But history does not always unfold so neatly, with youth and progress handsomely paired. In her Netflix stand-up special, “Growing,” Amy Schumer makes a warm joke about the newly enlightened culture around sexual harassment. Pitching herself as a woman from an older generation, she says: “I’m so grateful to this new generation of women that came along, and they’re like, ‘Hey, have you been getting sexually harassed like this your whole lives?’ And we’re like, ‘Oh … yeah!’”
The joke is that the young women have the perspective to demand progress on problems that older women had to simply endure. It’s a nice idea, but a false one. The women who led that change — among them, the 45-year-old #MeToo creator Tarana Burke and the 51-year-old actress Ashley Judd — are older than Schumer, who is 38.
The truth is this: Feminist attitudes do not split cleanly on generational lines. The vast majority of older women are socially and politically powerless. And progress is often interrupted by setbacks and backlashes. But age can be a tempting metaphor. If younger women do have some kind of moral advantage over older ones, it is not derived from their youth or determined by when they were born. It comes from the fact that they are simply not old enough to have amassed great corporate or political influence, or to have had the chance to be corrupted by it. They may be at the bottom of the career ladder, but they retain the moral high ground.
Increasingly, race is deployed this way, too. Often in these stories, the older feminist is a white woman and the younger one is a woman of color — as are Thursday and Rosdely of “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Molly of “Late Night,” Kay of “The Female Persuasion” and Kemi on “Veep,” who is a kind of avatar for Kamala Harris. This helps to poke at the idea that powerful women are not only evidence of feminist progress. They are also agents of traditional hierarchies — racial, political and corporate — which they work to maintain.
But there is sometimes a touch of condescension to these depictions, too, as if young women of color are naturally imbued with moral righteousness. These women risk being drawn more as symbols than as people. One of the sharpest lines in “What the Constitution Means to Me” comes when Schreck praises Thursday in the course of their debate, saying that she’s ready to knock on doors for her Congressional run, and Thursday raises an objection: “Pandering!”
It is probably not a coincidence that the role of the powerful woman tends to be deliciously complex while that of the up-and-comer is comparatively thin. The bad boss, whether in business or politics, is jumping with social tensions. Executives and senators are curious avatars for feminism, after all: Feminism is a movement bent toward equality, while power necessarily accrues to a select few. Often, powerful women are upheld as agents of feminist change when all they have changed are their own circumstances. Efforts to insist that such power “trickles down” are not incredibly convincing; millions of women are left competing for droplets.