blogs and speaking engagements to spread the gospel. And it’s difficult to complain when that voice is doing so much good for the movement.
What is arguable is that in 2013, the face of feminism is still confined to a cisgender, white, upper-middle class woman. The feminist movement is begging for leadership from more women of color; from the LGBTQIA spectrum, of all gender and sexuality identities; women without vaginas who have too long been without voices; women who aren’t the 1%.
And maybe it’s impossible for that to come from one voice. Maybe what makes the most sense for the Third Wave is to embrace a multitude of voices – even those with different and dissenting opinions – instead of pushing one voice to the front to speak for herself, those like her, and those different from her.
Gloria Steinem once said, “We need to remember across generations; that there is as much to learn as there is to teach.” We could stand to do a little of both.
Written by Lauren Slavin