#MeToo founder Tarana Burke and actresses and activists at the 2018 Golden Globes
#MeToo founder Tarana Burke and actresses and activists at the 2018 Golden Globes (Picture: Getty Images) 

OPINION

Don’t let the media tell you that the #MeToo backlash is about younger versus older women

 Online and in the tabloids, women are being pitted against each other. Back in the real world, things are altogether more united, says Lynn Enright

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By Lynn Enright on

They had been waiting for this to happen. In fact, they had tried to engineer it earlier this month. On January 14, both the print and online editions of the Daily Mail ran a piece written by Germaine Greer, who, at 78, is simultaneously one of the world’s most influential and brilliant thinkers on feminism and a contrarian with a tendency to undermine other women.

The headline screamed: “Pioneering feminist Germaine Greer has kept silent on the Hollywood sex scandal – until now. Here she gives her incendiary verdict”. When you actually read the piece, it was more sedulous and scholarly than outright incendiary, and so you got the sense that the Daily Mail had been thwarted. They had rounded up Greer and “her peers” (Elisabeth Luard and Carol Sarler and Shirley Conran), presumably with the hope of igniting a generational battle on sexual harassment – because why stop at house prices and work ethics when you can also pit babyboomers and millennials against each other over rape and the concept of consent, am I right?! Anyway, the piece was a damp squib and the Mail’s gambit failed, but then, this week, Greer delivered all on her own, when she announced that Weinstein’s victims were “whingeing”

It wasn’t particularly surprising – a performed rudeness has always been part of Greer’s schtick, along with a disdain for the views of others – but it did feed into the unhelpful narrative that older women think younger women are a bunch of overreacting, Instagram-obsessed whiners, and younger women think older women are racist transphobes.

When women are written out of history (which they clearly are) and when feminism is overlooked and maligned (which it clearly has been), we not only miss stories about brilliant women – we miss lessons from brilliant women

This sense, of older women being pitted against younger women, has been part of the #MeToo coverage since early on. Last November, 92-year-old Angela Lansbury was rounded on after the Radio Times published an interview in which she seemed to suggest women who are harassed or abused must take some of the blame. She quickly apologised, and said that her remarks had been taken out of context – but not before thousands and thousands of websites had gleefully republished her words. In December, signs claiming that 68-year-old Meryl Streep had known about the alleged abuses perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein – claims Streep vehemently denies – were erected all over Los Angeles, in a move that made headlines. And then, of course, some older women have – like Greer – chosen to quite deliberately and emphatically pour scorn on #MeToo: Catherine Deneuve, for example, signed a letter that suggested the movement had gone too far. 

On Twitter, and in feminist media, there has been a lot of chat about this being a battle between second-wave feminism, which originated in the 1960s and 1970s, and fourth-wave feminism, which refers to the current movement. There seems to be a notion that second-wave feminists are more tolerant of a culture of harassment – an idea that plenty of second-wave feminists strongly reject. As Sady Doyle writes in Elle this week: “The biggest problem with blaming second-wavers for standing in the way of #MeToo is that, without the second wave, we probably wouldn’t have #MeToo in the first place.” She is not the only one to make the point – feminist writer Katha Pollitt puts it this way: “The very concepts that these young women are relying on – consent, date rape, acquaintance rape, sexual harassment, believing women, intimate questions of power relations between the sexes – where do they think they got these ideas? They got them from the second wave, those old harridans who are now, in fact, 75 and 80 years old.” 

I don’t think that younger women are deliberately or maliciously denying the influence of older women – I think sometimes it’s just that they honestly don’t know about it. Young people have always had a tendency to think that they invented a concept – it’s only human to feel that you’re the very first generation to truly understand love, money, parenthood, gender equality, sex, whatever – and when that’s coupled with a lack of respect for women’s history, you get this inclination to disregard the work of past generations. When women are written out of history (which they clearly are) and when feminism is overlooked and maligned (which it clearly has been), we not only miss stories about brilliant women – we miss lessons from brilliant women. A generation mistakenly feels like they are starting from scratch, rather than building on the work of women who have come before.

What is cheering, though, is that away from the internet, the generations do not feel so polarised. In real life – with my colleagues and my family and the women I meet at events or when I volunteer in my community – I have never felt more like we are standing together. Looking at my own mother, a woman in her early sixties, I clearly see the embodiment of Gloria Steinem’s line about how women get more radical with age. I have known my mum for 34 years, and I have never known her to be more pro-choice, more opposed to sexual harassment, more outraged and more plain feminist. This month, 59-year-old Judge Rosemarie Aquilina granted young women a chance to be heard during the Larry Nassar trial. In Ireland, Ailbhe Smyth has been fighting for abortion rights for more than 40 years; now she is joined by an army of young women.

Disagreement is healthy and necessary; we learn when we point out the blind spots and failings in each other’s feminism. But this notion of widespread feminist in-fighting is false – and worse than that, it’s a narrative that undermines women and their struggles.

@lynnenright

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#MeToo founder Tarana Burke and actresses and activists at the 2018 Golden Globes (Picture: Getty Images) 
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