Meghan McCain and the power of sisterhood

As women, we're on the same side. Let's act like it.

Last week, conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham attacked Meghan McCain for speaking out about the Republicans' failure to relate to young people. Instead of meaningful debate, Ms. Ingraham belittled her younger counterpart (the daughter of Sen. John McCain), insulting her appearance.

It got me thinking: The 1960s gave us some great slogans. It was the decade of "black is beautiful." It was the era of "make love, not war." And most important for women, the '70s gave us "sisterhood is powerful." Sadly, this last slogan is also the least recognizable to women in 2009.

In 1975, the idea that women could effect real political and social change by listening to each other and by sticking together was electrifying. Today, it is almost unheard-of.

Instead of engaging Ms. McCain in a thoughtful dialogue, Ingraham tried to silence her by suggesting that she was too fat, too pretty and, above all, too young and inexperienced to be allowed to speak out the way she did.

It's unsurprising that older women are attacking younger women, or that they're using the tactics of middle-school queen bees to do it. After all, in our culture, women aren't taught to support other women. Older women, invisible in the mainstream media, have been told from infancy that they'll only be relevant as long as they're young and sexually attractive. As a result, they often see younger women as competition, dismissing and alienating them. Offended, younger women don't look up to older women as role models or mentors. In short, sisterhood isn't so powerful any more. And this has to change.

This weakening of sisterhood has created a gap between generations of women, a gap that is holding women back and making much-needed progress more difficult to accomplish.

Last week, Sally Burgess, the chairwoman of the National Abortion Foundation, was quoted in The New York Times as saying that "younger women have always had access to abortion care, they don't fully appreciate the battle that was fought to have it available to them."

Ms. Burgess suggested that because younger women take reproductive freedom for granted, they're less likely to have the "fire in the belly" that motivated women of her generation. The implication here: Younger women don't appreciate the work our mothers and grandmothers did to make our lives better than their own.

But here's the thing. Everywhere you look, young women are taking action to carry on the work done by previous generations, and not just in the area of reproductive rights. Women are reading, writing, blogging, voting, protesting, educating, speaking, and working to build on the progress – political, legal and cultural – that older women have worked so hard to achieve. As women we all need to remember that we're on the same side.

That's what sisterhood is, and it can be a powerful thing.

That's not to say women shouldn't support other women simply because they happen to have the XX chromosome in common. But in order to ensure continued progress for women, older women need to form relationships with younger women instead of fearing us or belittling us. Even when we don't agree, women need to engage with one another's ideas and intellects, instead of going for the modern-day jugular of appearance and weight. We won't always agree, but we must always treat each other with respect, and we must applaud, and listen to women when they speak out in a world that seeks to silence them.

Young women know that we have it better than our mothers and grandmothers did. But it's clear that their generations left us a good deal of unfinished business: Women still earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. Only 17 members of the US Senate are women.

Even here on campus, we are keenly aware that barely a generation ago, Princeton, like many other colleges, was entirely closed to women. We recognize the incredible courage it took for the first class of women to come here.

But we also recognize that women are still hugely underrepresented in the hard sciences, and that on this campus as on so many others, rates of sexual assault and harassment are unacceptably high. These are the problems young women are tackling right now.

We're raising awareness about sexual assault by talking about more than just the statistics, and we're forming networks of women scientists designed to encourage high school girls to major in the male-dominated engineering departments when they get to college.

What might come across to older generations as complacency or ingratitude is really young women simply looking forward. We are thinking about the battles that lie ahead. There's still a lot to be done. But if we stick together, if we draw on the electrifying power of sisterhood, women can effect real change.

Chloe Angyal is a college senior at Princeton. She is a freelance writer, and founder of a feminist campus blog.

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