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The End of the Women's Movement

The era of the singular feminist agenda is over. But that doesn't mean gender-based activism is.

The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, housed at the continually surprising and alive Brooklyn Museum, celebrated its second anniversary last weekend with a speak-out called "Unfinished Business." As the title suggests, the aim was to bring a diverse range of feminists together in one auditorium to talk about the future of our so-called movement. The lineup of official speakers was, indeed, admirably diverse -- both ethnically and generationally; it included activist and researcher C. Nicole Mason, labor organizer Ai-jen Poo, GritTV host Laura Flanders, novelist and rabble-rouser Esther Broner, and hip-hop artist Toni Blackman.

Most of the voices from the audience, however, sounded eerily similar. They spoke longingly about the exuberant past, characterized by abundant energy and "sisterhood." They lamented that no locatable movement exists anymore, that no one is organized, that no one is out in the streets. At one point, Broner even admitted, "I interpret everything through that time."

With the utmost respect for Broner, whom I found refreshing and radical, I think that this approach is at the center of contemporary feminism's biggest challenge. We are intergenerationally fractured, right down to the most foundational of questions: Is there a formal feminist movement anymore? Does there need to be?

Members of the second-wave generation developed their feminist identity during the heyday of direct action. They had ecstatic, very physical experiences of feminism. They went to meetings -- so, so many meetings. They pounded the pavement. They participated in direct-action spectacles like taking over the offices of The Ladies Home Journal . They yelled until their vocal chords were raw.

Now these women are older, many of them happily shifting into what Jane Fonda calls "the third act" -- a stage of life when they don't give a shit what anyone else thinks, and they want to see the world live up to its God damn potential, once and for all. They start dying their hair funky shades of red. They urge their husband to get a hobby as they head out for another expletive- and laughter-filled lunch with their friends -- other women who are funding feminist causes, editing feminist publications, and leading local feminist efforts. In some ways, it's a return to their earnest youth -- a time less fraught with the compromises that come with juggling families and careers. They're prioritizing changing the world again. And as such, they seem to experience an old hankering for an unapologetic women's movement that they can see, hear, and touch.

I don't blame them. All of their stories -- about marching in the streets, about taking over offices, about riding around the country in vans, falling in love – not only sounds like they had a whole lot of fun, but also managed to make some profound political changes. But I also recognize that it is a time that has passed. Not only is the women's movement -- as it was known in the 1960s -- over, but women my age don't even agree on what a "woman" really is.

Sometimes I feel as if my generation -- women in our 20s and 30s -- are feminism's Frankensteins. After all, Broner herself was responsible for building some of the first women's studies programs in the nation. Now a generation is graduating from them using words like "genderqueer" -- meaning that one doesn't identify exclusively as male or female. We generally aren't down for the subtle messaging by many older women who believe that females in positions of power are inherently less violent or more community-minded than their male counterparts, a view that Bitch magazine founder Lisa Jervis hilariously called "femmenism."

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