Yesterday night, some of the debates often waged on the Internet — about what it means to be a feminist, about generational strife — got a real-life (meatspace?) airing. Despite good intentions, in instance, advantage Internet.
The occasion was a piece in More magazine profiling young feminists — and not questioning their existence — and the location was the 92nd Street Y in Tribeca. The moderators were More editor Lesley Jane Seymour and best-selling author Naomi Wolf.
Things had gotten off to a rocky start even before the event took place. One panelist, Jessica Valenti, had dropped out at the inclusion of Independent Women's Forum fellow Allison Kasic, writing on her blog, "I didn't want my presence to lend credibility to the false notion that people who work against women's rights are feminists... It's like debating someone who insists that the sky is red –- what does it accomplish besides lending credibility and valuable activist energy to a laughably false assertion?"
Not everyone agreed: Nation columnist Katha Pollitt wrote in a comment on Valenti's blog: "When feminists refuse to debate their opponents it makes the movement look small and frightened." And Valenti's Feministing colleague Courtney Martin had blogged about her reasons for staying on the panel, sounding ambivalent but saying, "I believe in dialogue across political borders."
The event itself felt a bit rehearsed, like someone was desperate to have sparks fly between the conservative and the liberals, Crossfire-style, and the panelists (wisely, it seemed) weren't quite willing to take the bait. The moderators somewhat defensively congratulated themselves for having a conservative on the panel — Seymour said in her welcome that it was because the magazine has readers all over the country and not just on the coast, and Wolf waxed on about how feminism could just as well have come out of libertarianism.
"It's very good not to take our own received 70s post-New-left Feminism as the only one that there is," Wolf said, addressing Kasic. "But let me ask you. I would think that a libertarian position would be pro-choice. Are you pro-choice?"
"Libertarians can be either," Kasic replied stoically. "Most libertarians are pro-choice. Look, I do policy work for two organizations that actively don't take a stance on abortion, so out of respect to them I don't talk about it publicly."
"Oh, come on!" protested Wolf.
"As I mentioned in the article, it's not a galvanizing issue for me," Kasic said.
"But speaking the truth is clearly a galvanizing issue for you," said Wolf. "Your truth."
At this point, Courtney Martin leaned into the microphone and said politely, "I have to throw in that you have said you are pro-life. Have you changed your stance on that?" (She cited an article Kasic wrote in The National Review, critiquing campus feminism and declaring that unlike them, "I care about all women, even those in the womb.")
Kasic conceded that she was "still pro life... [but] it's never been my big issue." She said she's more interested in fiscal conservatism and government spending than she is in social issues. "It's not my motivating issue. People have niches within the movement and that's not my niche."
Anyone hoping for cable news-style fireworks, or perhaps spirited intellectual engagement, would have to settle for that. There was even less drama when it came to discussing the generational conflicts that had precipitated the panel.
There were, however, some interesting points. Shelby Knox suggested that women are taught to fear aging and being unable to reproduce, and that pitting generations against each other served its own counterproductive purpose. "We spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel when we have those resources already around us with the women around us. We're not listening to the living women's history around us," she said. "And as long as we're focusing on the generational divide, we're not doing other things."
And Martin related one thing she had learned at the ripe old age of 30: "Sometimes I mistook personal clashes for movement fissures... I don't hear my guy friends, when they hate their boss, say, like, 'This is really a generational man issue.' So I wish sometimes we could get just get the narrative out of this whole broad thing and give women permission not to like each other. And that's okay."
Wolf, seeming disappointed in the absence of matricide — a concept she had jovially introduced in her opening — said at one point that one thing that seemed true of the younger generation was that they had better media training than hers did. But the truth is, we have better training for the nuanced expression of ideas on the Internet. This format has often been accused of ruining discourse altogether, but it's also the case that, as Knox said in the panel, it's our generation's form of consciousness-raising. There were people in the room that I've never or rarely interacted with in person, but whose thoughts and ideas had regularly challenged or enriched my perspectives. Sometimes, it was their readers, or our own, doing the challenging.
Actually, it wasn't a revolutionary idea to bring together "conservative feminists" and the alleged feminist bouncers on the left. These ideas are regularly engaged, in good faith and bad, online. Someone leaves a comment or writes on their own blog or tweets that you've elided something major — let's say, something outside your class or gender experience — and you have the next day or the next post to either respond or take that into account as judged necessary. Cloistering yourself is possible, but it's much more difficult to do that than say, writing for a monthly magazine with a three-month lead time, or a book over a year or two. Or reading them.
None of it is a replacement for other forms of engagement or action, including the vital discussions that don't happen in front of audiences, but it's done more to work out exclusions and contradictions in feminist conversation than anything I've seen. Not to mention brought new people into the discussion.
So when both Wolf and Seymour acted like panelist Lena Chen was speaking Greek when she used the word "cisgender," and Wolf couldn't believe Chen had found her women's studies class readings transphobic and a few women in the audience chimed in to back Chen up, it felt like a signal moment. I learned that word, and the concepts behind it, from the Internet. So here is my intergenerational message to Wolf. Dear Naomi: Google it.
Image Via 92y Flickr