I posted “Generations“ in May 2015, when Bernie Sanders was a gleam in the eye of the Left, Jeb Bush was the big threat on the Republican side, and Donald Trump was a distant celebrity-weirdo. Hillary Clinton was plugging along in first place, where she remains. Sanders – the only appealing representative of my Silent Generation ever to enjoy presidential possibilities (sorry, John McCain) – became a shooting star, shining on long after his campaign conceded. Bush has disappeared into the bosom of his deeply Republican family, all of them issuing occasional harrumphs against the monster they helped to create.
The monster himself looms large and menacing on stage and off, Trumpeting his idiotic tweets and feeding the rage of his base in every way he can. I do not intend to write about Trump here: he has had far too much attention already, and before too long, I hope, we can try to forget him.
Speaking as an erstwhile historian, I note – no surprise – that blogging is not at all like writing history; you can’t run fast enough to keep up with current events. This is not to say that history stands still; history, if not the past itself, moves as we move to describe and analyze it from our shifting perspectives, but its pace is glacial compared to the 24/7 news cycle of today. “Generations” is already out of date, and this P.S. will be out of date too by the time it is posted (see update below!). Anything can happen, and in the hateful election season of 2016, it’s frightening to imagine what might. Nonetheless, and despite the pace of events, I take this opportunity to reflect, to take note of a phenomenon that has captured my attention as a feminist historian.
I met my young friend Annie for lunch not long ago; in the language of Generations, a Silent had lunch with a Millennial. She was upset when she arrived, and grew more so as we talked. Just before the first presidential debate, she watched a TV newscaster (Andy Hiller of WHDH Channel 7, Boston) offer suggestions about what each candidate ought to do in order to “win”: basically, he told Trump to avoid meltdowns and Clinton to smile. Annie was annoyed by this stale and useless advice – why in God’s name do women always have to smile, even while running for President of the United States? She wrote a letter of reprimand to Channel 7, pointing out that men were never asked to smile, including links to an interesting selection of articles on women and smiling, decrying the blatant disrespect of the newscast, and asking for an apology to the women of Boston and New England.
Instead of an apology, Annie received a smug and patronizing reply, denying any hint of sexism, commending her for being a serious person (!), and urging her to stick with Channel 7. Of course she was outraged, and of course I was sympathetic. Angry about being dismissed, she found herself struggling with a sharp new awareness of much else that was troublesome. “Men patronize women all the time, and interrupt them – it happens at work, too,” she said. “It’s not just Hillary. There’s something about women’s voices, about women talking seriously – why, even my father called Clinton ‘shrill.’“ (I happen to know her father and he’s a very good guy, but I had no trouble believing her.) I listened some more, nodded some more, and kept on thinking – and remembering.
Second-wave feminists, Silents and Boomers, probably remember as I do that the recognition of sexism in classroom and workplace, in kitchen and bedroom, made the 1970s a time of pain, anger, and uncomfortable conflict along with joy and achievement. I remember “joking” about looking for a consciousness-lowering group to relieve my stress and anxiety, but this stuff is really not fun, and only rarely funny. At lunch with Annie I began to see that in certain respects, that must be even more true, or true in a different way, for Millennials. Oddly enough, it might be especially true and especially disturbing for those lucky and privileged young women who grew up with parents and teachers who encouraged them to be and do whatever they chose. Whereas we had to fight to get women included on the syllabus, they took women’s studies courses from feminist professors. Job opportunities are no longer listed and classified by sex; contraception is easily available; Roe v. Wade, though eternally under threat, was in place before they were born. They have come of age at a time when it is possible not only to imagine a woman president, but also to vote for her.
In spite of the progress in which we take such pleasure and pride, all of us – older and younger – now have to see and hear, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, what is said to and about Hillary Clinton, even by good men who will vote for her. And although those of us who came of age in the 1950s cannot really be surprised, we are all shocked and frightened by what is said – and might be done – by those who call for her death and imprisonment. Younger women, who may once have thought it no big deal to have a woman running for president, are having their eyes opened to some ugly scenes. To their dismay, it is now all too obvious that whatever differences of opinion about Clinton’s policies and practices may exist, her gender is always an issue. When Clinton is patronized or dismissed – told to smile! to lower her voice! – they are bound to notice. And if they speak up in protest, it is very likely that they will be patronized and dismissed in turn. The disturbing recognition of sexism spreads from the public stage and Hillary Clinton to their own lives at work, at school, and at home. Once more, and with new implications, the personal is political and the political, personal.
Long ago, second-wave feminists used to refer to a “Click!” of consciousness that occurred when words or circumstances came together in a jolting awareness of sexism – a little epiphany that marked painful as well as productive moments. When I heard that Click! again in Annie’s voice, I recognized that all of us are Nasty Women now.
As I feared, this p.s. to “Generations” already requires an update. The American Psychological Association has reported that “this election is a “source of significant stress for more than half of Americans.” (Only half?) I include this unsurprising “news” here because of its accompanying graphic, which presents conclusive evidence that – just as I thought – Annie and I and our cohorts are especially disturbed by this mess. (And I notice that the APA calls Silents “Matures,” which does nothing to alleviate my stress!)