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Jane Long

Further information

About the author

Jane Long is Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of Western Australia. Recent publications include ‘The Colour of Disorder: women’s employment and protective intervention in the lead industry in Victorian England’, Women’s History Review, 7, 4, 1998, pp. 521-546; Conversations in Cold Rooms: Women, work and poverty in nineteenth-century Northumberland, London, Boydell and Brewer, 1999; contributions to Routledge Encyclopedia of Feminist Theory, Lorraine Code, ed., London, Routledge 2000, and Critical Dictionary of Film and Television, P. Simpson ed., London, Routledge, 2000; ‘Charting the landscape of progress: women in nineteenth-century Britain’, in P. Crawford and P. Maddern, eds, Women as Australian Citizens, Melbourne University Press, 2001. Her current research projects include a study of working-class masculinity and popular culture in Britain, and virtual bodies and communities on the internet.

Publication details

Volume 8, May 2001

"A certain kind of modern feminism":
memory, feminist futures and 'generational cleavage' in historical perspective1

In 1995, Cornelie Usborne wrote of the disquiet felt by long-organised feminists about the ‘turn’ taken by a younger generation of women.2 Usborne cited the many articles written around the subject of young women whom, their critics alleged, had "availed themselves of new-found rights without paying due respect to their elders who had achieved these through hard-won battles. Young women’s lack of gratitude and commitment to organisations of any kind was criticised" in such articles and papers, "and attributed to their ‘indifference, their egotistical preference for shallow pleasures, the quest for instant gratification.’" Simultaneously, Usborne noted the appearance in the mass media of contradictory images of women, as both active participants in public life - at times caricatured as masculine - and as being "coolly confident" in their erotic power - a power invoked with reference to an exaggerated femininity. The sense of growing cultural crisis, Usborne argued, could also be mapped through a new and disturbing trend which seemed to signal the renunciation of the very category ‘woman’ through fashion’s negation of women’s body shape and the use of media images which suggested a ‘regress to adolescent sexuality’.3 As Usborne's work appeared, Anne Summers, too, wrote in 'Good Weekend' magazine in March 1995 about the lack of activity and reflection on issues from women of a younger generation, saying that she wished ‘they would just get started’, a call which followed closely upon her lengthier "Letter to the Next Generation" in the revised edition of her classic feminist history of Australia, Damned Whores and God’s Police.4

What is immediately striking in reading Usborne and Summers in turn, is the apparent similarity of the concerns about young women they were canvassing, and the shape which debate had taken around the so-called ‘generation wars’ both within feminism and beyond it, in the media. The important difference distinguishing their work however, is that while both were writing and publishing in 1994/95, Cornelie Usborne was writing about Germany in the 1920s, rather than analysing a contemporary lament. Her analysis was of the shape and meanings of feminism in Weimar Germany during the inter-war period. The New Woman to whom she referred was one who trod the streets of Berlin in 1920, rather than the streets of Sydney in 1995. Those who denounced her were not part of Summers’ generational cohort, but were feminists who were active in Germany prior to the rise of Nazism. Nonetheless, the resonances between the debates at first glance are certainly striking.

Here I suggest some preliminary responses to the subject of generational cleavage within feminism, an issue whose coverage by feminist scholars and commentators has occurred in relation to a number of historical and cultural contexts. Rather than concentrating on one specific period, I wish to examine more broadly the deployment of generational discourse within feminism, feminist history, and the media, and to ponder the possible meanings of such deployment as we think about the shape of feminist futures at a time when divergent claims are made about the direction and continuing significance of feminist politics. In particular, I am interested in conceptions of generational cleavage, sometimes far too simply and, I will argue, damagingly drawn in a variety of representations. In doing so, I will draw briefly on diverse areas, but at the same time, I would also argue that once the term ‘generation’ is invoked, it very quickly propels the speaker into the heartland of debates about experience, memory, identity and cultural change, which cannot be, and have never been, confined within the parameters of capital H-History.5

To briefly map the ‘generation wars’ chronology, then, which has captured quite sustained media attention from about 1993 to the present, it appeared from the first to be a particularly Western, and perhaps mainly US phenomenon. The generation-focussed trend picked up pace in the United States in negative treatments by writers like Katie Roiphe, and Christina Hoff Sommers.6 The subject matter and details of these works varied, but the overall message was clear: some time, somewhere in an imagined 'recent' past, the constructive, liberal, equality-seeking orientation of feminism had derailed into a propagandistic hell which alienated young women with its strictures and outmoded separatist orientation. ‘Girls just wanna have fun’, was the popular media cry, and feminism was merely serving as a kind of severe dormitory matron, to the detriment of all. In a different context, Meaghan Morris has observed the proclivity of the Australian media to import from the US sensationalist views on 'social issues', such as multiculturalism.7 These are then re-presented after a minimal injection of appropriate local examples to satisfy criteria of relevance and plausibility. While some element of trans-Pacific import could be detected in the 'generation wars' splash in the Australian media, the contours of the specific arguments took on a different complexion as Anne Summers lamented young women’s alleged inactivity. By then, the confusing and, indeed, contradictory series of claims about feminism and its directions was in full swing. In the US, a secondary version of generation wars was invoked more specifically in relation to the fate of Women’s Studies in the academy, in a book by Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, Professing Feminism. Here, the writers deplored what they portrayed as the growing generationally-based rigidity of scholarly feminism, and their selective dissection of Women's Studies found no ready counterpart in Australia. Young feminist academics had stepped away from the careful preparatory work of their academic foremothers and had instead deluged Women’s Studies with political propaganda which had resulted in Women’s Studies operating, to quote one source used in the book, as ‘a dysfunctional family.’8 As well, the more general denunciations continued. Early the following year, Rene Denfeld’s supposedly historically-based analysis, The New Victorians, appeared, which made great copy for the media precisely because of its breathtaking historical and cultural reductionism.9

In Australia during the same period, media coverage of Helen Garner's controversial treatment of sexual harassment issues in The First Stone10 quickly gathered momentum. One of the features of Garner’s work which elicited attention were her generational claims, although again these were almost diametrically opposed to those made by Denfeld in the United States and at odds with the pronouncements of Summers. Rather than older feminists being the problem, Garner turned attention to the younger, institutionalised wing of feminism in Australia which, she said, represented "a certain kind of modern feminism: priggish, disingenuous, unforgiving", a feminism that went to the police to seek the redress of grievances and which criminalised "hapless social blunders", rather than one which negotiated unwelcome male behaviours.11 Although Garner writes explicitly of the dangers of invoking what she calls the "classic refrain of older to younger" in providing advice based on longer experience, in some degree the book does function to exhale a very large and disappointed generational sigh about the ways in which the promise of liberation fanfared in the 1970s had paled into priggishness. Again, although (significantly) interrogating the capriciousness of her own memory in some places, in others there is an unalloyed yearning for what she calls the earlier "good fortune of my generation - no Aids, freed by the pill: we had a large safe area for ‘play’. But", she goes on, "feminists now, the ones who are making the most noise, seem to be consumed by rage and fear."12 In some ways, the work is constructed around twin tragedies, as Garner describes them. The first tragedy unfolds in the narrative of a sexual ‘blunder’ which involves institutional bureaucracies and the police; but the second tragic thread, interwoven with the first, is that of a future within Garner’s feminism, dreamt of optimistically in the 1970s, but transformed to a dystopia in the 1990s.13

The media response to Garner’s book is well known. The most notable and lengthier respones to Garner's generational perspectives came in two books published in 1996: Kathy Bail’s edited collection of contributions by younger women, DIY Feminism, and Virginia Trioli’s appraisal of Australian feminism and issues facing women in the 1990s, Generation f.14 While the books are quite different in many respects, both are based on a similar premise: that the castigation of young women in the press and in books is unwarranted. While Bail herself expresses considerable scepticism about feminism, many of her well-known contributors do not share her misgivings, and indeed embrace feminism in greater or lesser degree.15 Trioli, too, is anything but shy about proclaiming her commitments to feminism in the 1990s, as she writes of the continuing commitment of a large range of young women to feminist activist causes, and provides some account of the parameters of women’s continuing economic and social disadvantage in Australia.16

There are, then, numerous examples from both the media and popular publishing which have drawn liberally on the trope of generational conflict in the 1990s. Perhaps some of the most notable other examples are those more specifically located in the burgeoning field of cyberfeminism, where according to some writers at least, the supposedly new breed of nineties young woman is making her mark with a kind of Tank Girl activism where there is no time for theorising, or space for the faint-hearted. Carla Sinclair’s book NetChick exemplifies this trend. Sinclair contrasts that group of women who, she says, reside in a ‘victim’ ghetto, expressing concerns about sexual harassment and pornography on the Net, with her ‘net chicks’, exercising their power as "warriors who stampede through this digital playground."17

So what is the problem with these works? Some of the pitfalls are obvious, others less so; but I would argue that the uncritical invocation of generational conflict as an explanatory device may be very compelling in certain ways, but is challenging, and worrying in more important ones. Most simply, if one thinks through the personal implications of the generational identities flagged in recent works, employing their own logic to locate oneself can be an unrewarding experience indeed. If Trioli at 33 writes about young feminists and includes herself, perhaps I too, just a few years older, can squeeze in to make the grade. But doesn’t Kathy Bail, and before her, Anne Summers, talk about the ‘twentysomethings?’ So maybe then I am part of so-called ‘older-wave feminism’. If I took it all seriously as I read it, I may have begun to believe that, as the middle child of a middle child, I was compelled as well to occupy a perpetual middleness, even in my feminism; standing on the generational dock and missing all the boats which were leaving, left stranded in the bland, namelessness of the intensely privileged white bourgeois cultural middle. The task of locating oneself with any precision in the matrix of generational variables cited in a number of works sounds trite and simplistic, yet at the outset conveys something of a tendency to simplify a number of key issues within feminism, drawing on appeals to ‘common knowledge’ as explanation, which should make us wary.18

Another difficulty which arises is that, in raising the spectre of generational conflict, adherents of the model tend to invoke a blanket generational experience, in ways which severely obscure the diversity of feminisms, and their historical fluidity. The feminist past which they invoke in the singular is of course only a part of the dazzling array of understandings and meanings of feminism which are still being interrogated by historians. Cornelie Usborne’s work on inter-war Germany cited above, for example, insists on the internal divisions and views within generational cohorts of German feminists, and ponders the generational cultural referents very closely, and in context.19 Further, there is little scope in the model of generational cleavage to examine the experiences of those women whose feminist consciousness does not conform to pre-set generational patterns. What of older and younger women like those interviewed in Feminist Review a few years ago in Britain? Older women, like Zelda Curtis, who came to feminism later in life, and through the influence of her daughters?20 Or women whose experiences have been so numerous, diverse, even tragic, at a relatively early age, who may be ‘twentysomething’, but who have, because of factors of class, race, sexuality, or nationality, experienced more, somehow, than an older woman who may occupy a relatively privileged position? Such examples immediately illustrate the limitations of an insufficiently contextualised generational vocabulary, a vocabulary which indicates its masked exclusions as it speaks: in the press, Poppy King is invoked as the quintessential twentysomething; a migrant woman from Vietnam or a homeless street-dweller, never is.

It is also a model which posits a static role for individuals, a pre-set course for them, which does not accommodate shifting perspectives of individuals within a lifetime. The quest narrative within feminism is as strong and necessary in some degree as for other political movements, and writers as diverse as Meaghan Morris and Laura Mayhall have written about how satisfying, and how wrong-headed, the employment of the single-minded quest narrative can be.21 But certainly, there is ample evidence of women whose feminism became decidedly more or less radical over time, or who shifted allegiances. One of the more interesting aspects of this shifting viewpoint in fact occurs within the Garner debate itself. Virgina Trioli recounted how she sought an interview with Garner for her book, but how Garner refused Trioli's request, in a somewhat ironic replay of the frustrations Garner documented in being prevented from interviewing those involved in the case which is central to her own work. But she did write a letter to Trioli, in which she explained that subsequent to the publication of The First Stone and surrounding debates, she had rethought some of her positions. She wrote: "My impressions of a clear generational gap in feminist attitudes is, I have realised, to some extent exaggerated by the particular circumstances in which I encountered such hostility". Yet, Trioli asserts, such a shift in her position had come rather too late.22 Too late for what, a reader may wonder? Too late because the Garner-media moment was over, and could not be re-entered because of the imperatives of a quest-oriented media? Too late, because embedded in the scripts of generational cleavage there is a sense of inevitability, where narratives must necessarily be complete and static for the generational division idea to hold currency? People changing their minds, reflecting further on events, interpreting their own responses, can be fitted only with difficulty into the ‘hit and run’ coverage of the conservative media, where, to preserve narrative simplicity and easy oppositions, subtleties, shifts and diversity are endlessly collapsed and uncertainty is erased. Yet as Susan Bernstein has suggested in a different context, treating "shards of memory" as "unmediated transcription"23; is problematic: the Trioli comment perhaps unwittingly indicated the ongoing tensions within feminism between investigating the status of memory and its oscillations, and the political imperative of charting a unidirectional journey that translates more readily into conventionally-drawn political and historical narratives.

Once the generational cleavage notion is invoked, it is a difficult discourse to step outside in order to counter its easy assumptions. Both Trioli and Bail, for example, while insisting that Garner and Summers have got it wrong, mounted their arguments from within a perspective which similarly operated to some extent to homogenise young women in their outlooks and activism. A closer inspection of their work shows that the move does not really hold up. One of the contributors to Bail's book, for example, Rosie Cross, is seen by some as the epitome of the twentysomething New Woman of the nineties. She is in the vanguard of global web technology with her on-line e-zine, Geekgrrls. But Cross’s own chapter actually displays a deep and thoughtful engagement with some of the key issues long identified within feminism as causes for action Cross cites feminist theorists such as Sadie Plant as her inspiration, and quite clearly remarks on the significance of what she designated as ‘older-style feminist debate’ in explaining the impetus to her work on the net. In her view, the Net was being overrun with "boring conservative righteous sexist bloody men who really need to get a life"24; the challenge for her was to break through and disrupt the nexus of patriarchy and capitalism developing with a vengeance in the newish area of cyberspace, to ensure that women in future were not reliant on ‘mass consumption or homages to in/visible ideology.’25 While the medium is different, then, there are important continuities in some of the messages.

In considering generational discourse and ideas about cleavage, moreover, in many ways its deployment has been fundamentally ahistorical. Feminism’s relationship to history at many levels has been both tense and enormously constructive. Accounts of the dazzling variety of feminist pasts in their cultural and historical specificity serve as a useful reminder that, even where broad resonances may be detected, say, between 1920s Germany and 1990s Australia, detection of resonances in itself may have curiosity value, but carries no independent explanatory weight. Certainly, there have been attempts to invoke a version of the ‘Great See-Saw’ of universal feminist history, where complex histories have been reduced to simplistic oscillations between two poles marked ‘androgyny’ and ‘difference’, as Linda Gordon remarks. To some extent in its worst form, generational conflict models collapse into this conservative cyclic reading of the past where the more things change, the more they remain the same. We all resort at times to generalisation; where generalisations are proffered as explanations, however - that "the young never listen to the old"26, for example - they contribute nothing to an attempt to unravel the lines of continuity and change within feminism’s histories and futures. More worrying and counter-productive still, is the extent to which normative generational divisions are connected to Western epistemological and chronological frameworks, which erase cultural and class differences, and which assume certain modes of transmission of generational knowledges as given.

In many ways, generational difference provides a familiar point of entry, but only for some; it carries with it no necessary trans-historical or trans-cultural explanatory value. Embedded within its invocations at times is a clear, and too unproblematic attachment to a discourse of linear progress, and it may also operate to perpetuate a view of mothers and daughters within feminism, either literal or metaphoric, which in itself, theorists such as Jane Flax have argued, discounts alternative cultural configurations and time-frames. The attractiveness of invoking the mother/daughter dyad, she reminds us, may provide an illusion of certainty at a time where other posited universals have been discredited. However, the mother/daughter relationship is one to which we can unproblematically relate only by erasing the experiences of many groups of women, by implying universal heterosexuality, and a universal model of homogeneous (for which read white) motherhood.27

In the writing of feminism’s history as well, recourse to metaphors of mothers and daughters has always been strong. And at times, it has been more than a metaphor. One of the now-classic stories within feminist and other historical traditions, for example, invokes the mother-daughter dyad, or more accurately, triad, of militant suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. Historians such as June Purvis have written compellingly about the Pankhursts and their construction and reconstruction in historiography.28 In brief, the stories of the militant mother and one good daughter and one bad daughter - and which one was which depended on your starting point - deeply inscribed inter-generational conflict and mother/daughter animosity, importantly, in one of the most popularly known and most frequently evoked episodes in the history of British feminism.29 The conflation of woman and mother in the political history of feminism, I would argue, is problematic. While functioning at times to usefully underline women’s connectedness, at other times the familial metaphor is deployed too easily against feminism, to trivialise and to dichotomise feminism’s political development, where complex divisions can be, and have been derided as ‘family dysfunction’, and to reinscribe binaries of good and bad mothers, or daughters, one dutiful, and the other the evil twin. These familial metaphors function in ways that are unique, it seems, in political histories. Although the conservative mythopoetic men’s movement readily deploys generational mythologies around the matrix of father, son, and invariably destructive mother in its literature,30 one does not read authors in more scholarly contexts describing Lenin, for example, as the wayward son of Karl Marx in his generation’s rewriting of Marxist political tenets to suit the Russian context. While it has long been recognised as counterproductive uncritically to replicate the priorities and schemas of traditional historiography, and feminist historians have insisted both upon the importance of women's familial positions and upon developing new modes of analysis to elucidate gender relations in the past, there remains always the need for critical scrutiny and self-reflexivity.

It has become a commonplace of recent debate to cast the media as villain in beating up generational conflict as an easy and effective selling point. Danae Clark has written of the ways in which capitalism flirts with difference31, or rather, with some differences - those which can be packaged and commodifed most readily - and certainly generational division is one of the abiding marketing strategies of the later twentieth century.32 Again, sections of the media have cast internal divisions within feminism as no more than a series of personal wars, where the personal remains personal, and the more important political edge of feminism is happily ignored. By so individualising the debate and emptying feminism of its political content, the only thing that is left quietly undisturbed is patriarchal power.33

Yet before casting the media as unrelievedly villainous, two notes of caution should be sounded. The first is that an undifferentiated view of the media as culpable too easily overlooks again, the historic ties between feminism and the media. The upsurge in feminist activity in Britain in the nineteenth century, for example, coincided with the rise of a truly mass media in that country. Certainly from that time, historians have demonstrated that some feminists indeed were extremely able in their utilisation of the media and public ceremony to further feminist causes.34 More recent work on the media would suggest that a simple cause and effect relationship between a necessarily conservative media and a necessarily excluded feminism does justice neither to the variety of media, nor to the inroads feminists have made in becoming the media themselves.35

Second, the view of media responsibility alone, or of generational cleavage as a media invention, overlooks the extent to which generational divides have, and continue to be, invoked too uncritically as explanations in more scholarly feminist work. Two quite recent examples perhaps illustrate this trend. The first is an article by Joan Hoff, published in Women’s History Review in 1994. Hoff’s article36 was a sustained attack on what she perceived as the depoliticisation of women’s history through the influence of poststructuralism in historical analysis. An important part of her argument relied again on unproven assertions about generational cleavage. Instead of pursuing the paths followed by a generation of pioneers in women’s history, among whom she includes herself, a new, young and misguided generation of feminist scholars had, by 1994, come through the ranks and adopted poststructuralism as a means of differentiating themselves from the previous generation, in part so that the older generation would be constructed as outmoded, and would feel compelled to move on more quickly.37 As well, she maintained, poststructuralism’s challenges to earlier feminist traditions and pioneering paths had discredited those traditions before they had been 'properly' taken up by feminist historians in Eastern Europe and the Third World in what she implied was a necessary move in their own historiographical progress.38

Hoff’s arguments were certainly challenged, and there were many ways in which her idea of division could be substantially disputed if not outright discounted.39 What of Joan Scott, for example, perhaps the foremost advocate of poststructural perspectives in gender analysis, but a woman who was without doubt one of the pioneering cohort in women’s history which Hoff cited?40 The colonising impulses in the article, that Western historiographical traditions are desirable and transferable, are intensely troubling. If the course of feminist historiography is imagined as 'necessary stages' in a ‘growing up’ process, then who are the ‘children’ in that configuration? The article also engages in a classic reductionist manoeuvre with the elision of the terms ‘new’, and ‘young’ - new theory, young scholars - when no necessary connection between the two can be assumed. In many ways, the analysis reads as a strong liberal humanist defence of materialist perspectives in women’s history, a position that has been advanced and disputed by a range of scholars.41 Hoff's conflation of a poststructuralist turn with generational cleavage, however, served to obscure the political assumptions and to naturalise the Western frames of time and space that she amply drew upon.

Further examples may be drawn from at times extensive, at times heated, discussion on the moderated scholarly Internet Women’s Studies list, WMST-L. Daphne Patai, an oral historian of some note who co-wrote the quite stinging denunciation of Women’s Studies in the US referred to above, posted an internet message in May 1996, stating her intention to investigate and to publish work about a phenomenon she chose to label ‘heterophobia’ within feminism, a supposedly new turn within feminism ‘against men’.42 The overwhelming majority of respondents criticised Patai’s project for its apparent ahistorical framing and her use of a label which would be taken up and fanfared in what one correspondent anticipated would become ‘this newly-minted heterophobia sound-bite phenomenon (soon on Ricki Lake!)’. Her work would simply rigidify a tabloid binary divide between lesbians and heterosexual women, and obfuscate the long and complex histories of feminism and separatism.43 Again, however, among the extremely perceptive and critical feminist responses, the spectre of generational cleavage as an explanatory device was invoked, in discussions of young women’s alleged alienation from feminism. Email and dedicated internet lists perhaps lend themselves readily to a 'safe' shorthand in which exceptions and subtleties are at times not elaborated, on the assumption that an audience of similar sympathies will read between the pixels. Nonetheless, in discussion on the list in relation to this and other topics, some writers, who in other respects were appropriately cautious in not generalising ‘woman’ as a category along other lines and who focussed on issues of definition and the political effects of language, deployed generational labels perhaps too unproblematically.44

So what are we left with here? I am not advocating that feminist scholarship step away from consideration of age differences, or even generational differences within feminism, as we set about feminist scholarship. But we should avoid formulations in which age and experience, the young and the new, are taken as necessarily synonymous. Recourse to models, which take inter-generational relations - and cleavage - as ‘read’, which invest them with an automatic explanatory status is powerful and compelling but too simple. Rather, where generational cleavages in the past or in the media are cited, it is imperative that we step beyond those cleavages to interrogate such representations, to delineate the purposes, effects, and exclusions entailed in such framing.

Generational cleavage models may, unwittingly, feed into both conservative cyclical and liberal linear progress models of history, which posit a single dimension of both time and space. Efi Hatzimanolis has written persuasively of the tendency within liberal assimilationist models of history and politics to collapse difference. She quotes Bhiku Parekh’s observation that, working within such frames of reference, ‘my present’ can all too easily and automatically be invoked as ‘your future’;45 I would add in this context, that my coming to feminist consciousness reveals the path that you must tread. Hatzimanolis, in a specific analysis of multicultural information circulated by the Office of Multicultural Affairs in Australia, deconstructs the ways in which the message conveyed is one of ‘time-sharing in a mutually accessible future’46. She argues that this temptingly simplistic vision, however, is built on exclusions. Such examples remind us that such feats of ‘time-sharing’ may only be accomplished through the obliteration of alternative chronologies and frameworks of knowledge located beyond the dominant trajectories and explanatory models of Western liberalism, and of Western liberal feminism.

More than anything, invoking a contemporary 'generation wars' vision may contribute a sense of a too-stable feminism in the past, against which present feminism can be (usually negatively) measured. It provides the discursive fuel to an argument that, for example, if Germaine Greer and Suzanne Moore trade insults, then truly, we are witnessing the imminent ‘death of feminism’. Yet as we write our histories, we simultaneously map co-ordinates for possible futures. As Antoinette Burton has remarked, historicising the past and analysing the present "is a challenging project with enormous stakes."47 Embracing diversity is an ongoing task. In 1996 Rosi Braidotti reflected that we find ourselves now, attempting to negotiate both being non-essentialist, and forging coalitions for action, tasks which involve "a bit of a wager", she said, "a bit of a hope for the future."48 And, in relation to that future, it is the analytical rigour and flexibility and diversity within feminism which holds the most promise to engage with the radical and less radical, multiple experiences, generations, and chronologies in a self-reflexive and relational manner. Further, "[t]he electricity of its internal disagreements", writes Ann Snitow, "is part of feminism’s continuing power to shock and involve large numbers of people in a public conversation far beyond the movement itself."49 Trioli in Generation f listed a number of the broad issues which animated debate about feminist rifts, fuelled by "fierce" allegations and the "need to find fault" emanating from different quarters. One of the issues she identified was the assertion that by the mid-1990s "feminism has been hijacked by a militant and decidedly unappealing stream"50. Yet despite this unmistakable strand within writing about feminism, its sheer breadth and diversity, both historical and contemporary, remains incontrovertible. More optimistically, Kaz Cooke, one of Bail’s contributors, offered an almost tailormade response to Trioli’s concern about the "tracer-fire from this battle" about generations: Feminism hijacked? pondered this writer: "Nah, [it’s] too big".51


1. This paper was delivered to the Australian Women’s Studies Association conference held at the University of Western Australia in December 1996. The version here is largely unrevised. I was not engaged explicitly in research about generational cleavage, although the historiographical concerns raised in the paper were broadly informed by more specific projects on discursive constructions of both feminism and poor women in Victorian England. In many ways, the topic of generational cleavage seemed hard to avoid in the mid-1990s: the period was marked by a steady stream of writing which debated the extent to which feminism was allegedly unravelling internally along the seams of youth and age, themes which were also discussed extensively in Women’s Studies tutorials and seminars at my institution.

2. Cornelie Usborne, ‘The New Woman and generation conflict: perceptions of young women’s sexual mores in the Weimar Republic’, in Mark Roseman, ed., Generations in conflict: youth revolt and generation formation in Germany, 1770-1968, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

3. Ibid., p. 148, 142, 144.

4. Anne Summers, Good Weekend, March 1995, p. 26; Damned Whores and God’s Police, 1st ed. 1975; revised ed., Ringwood, Penguin, 1994, pp. 505-27

5. On some of the methodological and historiographical issues surrounding these subjects in different contexts, see for example Billie Melman, ‘Gender, History and Memory: The Invention of Women’s Past in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries’, History and Memory, vol. 5, 1993, pp. 5-41; Joan Sangster, ‘Telling our stories: feminist debates and the use of oral history’, Women’s History Review, vol. 3, no. 1, 1994, pp. 5-28; Ann Curthoys, ‘History and Reminiscence: Writing About the Anti-Vietnam-War Movement’, in Susan Magarey, ed., Writing Lives. Feminist Biography and Autobiography, a special issue of Australian Feminist Studies, 1992.

6. Katie Roiphe, The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus, Little, Brown, New York, 1993; Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1994.

7. See discussion by Efi Hatzimanolis, ‘Timing differences and investing in futures in multicultural (women’s) writing’, in Sneja Gunew and Anna Yeatman, eds., Feminism and the Politics of Difference, St Leonards, Allen and Unwin, 1993, p. 130.

8. Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World or Women’s Studies, Basic Books, New York, 1994, p.31.

9. Rene Denfeld, The New Victorians: A Young Woman’s Challenge to the Old Feminist Order, Warner Books, New York, 1995.

10. Helen Garner, The First Stone, Picador, Sydney, 1995.

11. Ibid., p.93, 101.

12. Ibid., p. 47.

13. Ibid., pp.46-7, 194, 222.

14. Kathy Bail, ed., DIY Feminism, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1996; Virginia Trioli, Generation f. Sex, Power and the Young Feminist, Minerva, Melbourne, 1996.

15. Bail in her introduction claims that in relation to feminism, many young women have ‘trashed this loaded term...[which] suggests a rigidity of style and behaviour and is still generally associated with a culture of complaint.’ Ibid., p. 5.

16. Trioli, op.cit., see especially ch. 5.

17. Carla Sinclair, Netchick. A Smart-Girl Guide to the Wired World, St Leonards, Allen and Unwin, 1996, p. 15, 6.

18. Janet Thurim, ‘Common knowledge: the ‘nature’ of historical evidence’, in Beverley Skeggs, ed., Feminist Cultural Theory: Process and Production, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1995, p. 63.

19. Usborne, op. cit.

20. Zelda Curtis, ‘Older Women and Feminism: Don’t Say Sorry’, Feminist Review, no. 31, 198?, pp. 145.

21. Laura E. Nym Mayhall, ‘Creating the ‘Suffragette Spirit’: British feminism and the historical imagination’, Women’s History Review, vol. 4, no. 3, 1995, pp. 319-344.

22. Trioli, op.cit., p. 43.

23. Susan Bernstein, ‘Confessing Feminist Theory: What’s “I” Got to Do with It?’, Hypatia, vol. 7, no. 2, 1992, p.

24. Rosie Cross, in Sinclair, Net Chick, p. 90.

25. Rosie Cross, ‘geekgirl. Why Grrrls Need Modems’, in Bail, op. cit., pp. 78-9

26. Attributed to Leonie Still, in Nadine Williams, ‘When Feminists Fall Out’, West Australian, October 26, 1995, Big Weekend supplement p. 2.

27. Jane Flax, Disputed Subjects. Essays on psychoanalysis, politics and philosophy, London and New York, Routledge, 1993, pp. 67-70; see also Patricia Hill Collins, ‘Shifting the Center: Race, Class, and Feminist Theorizing About Motherhood’, in E.N. Glenn et al., eds, Mothering: Ideology, Experience and Agency

28. June Purvis, ‘A “Pair of...Infernal Queens”? A Reassessment of the Dominant Representations of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, First Wave Feminists in Edwardian Britain’, Women’s History Review, vol. 5, no. 2, 1996, pp. 259-280.

29. Ibid., passim, esp. p. 263, 265, 266. See also Hilda Kean, ‘Searching for the Past in Present Defeat: the construction of historical and political identity in British feminism in the 1920s and 1930s’, Women’s History Review, vol. 3, no. 1, 1994, p.73.

30. For example, see the account of the ‘deterioration’ of the American man lost sight of the ‘internal hairy man’, and became ‘soft’ in ways which supposedly pleased mothers but made men themselves profoundly unhappy and insecure, see Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men, 2nd ed., New York, Vintage, 1992. In the Australian context, some similar themes are pursued by Stephen Biddulph, Manhood: An action plan for changing men’s lives, 2nd ed., Lane Cove, Finch, 1995. For discussion of the theme of maternal ‘misdirection’ in mythopoetic literature, see Susan Faludi, Backlash. The Undeclared War Against Women, London, Vintage, 1992, pp. 342-43

31. Danae Clark, ‘Commodity Lesbianism’, in Henry Abelove, Michele Barala and David Halperin, ed. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, New York and London, Routledge, 1993, pp. 186-201.

32. For discussion of the invention and capitalist cultivation of the (marketing) category of ‘teenager’, for example, see Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light. On Images and Things, London and New York, Routledge, 1988, ch. 1.

33. The strategy described here is dealt with in relation to popular cultural trends in television, advertising and other media forms in Bonnie Dow, Prime-time feminism : television, media culture, and the women's movement since 1970, Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996; Myra MacDonald, Representing women : myths of femininity in the popular media , London ; New York : E. Arnold ; New York, 1995.

34. See Mayall’s observations on the forms of public commemoration and media coverage developed by the Suffragette Fellowship from the 1920s to 1980s, Mayall, ‘Creating the Suffrage Spirit’, p. 329, and the references by Purvis to the publicity-attracting mechanisms employed by members of the WSPU in the early 1900s, Purvis, ‘A “Pair...of Infernal Queens”?’, p. 269.

35. Here of course, one can think of a long and well-established list of people who have contributed to mainstream daily press and electronic media: in Australia for example, the list includes Anne Summers, Beatrice Faust, Catherine Lumby and cartoonist Judy Horacek; in the UK, Germaine Greer, Suzanne Moore and Beatrix Campbell.

36. Joan Hoff, ‘Gender as a postmodern category of paralysis’, Women’s History Review, vol. 3, 1994, pp. 149-160

37. Ibid., pp. 160-61.

38. Ibid., p. 162.

39. for responses to the Hoff article, see Susan Kingsley Kent, ‘Mistrials and Diatribulations: a reply to Joan Hoff’, Women’s History Review, vol. 5, 1996, pp. 9-18; Caroline Ramazanglou, ‘Unravelling Postmodern Paralysis: a response to Joan Hoff, Ibid., pp. 19-23.

40. While Hoff discusses Scott’s views, the point nonetheless stands that she does not conform to the divisions of old/young, pioneers/new generation that Hoff deploys in her analysis. For the development and discussion of poststructuralist perspectives in history in Scott’s work, and their significance for gender analysis, see for example Joan Scott, ‘Deconstructing Equality-versus-Difference: or, the Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for Feminism’, Feminist Studies, 14, no. 1, 1988, pp. 33-50; Idem, ‘The Evidence of Experience’, Critical Inquiry, 17, 1991, pp. 773-797; Idem, ‘On Language, Gender and Working-Class History’, International Labor and Working-Class History, 31, 1987, pp. 1-13.

41. This area of historiography and theory is now vast. A challenging, relatively early contribution to the field in the Australian context was issued by Judith Allen, ‘Evidence and Silence: Feminism and the Limits of History’, in Carol Pateman and Elizabeth Gross, eds., Feminist Challenges: Social and Political Theory, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1986.

42. Patai’s posting read: ‘I am working on a book about the feminist turn against men. It seems to me that somewhere along the line the criticism of patriarchal institutions derailed into a real, visceral, and in my view counterproductive antagonism towards men and a consequent intolerance toward women who insist on associating with them. I call this phenomenon “Heterophobia”—the fear of difference, of the “other”...Daphne Patai, ‘heterophobia’, posting to WMST-L , <[email protected]>, May 15, 1996.

43. Liora Moriel, Ibid., May 16, 1996. The ensuing correspondence was impassioned, lively and extensive: one correspondent renamed the thread ‘Retrophobia’, to suggest the need to consider the threads of separatism which had developed within feminism/s in the twentieth century. Others such as Marge Piercy suggested the serious need to reconsider the founding assumptions of the project The discussion continued from May 15 to May 20 1996, generating over 2000 lines of postings from list members. The complete file of the postings available at [email protected] File: PATAI BOOKIDEA; the first article in which Patai expounded her notion of ‘Heterophobia’ appeared in late 1996. Daphne Patai, ‘Heterophobia: The Feminist Turn Against Men’, Partisan Review, LXIII, 3, 1996, pp. 580-594.

44. A poster to the WMST-L in March 1996 raised the issue of ‘in-between’ feminists, for example, positioned between so-called second- and third-wave feminism; while a further thread on WMST-L entitled ‘Feminism and generation’ began on October 3 1996 and continued intermittently for a number of days, some posters eschewing the generation labels, but some claiming its utility: WMST-L, Ibid., March 14-15; October 3-10, 1996.

45. Bhiku Parekh, ‘Identities on Parade: A Conversation’, Marxism Today, June 1989, quoted in Hatzimanolis, op. cit., p. 128.

46. Ibid., p. 135.

47. Antoinette Burton, ‘ “History” is Now: Feminist Theory and the Production of Historical Feminisms’, Women’s History Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 1992, p. 35.

48. Rosi Braidotti with Kathleen O’Grady, ‘Nomadic Philosopher: A Conversation with Rosi Braidotti’, Women’s Education des femmes, 12, 1, 1996, pp. 35-39, reprinted electronically at [email protected] file: NOMADIC PHILOS. Part I.

49. Ann Snitow, ‘A Gender Diary’, in Joan Scott, ed., Feminism and History, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996, p.530.

50. Trioli, Generation f, p. 51

51. Kaz Cooke, ‘Berloody Feminists. Squabblers Hijack the Agenda’, in Bail, ed., DIY Feminism, p.166.

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