When Activist Icons Undermine Their Causes

When activist icons undermine their causes.

Many problems arise when working on issues that aren’t solved quickly; one is that the issues can outlive those who have been publicly working on them for a long time. And sometimes, those veterans of the cause who become activist icons can undermine their own work if they hang around too long.

Feminism is one of those causes. We’ve come a long way baby…but we have a long way to go.

For instance, I’m disturbed by recent comments made by two prominent feminists of my generation speaking in favor of their preferred candidate in the nomination process for the U.S. presidential election (in which I have no say and will voice no opinion).

Here’s 81-year-old feminist icon Gloria Steinem the other day: “Women tend to get more radical…because they lose power as they age,” she told broadcaster Bill Maher while discussing why a large number of young women are supporting Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton, who is Steinem’s favorite. “They’re going to get more activist as they grow older. And when you’re younger, you think, ‘where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.’”

And here is 78-year-old Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, scolding those same young women who favor the man in the race and telling them, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”

I think these comments are not only condescending, but dangerously sexist and ageist. They are undermining the work Steinem and Albright and their colleagues have accomplished for women’s rights. And they are dismissing the opinions of a generation of energetic, thoughtful young women who have finally found something/someone political to get excited about. Methinks these feminist activist icons didn’t need to do quite so much damage as they campaigned in favor of the woman president that would nicely cap off their feminist careers!

I know a bit about this.

One the issues I’ve worked on for most of my adult life – promoting learner-directed, school-free education – is another of those big elephants that is taking a few generations to turn around.

As I age (I’m 65), and as the ground shifts, my role in that turnaround is changing. I’m actually wondering if my role has run its course. I find myself thinking maybe it’s time to leave the next round to all those younger women (and a few men) who are so capably articulating the issues and supporting the cause…and each other. But for now, some people still listen to what bits of wisdom I have to share. So I stick around, although I’ve largely stepped out of the fray. Mostly, I observe from the sidelines. I marvel at how far we’ve come and how much things have changed, even if the problem still isn’t solved. I turn down speaking engagements and media requests. And I come to terms with the fact that things might not have unfolded completely in line with my personal, original vision.

So, to Steinem and Albright and probably others of my generation (including myself, for whom this is a good reminder), I say this:

Separate yourself and your ego from your work so that your present words and actions don’t undermine your legacy. Be on guard for the day that your opinion on the topic you’ve loved for so long has become so unhelpful or even irrelevant to the current situation that it has become harmful.

On one hand, I admire Steinem’s stance of not giving up the torch; of course, age does not necessarily diminish our ability to be effective.

On the other hand, when we babble counterproductive nonsense, we not only set back the cause we’re engaged in, we stop younger people from respecting us (and others) as elders, and from accepting the torches we’re passing to them.

If I get to that stage and am still hanging around the school-free scene, please just put me on an ice flow (if there are any left) and give it a shove – figuratively, if course. 😉