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Older Women, Younger Women, and Second-Wave Feminism

I've come to the conclusion that young women today seem to think that all women (or even all educated women) in the late twentieth century took their cue from the books and essays written by 1970s-era feminists. Not true! I say.


I was born in the middle of the twentieth century. As a young woman, I read Mademoiselle magazine, which offered interesting short stories (by major writers of the day) as well as tips about dating, diets, and grooming, photographs of smiling models in pretty clothes, and other content appealing to my cohort. Glamour lacked the short stories, but the features were similarly pitched to young women anxious to look like a "Do" instead of a "Don't." I was dimly aware of Ms. magazine, but it never occurred to me that I should read it.


Similarly, the notion that there was a problem with studying only the work of "dead white men" had barely penetrated my world. My college studies enshrined their work, and I was thrilled to encounter their ideas. In grad school, I enjoyed learning about the few women artists known to be active in the seventeenth century (my period of specialization), but that did not mean I was less interested in the work of the Great Men.


For us, as for our mothers' generation, nervously waiting for a man's call on a landline phone was a near-universal experience, because romantic relationships were so fraught yet so crucial to one's future. Marriage remained an important—for some, the only important—goal. I did not question this or fight against it; it was simply the way of the world.


In this social climate, it was not unusual even for an accomplished twentieth-century woman to be indifferent, even hostile, to the new voices of feminism. (Hostile? Consider Joan Didion's essay on the movement, published in The New York Times in 1972: The movement's theorists "had invented a class; now they had only to make that class conscious." The result was writing in which "we have been hearing the wishful voices of . . . perpetual adolescents, the voices of women scarred by resentment, not of their class position as women but at the failure of their childhood expectations and misapprehensions." Didion's conclusion: "the women's movement is no longer a cause but a symptom.")


The fact is, women seriously involved with the second wave remained a minority for many, many years. There was no Internet, after all, and no social media—no large-scale way of promulgating feminist beliefs—and mainstream media was most likely to caricature feminist positions Younger editors, academics, and other people whose job is to consider the merits of biographies need to consider that the givens in their lives were not necessarily the givens in ours.


© Cathy Curtis 2023

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