ESTRICH: The generational issue in feminism

I had to stop reading Meg Wolitzer’s new best-seller, “The Female Persuasion,” not because it was bad — it is a very good read — but because her description of feminism seemed so precisely and perfectly loaded for generational conflict that it made me very sad. The 60-something Gloria Steinem-like feminist, Faith Frank, who had done so much for women, had to fall flat — too privileged, too white, too out of tune with the times — to make way for her not very appealing mentee and a new wave of feminist energy. The most likeable character in the book was the down-to-earth erstwhile boyfriend, which I’m not sure was intentional.

I’m all for a new wave of feminist energy, standing up against things we felt no choice but to accept, broadening our base to include so many who were almost invisible in the days when Frank launched her magazine. As a matter of fact, I’ve been asking for years where the next wave was and when it was coming, given how much of the energy of my generation had been sapped by the endless fight for reproductive freedom. Sometimes I think about how much more we could have done for women and children if all that energy on both sides had been used for other things.

Walking down the street near my office the other day, where there is construction on every block, I watched to see if any of the workers were giving the young women a hard time as they went for lunch. A few. But what was even more curious to me was just how invisible I felt; when a woman gets to a certain age, no one leers at her. It’s open to question whether they even see her.

To some extent, have we forgotten what it was like?

When we “older” feminists hear our younger friends complaining about men giving them sly compliments or even the once-overs, we have been known to roll our eyes. What we put up with was so much worse. And it was. Which is not a reason to set the standard where we did.

It is easy to forget — to forget why we wore those blouses with the high collars and ugly bows, to forget why women’s groups and women’s lunches at work were so critical to our sanity, forget all the little “jokes” like that poster that “women are not chicks” and the special “drinks” we women used to invite the worst male offenders to join us for. Self-help, I guess it was.

So I’m all for workplaces where everyone feels comfortable. I’m all for helping men — and older women — understand or remember how lousy it feels to have a co-worker leer down your shirt or give you a once-over, which, even if well-intentioned, begs the question: why? Particularly when, these days, you can say or do almost anything if you ask first.

But the way you make workplaces more comfortable is not to execute the first five unwitting men who did not realize that the rules had changed.

Not only is it fundamentally unfair to punish men who did not foresee the “Me Too” movement and thought it was still OK to be generous with compliments, but it almost certain to backfire, creating division and resentment rather than unity or inclusiveness. So, too, if we start punishing people who are poor mind readers, who honestly had no idea that the way they were acting was anything but gentlemanly. Maybe gentlemanly has to be redefined. But you don’t do that in the course of a punitive proceeding.

I have not switched sides. I’m on the same side I’ve always been on — the side that protects the sexual autonomy of every individual, that recognizes that women are not chicks, that respects the dignity of every worker, that doesn’t punish you when you complain. I just want to see that this revolution keeps it eye on the real goal: which is not counting how many men we can knock off, but rather how much better we can make things in the workplace. There is a difference between rape and an unwelcome compliment, between sexual assault and a sly look, between penetrating someone and casually touching their arm. If we forget those differences, we may drown in the backlash. And we will have forgotten our own values of fairness.