There’s nothing like a sudden, gusty Southern spring storm to let me know that I must be getting older, okay, solidly middle-aged (that’s as much as any Baby Boomer will admit to).
The gale-force Nor’easter winds which came up so suddenly last week toppled a hundred-year-old tree in a yard around the corner, completely crushing the new white picket fence across the street and buckling the concrete. And in the process, downing telephone and cable wires, leaving them in a heap like spaghetti noodles. As I wrote this sermon, we were still without television reception, and for some maddening reason, while my husband’s home office phone had long since been restored, I was still without phone service. And without access to my e-mail or the Internet on my home computer. Leaving me with the specter of a hundred or more urgent and unanswerable messages.
Which led me to marvel at the changes that have taken place technologically since I was a child, even a younger adult. Some good and some not so good. Because, while we could not watch television without cable hook-up because we no longer have rabbit ears — antennas that give us our reception to network programming — we could rent movies and pop them in a VCR while we waited for our cable service to come back on. And while I could not pick up my regular home phone and make or receive calls, I have a cell phone now that lets me make calls anywhere and a voice mail service that at least takes messages for people who cannot reach me otherwise. And I could go to the town library, which seems to have more computers than books now, and access my e-mail by a roundabout way, a service available to me through the bar code in my new plastic library card.
Cable television, home computers, cell phones, e-mail, libraries with internet service — these are things that have come along and entered the American mainstream way of life since I grew up, and have arguably changed the way we live our daily lives: work, socialize, and even think.
When my oldest children — who are now in their late twenties — were young, I used to tell them that things really had not changed very much since I was a kid. We were, after all, the first television generation, even though the sets our parents proudly purchased were huge and black and white and only showed a handful of programs. We had fast food hamburger drive-ins and interstate freeways and even diet soda.
We had top-forty rock and roll and polio shots and we had all, always had fluoride in the water, the invisible chemical that helps prevent tooth decay.
Or at least so I assumed. When my son went to China as a college student and came back with a lot of wonderful impressions but some not so wonderful, like the rotten condition of even young people’s teeth because they did not have fluoride in the water, I assured him smugly that this additive in the water was something we had taken care of a long time ago.
Not so, I have come to learn in my research for this morning’s message. It was not until the 1950s in this country when a few communities began adding fluoride to their drinking water. Even despite the proven benefits, whether there is fluoride in a water system has remained a strictly local decision, with six out of 10 communities who have put the decision to a vote, voting against it, many people feeling that the dangers outweigh the benefits, and furthermore, they don’t want the government telling them how to run their lives, including what is or is not healthy for them.
It’s a matter of personal choice, opponents argue, and besides, once you legislate fluoride in the water, who knows what other kinds of dubious and radical changes might be approved and forced on people.
Today, more than 50 years after the scientific proof that fluoride greatly improves dental health and that the benefit to society far outweighs the risks, many places still have not permitted this additive. And worldwide, not even half the people have had the benefit of this advance, especially in poorer, developing countries.
Now what, you might be asking, does a discourse on fluoridated water have to do with a discussion of feminism, religious or secular?
Metaphorically, a great deal, because for a generation of young women, according to self-described Third Wave feminist authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, on a personal level, feminism, for their generation, is everywhere, in the water, like fluoride. In many very basic ways, these young women have never lived a day without feminism, as I have never lived a day without television, or without the fluoride that has kept my teeth and those of my sons and daughter stronger and less diseased.
And, like fluoride in the water, everywhere and invisible, the lives they are leading as women, the days they are living with feminism, did not happen simply and effortlessly. It wasn’t always so, and getting there wasn’t easy.
Which can be frustrating to the Second Wave feminist women, the real and symbolic mothers of these daughters, who feel that younger women are unappreciative, that they have put up a wall of ignorance about the history of activism that won what has become an assumed way of life.
I sensed and heard this frustration, even anger, among the older Unitarian Universalist women who gathered earlier this winter in Manchester, New Hampshire, as part of a UU Women’s Federation Margaret Fuller Awards Committee, the group charged with giving grants for academic research, creative work, and prophetic actions in the area of religious feminism. They (younger women) don’t want to hear our stories, my colleagues on the committee complained with some amount of unconcealed bitterness.
They don’t seem to know what feminism is, even, or what we did for them, and they aren’t interested in doing anything. They even have gone back to calling each other girls.
I am, believe it or not, the youngest member of this panel of lay and ordained women, most of whom are now in their sixties and seventies. Women who had been in the thick of the modern Second Wave women’s liberation movement, women who, like my own mother, had been white middle-class homemakers and volunteers, and then became enthralled and then transformed by the consciousness-raising that took place as they read books like Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique.
Women who were encouraged to make meaningful lives and find meaningful, equally paying, work separate from their roles as mothers and helpmates. Women in our denomination who founded the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation in the early Sixties, leading to the first women serving on the UUA Board, the first women serving on the ministerial fellowship accreditation committee, and the resolutions urging congregations to recruit and call candidates of both sexes to the ministry. The first baby steps in a gender equal denomination, for starters.
I confess to my own deafness and blindness, or rather, more accurately, my own deliberate unwillingness to enter my mother’s adult universe, in fact, my tendency to actively reject it. I did not want to hear her excitement about the changes in her life, because in doing so, I also had to acknowledge the tremendous price she paid in a damaged and ultimately broken marriage for her insistence on going back to school and getting a professional job. And how deeply ingrained and strong the pull of patriarchy and misogyny was on my father and on our own family.
I had to reject her and her life choices, refuse to recognize what she and the few women she found who supported her had done for their daughters because of the natural and understandable, and developmentally healthy, need to break away — and even criticize our mothers — and maybe the less-healthy tendency to see only what was still wrong with our mothers, and their tendency to want us to acknowledge, ad nauseum it sometimes seemed to me, their martyrdom. What they had done for us and how ungrateful we were.
So, as a bridge member of this Margaret Fuller Committee — the one woman in the group who had come into full adulthood benefiting both from the work of the First Wave feminists — those women in the 19th and early 20th century who had secured the vote for future generations — and the earliest Second Wave feminists who opened up places in colleges and the workplace, I found myself hearing the complaints of older women through my own history. And identifying as much, if not more, with the younger women being chastised than the older ones doing the scolding and comparing.
I found myself admitting out loud that I had not properly thanked my mothers, either my real mother or my activist “mothers,” because, like the Third Wave young women, I no longer had to measure my success, as the young authors of Manifesta: young women, feminism and the future have observed, by how far we got away from our mother’s lives. A feminist daughter, they have written, who lives her life differently from her mother — without constantly professing gratitude for the gift of being able to more easily forge her own independent life — has really learned feminism, not just passively inherited it.
But, they also admit, that doesn’t mean Third Wavers won’t benefit from learning about and recognizing where they have come from and how they got there.
But, by the way, the myth that younger women are clueless about what feminism is or how they have benefited, seems just that, a myth, if the women who gathered to talk about and help write Manifesta are any indication.
The young authors of this look at the very most current state and sense of feminism admit that the use of what they call the other F word, the word that describes a social justice movement for gender equity and human liberation, is almost always heavily qualified and embroidered upon by their peers, such as, I am a power, postmodern, Girlie, pro-sex, radical, eco, international, diva, punk rock, young… feminist. But though it is a looser-knit, functionally-leaderless, less-directed, and more casual movement in this new millennium, feminism is still defined by younger people, male and female, as the movement for the social, political, and economic equality of men and women. Feminism also means for this generation that women have the right to have enough information to make informed choices about their lives. Whatever those choices may be.
The prologue to Manifesta describes a day without feminism even as it looked in 1970 when the two authors were born. On this day, they remind us, Sly and the Family Stone and Dionne Warwick are on the radio, the kitchen appliances are Harvest Gold, and the name of your Whirpool gas stove is Mrs. America.
Babies born on this day are automatically given their father’s name and if no father is listed, than the word “illegitimate” is likely to be typed on the birth certificate. There are virtually no child-care centers so all preschool children are in the hands of their mothers or an expensive nursery school. In elementary schools, girls can’t play in the little league, and almost all the teachers are female (which is still true, they point out).
In junior high school, girls take home economics, learning to hem skirts and make tomato aspic, while boys take shop or small engine repair. In high school, the principal is a man. Girls have physical education and play half court basketball, but no soccer, track, or cross country, nor do they have any varsity sports teams. The only major prestigious activity for girls is cheerleading or being a drum majorette.
Most girls don’t take calculus or physics. They plan the dances and decorate the gym.
Even when girls get better grades than their male counterparts, they are half as likely to qualify for a National Merit scholarship because many of the test questions favor boys.
Women’s colleges and referred to as “girl’s” schools, and the Miss America Pageant is the biggest source of scholarship money for women, and women can’t be students at Dartmouth, Columbia, Harvard, West Point, or Boston College, to name a few. Only 14 percent of doctorates are awarded to women and 3.5 percent of MBAs.
Girls who have sex while they are unmarried may be ruining their chances of finding a permanent partner and if they happen to become accidentally and unhappily pregnant can get a legal abortion only if they in New York or can fly to Cuba, London, or Scandinavia, or a safe illegal abortion if they are fortunate to come up with $500 to $2,000 and connect with a group like the Jane Collective or other mostly women’s medical underground groups.
A married woman can’t obtain credit without her husband’s signature. She doesn’t have her own credit rating, legal domicile, or even her own name unless she goes to court to get it back.
And in terms of religious feminism, that is the presence of women in the ranks of leadership and their affections and sensibilities within faith traditions, there are no female cantors or rabbis or Episcopal canons.
I would add to this slice of 70s life portrait that in our denomination in l970, there were an estimated 17 female full ministers and four associates, making up two percent of the entire UU ministry. It had been a long dry spell for UU women ministers since the heyday of the pioneer prophetic sisterhood on the Midwest plains at the end of the 19th century. Women had been viewed as an economic threat to men, especially in the Depression era, making it impossible, according to one Universalist general superintendent, to get a female candidate a hearing at any salary whatsoever.
Yes, even in our liberal religious faith community, it took the publication of the secular Feminist Mystique to revive the lost dream of the first American ordained female minister Olympia Brown to have an equal-opportunity ministry and to break free from the old patriarchal beliefs and gender-exclusive language in hymns, texts, and association policy. And to find ways to affirm feminist thought and women’s forgotten culture.
These younger women, these Third Wavers, know, though they don’t want to have to keep speaking this knowledge, let alone keep thanking older women and men for it, that in the past 30 years, while the ERA did not get ratified, the 70s feminists succeeded much more than they failed. The Second Wave integrated the Little League, police departments, and help wanted ads. It named and achieved legal redress for domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault, child sexual abuse, lesbian custodial rights, and the right to be a single mother by choice. While the ERA failed, much of its intention did not, leading to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, Title IX guaranteeing equal allocation of money for girls and boys in schools receiving federal funding, the right to abortion, and so much more.
In the life of our own UU denomination, the coming of the Second Wave of feminism led to not only more women in our ministry and in our lay leadership, but the infusion of distinctively feminist themes and ways of being in our congregational life. Feminist theological perspectives such as those suggested by UU minister Jane Boyajian, including process relationalism, the sense that everything is always changing and that everything is relational, that is, everything is affected by everything else. The notion that experience is a tool for sense-making and stories about our experiences are profoundly religious and spiritual. That we are part of an interdependent web of human and non-human life, that our ethics and our theology are always interconnected, and that words are symbols of the values of a culture.
We have changed the content of our hymns and readings to reflect a gender inclusivity and we have suggested ways of doing business, such as circles and consensus, to reflect a less hierarchical and inclusive institution as well.
Our Third Wavers, our daughters and their friends and lovers, know all these changes to be true and good, and now they ask us to allow them to find their own ways of creating a New Day with Feminism by creating rich, respectful, intergenerational partnerships, and by demonstrating faith that the torch has passed.
These young women have their own Manifesta for change, with a specific agenda: to out unacknowledged feminists and form a voting block of eighteen- to forty-year-olds; support and increase the visibility of bisexual and lesbian women in the feminist movement; to liberate adolescents from listless educators, sexual harassment, and bullying at school as well as violence in all walks of life; to make workplaces responsive to an individual’s wants, needs, and talents, including a living wage for all workers; and to pass the ERA so that we can at last have a constitutional foundation of righteousness and equality upon which future women’s rights conventions will stand.
These young, passionate, idealistic Girlies — and that is what they want to be called — have drafted a letter to us older feminists, female and male. It would be well to heed their words:
Dear Older Feminists:
Because we too believe that women can’t afford to have another generation’s voices go underground, this letter is our way of talking to you above ground… rather than bitching about you behind your back.
If our message were to be boiled down to one bumper sticker, it would be: “You’re not our Mothers.”
We reprieve you from your mother guilt. You are officially off the hook for not solving the daycare problem or made the world equal. You did make the world a better place and continue to do so.
We let you off your mother trip and now you have to stop treating us like daughters…
Before criticizing young women for their lack of feminism, or yourself for what you did not achieve, take a good look at what’s out there. Read our books, buy our records, and support our organizations. And when we are righteous, naive, wide-eyed, or annoying, or obsessed with, for example, recycling in the office rather than the welfare bill in Congress, think back to your first moments in the movement and the first issues that radicalized you.
The notion of feminism, that women have a voice and a power and a will to change, may indeed be like fluoride in the water now, all around us, more invisible. And if so, alleluia. It’s there because of those who went before and will remain because of those who go ahead of us, wherever they choose to go.
You go, Girlies.
May it be so.