News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

Losing Our Feminist Leaders

Within a week, America lost three great women who worked for social change in different ways. Who will continue their work?
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

America lost three amazing leaders in the course of only six days. Betty Friedan, Coretta Scott King and Wendy Wasserstein all worked for change in their own distinct ways, but the impact they had on women's lives spanned class, race and generation lines.

Clearly, icons like Friedan, King and Wasserstein can't be replaced. But the work they started must continue. A crucial question begs to be asked: Who will take their place?

Friedan was best known for her groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique , which many credit with sparking the women's movement of the 1960s and '70s. Though critics have long noted that Friedan's work spoke to a specific group of women -- namely straight, white, and middle to upper class -- the housewives' "problem that has no name" resonated with enough women to start the mainstream second wave of feminism. A founder of the National Organization for Women and the organization's first president, Friedan continued to work on women's issues until her death at 85.

King's legacy was built on the work that her husband Martin Luther King Jr. began. After her husband's death, King devoted her life to working on nonviolence -- in 1969 she founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The Center focused its efforts on hunger, unemployment, voting rights and racism, issues that King believed bred violence. King was also an ardent supporter of women's and gay rights. Up until her death she worked tirelessly on civil rights.

Like King and Friedan, Wasserstein also spoke to an entire generation of women -- she just did it on stage. Since the 1970s, Wasserstein wrote plays that dealt with women's daily lives and their struggle with unrealistic social expectations. Wasserstein's best known play, "The Heidi Chronicles," won Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle awards for best play and earned her a Pulitzer Prize.

All amazing women. All leaders in their fields. And while there isn't much doubt that their work will be continued, there is some worry as to who will do it.

In a time when the so-called "opt-out revolution" reigns supreme in the media and mainstream columnists unconvincingly tell women that the "power is in the kitchen," we need a continuation of Friedan's work more than ever. Thankfully there are women like Linda Hirshman out there who not only debunk the happy housewife myth, but completely obliterate it. Wasserstein fans can rest easy -- people like Sarah Jones and the Guerrilla Girls are making strides for women in the arts, whether on stage or in masks. And of course, the growing opposition to the current administration and invasion of Iraq is building amazing momentum for the movement for nonviolence and civil rights.

It's clear that women are doing the work -- but where are the new icons? Is it that a successful women's movement simply doesn't need icons anymore, or are they out there just waiting to be recognized by a mainstream that still doesn't take kindly to feminism?

The idea of a new crop of mainstream feminist leaders is met with some wariness when talking with younger women. For many young women, especially those who work in grassroots organizations or who have taken their activism online, the idea of a feminist icon or leader seems a bit passe.

Amanda Marcotte of the popular blog Pandagon notes, "There's a good reason to be optimistic that iconic feminist leaders are a thing of the past. Without having the same handful of feminist leaders to return to time and time again, maybe the media will be forced to acknowledge the geographic, racial and class diversity in modern feminism."

But for young women working on the national level in established organizations, there's a fear that a lack of a definitive leader means having to reinvent the wheel --convincing people that feminism is still alive and well.

Deva Kyle, the incoming program director of the Younger Women's Task Force, recognizes that the "essence of social movements is their ability to work as a collective," but worries that the idealistic notion of a nonhierarchical movement could be damaging.

"For people who aren't working within the movement, iconography is necessary. When there isn't an icon, people tend to think that a movement isn't there," says Kyle.

A valid concern, considering the popularity of feminism-is-dead or -dying articles.

Whether an icon is necessary to the survival of the women's movement is debatable. The fact that women are doing feminist work with or without an icon is not.

Despite stereotypes to the contrary, young American women are activists. You only need to look at a project like The Real Hot 100 to see just how much progressive work they're doing. Dedicated to highlighting this work, The Real Hot 100 lists women from across the country who are breaking barriers and fighting stereotypes.

Real Hot 100 cofounder Gwen Beetham says "Although not all of these women can be defined as Betty Friedan feminists or the new Coretta Scott King, I think that Betty or Coretta themselves would look at this list of amazing younger women and know that something went right. Whether it's an aspiring astronaut, a young minister, or even a sex shop owner, when you see all these women doing positive things for themselves and their communities, you can't deny that the gains made by the feminist movement are substantial."

The truth is, there is no new Friedan, or younger version of King. There will never be another Wasserstein. Their work was their own and spoke to a specific set of women. Younger women may not ascribe to the exact same ideals or work in quite the same way as their predecessors, but the spirit of the movement hasn't changed.

Moving forward, it sometimes pays to look back. King once said, "Struggle is a neverending process. Freedom is never really won; you earn it and win it in every generation."

As younger women stuggle to move forward in a transitioning movement, perhaps we'll realize that it's the lack of an icon that will make leaders out of all of us.

Jessica Valenti is the executive editor of Feministing.