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Time Is a Feminist Issue

Six writers discuss the so-called generational divide in the #MeToo movement


In the months since the #MeToo movement began in October of last year, it has become an article of faith that there is a “generational divide” between older and younger feminists. “Compared to their elders,” The Chicago Tribune wrote, “younger women are seen as generally more willing to speak out about being sexually harassed, and bring a new set of expectations to their sexual relationships.” In a New York Times op-ed this week, Nona Willis Aronowitz put it this way: “Older critics, flattened into ‘Second Wave feminist has-beens,’ are accusing the movement of becoming increasingly anti-sex, anti-agency, and anti-nuance. Younger women, also known as ‘Twitter feminists,’ are accusing these critics of being bitter establishmentarians, unable to cede ground to fresher activists with new ideas.” These categories have become so entrenched that, in a Times roundtable discussion titled “The #MeToo Moment: Parsing the Generational Divide,” the paper’s senior gender correspondent Susan Chira made a sweeping statement about the political views of people her age:

I share my generation’s general unease with labeling sexual awkwardness sexual assault. It’s not only about refusing to see yourself as a victim, but also it’s a fundamental act of fairness.

It’s a tricky proposition to diagnose political views as symptoms of the year people were born. Is it really true that older women don’t believe in affirmative consent, and younger ones do? That the younger #MeToo activists are dangerous extremists playing with radical concepts, while their elders are more worried about fairness and reason and moderation? That there is some clear-cut divide that pits younger and older feminists against one another?

The idea that an older cohort of women is leading the charge against the younger generation’s allegedly excessive zeal has been bolstered by arguments from writers like Allison Benedikt, Katie Roiphe, Daphne Merkin, Masha Gessen, and Caitlin Flanagan. With strange bedfellows emerging like New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan and a collective of French women, it is little wonder the #MeToo backlash has become associated with an older generation.

But the so-called generational divide in the #MeToo debate is a pernicious fallacy. It is a form of essentialism that says all women of one age think one thing, all those of another think another. There are many established woman writers who do not believe what Katie Roiphe believes, and indeed have found her to be reactionary and foolish since the 1990s, when she first made her name as a skeptic of statistics on rape. Take, for example, Katha Pollitt’s excellent essay on this subject in The Nation. She points out that the “weird energy” that Roiphe sees roiling Twitter is a feeling she does not understand—it’s “#MeToo’s ‘Why should I have to put up with that?’” Roiphe mistakes that assertion of one’s rights for a sinister plot to silence one’s opponents.

Following the suspicion that the “generational divide” is a lie, I spoke to six writers about their feelings on time and feminism. Jia Tolentino is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Dayna Tortorici is the co-editor of n+1. Laura Miller co-founded Salon, and now writes about books for Slate. Margo Jefferson is a professor at the New School and a Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism. Vivian Gornick is a feminist author who has been publishing crucial work since the 1970s and now also teaches at the New School. Lynne Tillman is professor/writer in residence at the University at Albany and an influential writer of fiction, criticism, and essays.

As Margo Jefferson reminded me, talking only to journalists and writers guarantees a limited perspective on feminism. But speaking across generations has been a useful exercise in defining the role that feminism has played over time. At this moment, young women feel as if they are pushing their shoulders up against the door of history and trying to break it open. In some respects it is the same fight—the same door, the same resistance—that feminists have encountered for decades. But in other important ways the struggle has mutated, which is a function of the relationship between feminism and time itself.

Writing in the Times, Daphne Merkin asserted that requiring affirmative consent before sex “seems both innately clumsy and retrograde, like going back to the childhood game of ‘Mother, May I?’” When I asked Laura Miller about the idea that affirmative consent is foreign to women of a certain generation, she said, “That’s bullshit.” She noted that “the Antioch College program for affirmative consent was around when I was young,” referring to student demands that the college create guidelines that essentially amounted to what we now refer to as affirmative consent. The anti-PC brigade thought it was outrageous, and Antioch became the butt of late-night jokes on national television.

Indeed, the early 1990s uncannily foreshadowed the debates we are having today. Back then “we had an uprising of women,” Miller said, though “it was about date rape, as it was then called.” This was the era of Thelma & Louise. In reaction to a massive election of men to the United States Senate, the Academy Awards in 1993 decided on a theme about how women were coming into power. The Times reported that “as luminaries were seen entering the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the background music was ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls.’” In homage to women everywhere, Liza Minnelli performed a number called “Ladies Day.” “Women have taken a brand new position,” she sang. “They’ll pilot your plane or repair your transmission.”

Roiphe’s first book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus, came out that same year, and its role in the 1990s media cycle mirrored the role her article in Harper’s has played in the current debate. Certain editors in the 1990s promoted Roiphe to national prominence, and her arguments about overblown rape statistics came with her. In 2018, it is the dangers of Twitter Feminism that are gracing the cover of a national magazine, and no doubt a book on the subject is on the way. The dynamic is the same: Activism against sexual harassment makes strides, and the reactionary Times op-eds follow. Merkin and Roiphe are placed on one side of a line as if this were a “natural” division between generations, when in fact that division exists within generations.

Miller recalled working with a “bunch of Boomer men,” and having the same conversation we are having now regarding office sex. When they discussed Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, she recalls saying “He just shouldn’t be fooling around with interns. I just thought that was wrong.” Even though the erotic pull was mutual, “he should have just said no. ... For many young women, the power or status of older men has an erotic component, [but] it’s not a tragedy that some guy misses an opportunity to get laid, which was the way that people were treating it.”

“I think the generational nature of the conflict is overstated,” Dayna Tortorici told me. “It doesn’t explain why my feminist friends in their 60s do not agree with Daphne Merkin, or why Bari Weiss”—a thirty-something staffer at The New York Times who has been critical of #MeToo feminism—“does not agree with me.”

The supposed generational conflict is “a euphemism for political conflict between people who happen not to be the same age,” Tortorici said. The whole framework springs from a shaky premise—from “the fantasy of universal feminist solidarity,” she continued, “the idea that women can put aside their other commitments when they band together as women. But there are socialist feminists, anarchist feminists, radical feminists, liberal feminists, black feminists, womanists, Zionist feminists, conservative feminists, and so on, in every generation—and they will not agree.”

She added, “It’s easier to preserve the fantasy of total unity if you chalk up political differences to ‘waves’ or generations. In reality, every decade has feminists of diverging opinions and beliefs. And that’s actually OK. It does not discredit feminism.”

That pressure for feminists to speak universally, to speak perfectly, is itself sexist. The age that I am informs my experience of life, and of gender. But then I’m supposed to forget all about that when I discuss the state of feminism today, as if I’m speaking from some eternal plateau where “feminism” takes place. This tension between existing as a subject in history and writing as an observer of history is especially relevant for feminism, since women experience sexism in very age-specific ways. In part because of sexist prejudice against older women, older and younger women experience discrimination differently, which can affect their respective views of the problem. To people like Roiphe who say that sexual harassment is not the big deal that the Twitter Feminists claim, I want to shout back that they’ve just forgotten what it’s like.

Under the assumptions of the discourse, the public feminist has to speak universally, and so she cannot ever really write a feminism that is properly commensurate with her own lived experience. Jia Tolentino told me that “women are still wrestling with an artificially inescapable compulsion to be exemplary.” The conditions of publishing online exacerbate this pressure, because feminists have to “continually enact (and implicitly vindicate) their identity online.”

She recalled how, on the night before the Shitty Media Men spreadsheet became a public property, a terrible fatigue settled over her. “I was instantly ragged to the bone just imagining what would inevitably follow the spreadsheet, in which there would be an entire unbearable conversation about the mostly hypothetical nascent ethics of women trying to correct sexual misconduct rather than about the long-established practices of men engaging in that sexual misconduct in the first place.” That exhaustion was prescient, foreseeing the ways in which #MeToo feminists would be mischaracterized by bad-faith articles, then would be forced to painstakingly address them, all while tackling the original problems of sexual harassment and assault.

Tolentino expressed to me her frustration that the “women have gone too far” thinkpieces tend to “write about millennial feminists as this huge political liability and tie that thought up with ‘For, you see, it is complicated,’ when our conversation from the beginning, ‘as millennial feminists,’ has been ‘This is very complicated—what do we do?’”

The reactionary response to Twitter Feminism’s supposed fragility is equally misguided, and shows more cracks in the generational divide argument. “Katie Roiphe thinks that young women should toughen up at the office,” Tolentino pointed out, while “Bari Weiss (who is, of course, NOT OLD) says young women want everyone to be a victim.” The irony is that both these writers were “called garbage on Twitter and compared the events, respectively, to the Dreyfus Affair and the decline of civilization.” When Tolentino edited Jezebel, she was called garbage a thousand times in a thousand ways. Newly experiencing that onslaught, yet simultaneously writing about toughness and victimhood, “these writers seem so, so, so much more fragile than the younger women they flinch from.”

If time is moving in a spiral, one in which Katie Roiphe and the same conversations about workplace harassment come around every quarter-century, where does that leave our agency? The sheer repetitiveness of the struggle is disorienting. It suggests that we are trapped in history’s prison courtyard, walking in circles, rather than on a road that is actually going anywhere.

That feeling is a pain related to temporality. Time is an especially important structuring factor for feminism, as is history. Tortorici and I discussed our feelings towards the feminists valorized by our mothers’ generation. For her, it was Gloria Steinem. For me, Germaine Greer. As we sat and talked, I realized that there are two Germaine Greers. There’s the Greer who reminds me of my adored mom, whose books changed the way I thought as a young person. Then there’s the Germaine Greer whose works I have to take on their own terms as feminist texts. I want to write feminist texts too, so I’m obliged to criticize hers where I see them fail—in her arguments about trans women, for example. This requires that I forget certain things about myself.

With the authority of the longue durée, Vivian Gornick reframed my concerns about history repeating itself. This isn’t just the same conversation coming around again, she said. “What we said 40 years ago, when we framed sexual harassment as an issue, was exactly what’s being said now,” but back then those were revolutionary statements. “As with any revolutionary suggestion, it takes at least a generation for the thing to really take hold in peoples’ consciousness.”

The tension between the different “waves” and cohorts of feminists that Tortorici described can also be read as a manifestation of the glacial power of a “slow revolution,” said Gornick. Any “ordinary political revolution, if you look through history, takes a long time to come to fruition,” she said. “And there are endless moments along the road that represent a blot. You know, suddenly there’s an outburst, and then it gets quelled, and then we go on.”

This is one of those moments. It feels like a spiral, like 1993 happening all over again, as Miller observed. But that’s because, Gornick said, “each time around, of course, it’s the next generation that is responding to it.” She pushed back against Susan Chira’s use of the term “my generation.” For Gornick, “It isn’t their generation. It’s their moment in history.” That’s a crucial difference. When disagreeing feminists frame their differences as generational, they essentialize as permanent and biological something that is in fact simply in negotiation through time.

The feeling of living in a spiral does not contradict Gornick’s “slow revolution.” Instead, Gornick explained, it is history as déjà vu. Laura Miller is “old enough to indeed say, ‘My God, we’ve been through all this over and over again,’ but at the same time that is what history does. It feels like a spiral. It feels like over and over again.”

Gornick noted that feminists in the 1970s were reading Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was writing in 1870, and found her to be saying everything that they were saying. The sense of the spiral is simply the condition of living as a woman. “You know, what happened in the 1870s up to the 1920s, the struggle for suffrage, then it dies out, you know, makes that little bit of change and then women’s rights dies away. Then, 50 years later it resurfaces and then 50 years after that. It’s the longest revolution on record.”

The Daphne Merkins and Katie Roiphes of this world, Gornick told me, are just the reactionaries that accompany each of these explosive moments: “They don’t write from a position of understanding.” She was particularly disdainful of Merkin, who “actually had the nerve, in once piece, to repeat the words of women she knew who were thinking to themselves, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, grow up, this is the world.’ That was so shocking. That’s the kind of thing I heard as a girl.” That writers are repeating the lazy put-downs of half a century ago testifies to just how slow that revolution is.

“In a moment like this, everything under the sun is happening,” Gornick said. Flawed projects have unpredictable repercussions, and she decried the “viligante politics” that have led to recent firings. But, as Gornick said, “It’s a big, wide net, because this is what you call a revolutionary moment. It’s a moment in which, as the old left used to say, we see an idea whose time has come.” Of the men who have lost jobs, whose careers she mourns deeply and gravely, she echoed Tortorici’s much-quoted tweet: they’re suffering, but “they’re not death sentences, they’re just losing their jobs, you know? They’re not up against the firing squad.”

She added, “Life gets horribly complicated when a grievance of 100 years rises to the surface.”

Margo Jefferson began our conversation with the simple observation that “this generational divide” is “wildly overstated.” Like Miller, she feels déjà vu. And in turn she remembers that feeling from the Anita Hill episode: “This sense of this simultaneity of different generations.” Experiences with sexual harassment are not generationally specific, she said, “because every generation has had that. I mean, that just exists in this time zone we might call eternity.”

However, the way individuals process that experience is defined by “what they were taught within their particular social cultural history,” Jefferson said. It’s important that we acknowledge those experiences that might indeed be generational in nature. “I’m thinking of my mother and some of her friends,” Jefferson said, the attitude of, “‘I will be polite, and keep my distance.’”

None of us can escape the fact of when we were born in history. Harassment is eternal, but we are “marked,” in Jefferson’s word, by our time: “By it, and around it, and beneath it, and inside it.” She recalled a recent conversation with a younger friend of hers, whose reaction to the Harvey Weinstein survivors was both fury at their blind use of their “wiles” and knowledge that her own reaction was irrational. “I found that fascinating,” Jefferson said, “because it was so human.”

We all—according to age, experience, race, class—experience sexism differently. Part of the perniciousness of misogyny is that it warps to fit your conditions, and therefore divides you from other people. Harassment is “so shaded by all of these particulars,” Jefferson said. “That old phrase that the ‘personal is political’ ... seems to suggest that transition, and that liminal space.” Solidarity between different personal experiences is key to progress, but “sometimes it paralyzes us, sometimes it throws contradictions and dissent every which way.”

Jefferson agreed with Gornick that the revolution is very slow, citing as an example the abortion rights fight in the early 1970s, which turned out to be the beginning rather than the end of the struggle. “Many of us thought it was going to move much more quickly than it did.” So women end up fighting “literally the same battles…the same arguments.”

She added, “The reactionary nature of discrimination and oppression forces you back into a spiral. And it’s very hard intellectually, even emotionally, to get past that. Suddenly things that you were speaking of as memories, a historical memory, and as historical milestones of some sort—they become your present. Your present day muck and mire. With all sorts of young women that they see it as if for the first time. That’s a present, that’s a past, that’s both of you thinking about a future, but they’re all muddied up together.

If you are involved in multiple struggles, including those pertaining to class and race and sexuality, Jefferson said, you must work at different speeds. “One set of struggles can appear to make great progress for one group of the effect and not touch another. Or, barely touch another. We saw that with #MeToo movement,” Jefferson said, “pushing open to acknowledge a kind of solidarity with and call for a kind of public attention to working class women and sexual harassment.”

Since progress is glacial, and the revolution speeds up and slows down, the human lifespan becomes an emotional limit for activism. “It’s hard for human beings to acknowledge that we’re going to die before certain things happen, and life’s going to go on without us,” Jefferson said. “You have to be quite aware that [the struggle’s] going to, in some way or another, take all of your lifetime and then not be finished.”

When you’re “in the throes, in the muck,” as Jefferson said, it’s hard to remember the scale of history. Dailiness is its own struggle. Each day you have to get up in the morning, get on the subway, perhaps deal with some gross man, and then sit down at your desk and think about it all over again on some dissociative level of generality. Nobody’s understanding of the past is perfect. Nobody’s déjà vu is identical to another person’s. No one can leave time’s inexorable lava-flow to gain some Archimedean point outside it, to make our observations, to make the final analysis. Each young feminist now can only live up to her own historical moment.

The insistence on a generational divide makes that existential condition more painful. “How difficult can it be to understand?” Tortorici said. “Donald Trump is the president. The world is burning up. Everything is in crisis. If not now, when? Why not give it a go when you only have one life, one world, and you are told, every single day, that it might vanish before the end of your natural lifetime?” There’s no divide, only the struggle, through a single day and across centuries. “We all live on the level we live on,” Jefferson said. “It just keeps taking different forms, and you take it throughout the day and the night.”

As Lynne Tillman told me, the questions we are facing are enormous, system-wide: “everything obtains, all the differences, all the questions.” She added, “There is nothing simple about how to achieve an America with less rape, less sexual harassment, less sexual violence, and less hatred toward others and differences, generally. Women suffer from, and in, systemic sexual prejudice, which means that prejudice is invisible, and acceptable, or invisible because it’s acceptable. To protest what is invisible and socially acceptable makes anyone who does it, shows her fury, look foolish. She is fighting windmills, a female Don Quixote.”

But those questions are also deeply personal, Tillman said: “Right now I’m watching and listening to the high school students in Florida furiously and passionately protesting, and so right about the necessity of gun control. The personal is political, most obviously, when it is foregrounded as political. That’s what these students are showing, doing. It is not just about one individual’s experience, though each experienced it, that traumatic event. It is not just about Me, but about MeToo.”