WHAT'S THE NEW FACE OF FEMINISM? Generations of Feminists May Be Feeling a 'Digital Divide' over the Role of Technology in Bringing about Change

Article excerpt

Byline: SARA CONRAD

When it came time for The National Organization for Women (NOW) to elect a new president last month, a tension simmering at the core of the feminist movement suddenly came bubbling up: What should 21st century feminism look like?

On one side, you had 56-year-old Terry O'Neill, who was running for the NOW presidency on her experience and grass-roots plan to help further the cause of women's equality. On the other, you had 33-year-old Latifa Lyles, who would be the youngest woman to lead NOW and as an African-American, would have given the organization what many felt was some much needed diversity.

The campaign was fiercely fought and churned emotions among NOW members and feminist nonmembers alike. A generational divide within the movement was exposed, but it belied the common goals the two sides shared. Both candidates promised to work for pay equity, reproductive choice, fair health care and eliminating violence against women.

So why did the election results -- O'Neill won a very close contest -- send the blogosphere into a buzz, seemingly dividing younger and older feminists by candidate preference?

Mostly it has to do with communication styles and organizational preferences. Lyles, like many of her contemporaries, thinks there is a digital divide between generations of feminists. O'Neill acknowledges the usefulness of technology, but thinks in order to enact true change in communities one should have "face-to-face meetings."

The real heart of the debate is how best to effect change.

EFFECTING CHANGE

The feminist issues are much the same as they were when the battles first began in the '60s. But the differences over how to organize and communicate within NOW might be a microcosm of feminists in the U.S. at large. They are differing visions in the approach to activism.

"We need to use technology a whole lot more as a movement, because there are people that are already there online who are part of the movement," Lyles said.

The president of Florida NOW, 28-year-old Jessica McCaffrey, said older women often ask her why young women aren't involved in the feminist movement.

"I say, we are. You don't see us because we're not where they are -- online," she said.

McCaffrey said that NOW was once the only organized group for feminists, but today women have access to a large number of feminist organizations, such as feministing.com and The Feminist Majority.

"These young women are already in the feminist movement," said McCaffrey. "If we want them in the institution and we want them to contribute, we should not just tell them what we want them to do.

"The criticism from older women is 'you need to act after the discussion' and the younger generation is saying 'engage us.' "

Jenni Smith, who is 34 years old and the president of Mississippi NOW, said the Web has changed how younger feminists push the agenda and has expanded the marketplace of ideas.

"The blogosphere is giving people a whole lot of access to a whole lot of opinions which I think is good," she said "It's so much better to not be fed one thing, to have another outlook. And the best thing is to get a shot at seeing things from all sides."

THE DEBATE

Both sides of the divide see the value of what the other side is doing. …