Explaining the Generation Debate: Envy, History or Feminism's Victories? (1)

Article excerpt

Abstract

The generation debate between baby-boomer feminists and their putative daughters, or 'baby busters', has been described as 'the most pressing task for the feminisms of our time, both inside and outside academe'. (2) This paper commences with a brief exploration of the generational debate in its historical and social context, primarily in Australia, to question why it entered the popular imagination in the 1990s. Following this review, the article analyses young Australian women's attitudes to feminism and the women's movement. The results come from an Australian Research Council-funded project conducted between 2000 and 2004. While young women are more positive about feminism than some of their older critics would suggest, there is a tendency to believe that feminism is no longer relevant or useful. To some extent, this can be explained by the younger generation's more sanguine conviction that men and women have achieved equal opportunities in contemporary Australia.

Introduction

   Feminism of the nineties, one is tempted to say, has taken to the
   couch. ... Confessional if not exactly prone, we narrate and
   periodize our past, stage and theorize our oedipal battles in part
   by writing about them. (3)

Over the last decade or so, cultural studies scholars and sociologists have busily discovered 'globalisation', 'the information super-highway', 'neo-liberalism', 'postmodernism', 'postfeminism' and 'the generation debate'. By contrast, historians remind us that, while we can never stand in the same river twice, sometimes our current bend appears uncannily familiar to a twist that occurred a generation or so upstream. From this historical viewpoint, the generation debate is a repeated trauma, daughters of feminists apparently finding it necessary to commit matricide before they have a space for their version of sexual relations and political activism. (4) In the 1920s, in Germany, Britain and the USA, the 'new women' rebelled against the 'old school of fighting feminists who wore flat heels and had very little feminine charm'. (5) Young feminists claimed their sexual independence while older feminists deplored younger women's lack of gratitude and/or their regression to adolescent sexuality in a new, fashionable body shape. Again in the 1960s, women's liberation refused the tag of 'feminism', associating it with an earlier generation of women activists, 'quaint relics with their fixations on peace, abstinence from alcohol and an obscure concept called rights', as Anne Summers recollects. (6) The contemporary generation debate is a curious echo of these earlier debates. The second-wave women's liberationists, the 'dowdy', 'politically correct', 'fully down-for-thefeministcause'7 parent generation are now pitched against the third wave of 'Gen-Xers', glamorous street-smart daughters whose 'girlie power' expresses sexiness, femininity, success at work and personal autonomy--without ever threatening men or drawing their backlash.

Following a review of the reasons which have been proffered for the contemporary generation debate, both changes internal to the history of the women's movement and occurring in society more widely, the article explores young Australian women's attitudes to feminism and the women's movement. While young women are more positive about feminism than some of their older critics would suggest, there is a tendency to believe that feminism is no longer relevant or useful. To some extent, this can be explained by the younger generation's more sanguine conviction that men and women have achieved equal opportunities in contemporary Australia.

Explaining the 'repetition trauma'

   [Girlies are] repeating a pattern as old as the patriarchy:
   rebelling against their mothers. (8)

In the United States, the generation debate was constructed around the 'media maids' of Naomi Wolf, Katie Roiphe and Rene Denfeld and their claims concerning 'power feminism' (Wolf) (9) or 'new feminism', as Natasha Walter in Britain named her contribution. …