Cover image for Letters of intent : women cross the generations to talk about family, work, sex, love and the future of feminism
Letters of intent : women cross the generations to talk about family, work, sex, love and the future of feminism
Bondoc, Anna.
Publication Information:
New York, NY : Free Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xiii, 239 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


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HQ1229 .L55 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Feminism today, many have claimed, has become a battle between older and younger women rather than a struggle for equality. Here an energetic group of women wrestle with the second and third wave feminist divide in an original and engaging format. More than 20 young writers pose a question in letterform to an older feminist, who responds in kind. The result is a lively and surprising exploration of what women think about work, activism, sexuality, family, health, spirituality, and creativity.Amy Richards and Gloria Steinem exchange views on reproductive rights, Jennifer Baumgardner and Judy Blume talk about feminist morns, Eisa Ulen and Angela Davis explore black power and revolution, Jennifer Hunter and Starhawk examine spirituality and witchcraft. Letters of Intent constructs a bridge across the feminist generation gap, in hopes of stimulating further conversation among women of all ages about the reality of women's daily lives. Such honest and open speaking and listening point to exciting new directions for the future of the womens' movement.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In the feminist movement, the most divisive factor is not outside forces but inside struggles. The second generation of feminists, who rose out of the '60s, sometimes resents today's young feminists for coasting on earlier victories; and the younger generation appears not to fight as hard as the foremothers. In these cross-generation letters, established feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Suzanne Pharr, Angela Davis, and Starhawk and newcomers such as Amy Richards, Emily Gordon, and Eisa Nefertari Ulen respond to questions about abortion, multiculturalism, lesbian parenting, and spirituality versus religion. The epistolary format creates an informal, friendly book in which the love, respect, and understanding between the women are evident. This group of women is aware of the need for mutual acceptance and the importance, and necessity, of working together. The dialogues they produce and the loving relationships they have nurtured bode well for a unified step forward for all women. --Ellie Barta-Moran

Publisher's Weekly Review

This collection of 21 pairs of letters seeks to bridge what the editors perceive as a feminist generation gap through exchanges about abortion rights, mentoring, mothering, racism in women's rights groups, the role of lesbian activists, health and spirituality. Bondoc, a Filipina-American chef who has written about food and health, and Daly, who has edited an anthology about the politics between lesbians and straight women, solicited letters from young women, which were answered by feminists from the previous generation (or beyond). While some questions and responses are well articulated, the book is disappointing structurally. For example, it's not always clear how topics were selected or why there are two or three sets of letters on one subject and none on others, such as the status of African-American feminism. In a few cases, the letters are stiff, as in Amy Richards and Gloria Steinem's correspondence about their personal experiences with abortion. Among the most literate and unself-conscious exchanges are Marie Lee and Elaine Kim's letters on interracial marriages among Asians. While Eisa Nefertari Ulen's letter to Angela Davis is poetically phrased, her plea for Davis's active leadership rightfully elicits a lecture cautioning Ulen to avoid "a certain romantic idea of the Sixties" and to "make your own revolution." Overall, the letters convey one generation's hard-fought struggle to attain success and equality and the next generation's relative complacency. Agent, Jennie Dunham. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One How Are Our Experiences with Abortion and Feminism Similar? Amy Richards and Gloria Steinem Dear Gloria, We met on a Saturday in early September 1991 when I was a junior in college. You were about to finish Revolution from Within (well, almost) and needed help fact-checking and researching. I rang your doorbell, having no idea what to expect. I had a larger-than-life, child's vision of you in my head. You answered the door, warmly welcomed me into your home, finished a phone call, offered me tea, and gave me a chapter from your manuscript to read. If I did have any comments, I don't remember. I do remember thinking, "Who am I to comment on Gloria Steinem's work?" You quickly helped me move beyond this toward a place of mutual respect. Although I grew up with a feminist mother in a house scattered with Ms. magazines, I still didn't really know who "Gloria Steinem" was. You had something to do with women and equality, although at the time I probably didn't use that word. I knew you and your life in an external and romanticized context. I assumed that you were just "born a feminist" and that the rest of us weren't lucky enough to have built-in "shit detectors," as you would say. Now, six years later, I do know you as a friend, role model, mentor, employer, and soul sister on this quest for equality -- and I know that feminism has been as challenging, delayed, and difficult a journey for you as it has been for the rest of us. When I met you my activism was in its infancy, whereas yours was an innate reflex. I wasn't "political," nor was I a student leader in the traditional sense of the word. I took women's history courses out of sheer interest, prided myself on being the daughter of a single mother, and nurtured my female friendships. That was pretty much the extent of it. Now I see that I was emerging as a young feminist activist, but back then I wasn't "uneducated" enough to give credence to the words feminism or activism. I'm hopeful that my actions spoke louder than words. Why was it, for example, that I fought to be the first female head of my high school or to make sure that the girls' soccer team didn't have to wear the boys' old uniforms? My mother inspired many of these actions, but I needed your nonfamilial example to appreciate these as feminist acts. Like me, you took several early steps -- all part of a natural progression toward feminism: you were the vice president of your senior class (I was vice president of my senior class), you went to Smith College (I went to Barnard College), and you worked for the liberal presidential candidate Stevenson. (When I was a junior in high school, I worked for Senator Ted Kennedy.) From working in the women's movement, I have learned about "the click" -- the moment you finally acknowledge that things just aren't right for women -- which became synonymous with your generation's introduction to feminism. Many women of my generation, on the other hand, came to feminism through a steady realization. In many instances we were simply living feminist lives, even if we didn't yet call ourselves feminists. My most obvious introduction to activism was a 1989 pro-choice rally and march. On a rainy November day, amidst a sea of women and children (and a few men), I chanted, "My body, my fight." At that time, I translated that phrase as "pro-abortion," not yet understanding the deeper roots of reproductive freedom. I marched for other people to have the right to abortion, never thinking that I personally would have to use it. I also hadn't yet connected the "political" act of marching to any "personal" experience. I was experiencing the excitement and comfort of being among people united for something that we believed in individually and collectively. Now I know that reproductive rights encompass much more than the right to have an abortion, including access to information and to resources that enable us to make informed choices about our bodies and lives. It begins with comprehensive sex education and "praise for women's bodies," (to borrow a title from one of your articles) and ends with controlling our bodies and, in turn, ourselves. As you have often pointed out, reproductive freedom is a basic human right, like freedom of speech and freedom of religion. My friend Zoe was the impetus for my being at this march. A few months later, she bought me a home pregnancy test when my period was two weeks late. My test was positive, and I was forced to deal with my own misconception that "teenage pregnancy" was something that happened to other people. For the first time, I was confronting my fear of "ending up where I began" (a sentiment you first put into words for me), remembering the girls from my working-class neighborhood who were sent off to "homes" for nine months or were single mothers by the age of sixteen. I knew my choices: adoption, irresponsible parenting, or abortion -- and there was never a question in my mind that I was going to have an abortion. It was the best choice for me and for any potential child. Regardless of my certainty, I still carried around guilt and shame about having been "knocked up." This little voice in my head whispered, "You knew about birth control; you knew it only took once." Plus, I was trying to live up to society's unrealistic expectations that girls be infallibly good. So I hid these feelings and tried to protect myself from having to tell anyone. I soon realized that this was hurting me more than protecting me. The minute I dared to hint to a few select friends that I was pregnant and about to have an abortion, some acknowledged they had made the same decision, and we shared sighs of relief. During these moments of honest exchange we connected our personal lives to larger political issues. Why, we wondered, were we made to feel as though we were bad people just because we had become pregnant and decided we weren't ready for it? We were confronting the fact that our guilt and shame came not from within but from a powerful, gendered caste system that judged women's lives in an unrealistic way. Verbalizing our experiences was the most difficult leap. Once we did, we realized, one, that our feelings of "being judged" went away, and, two, that those judgments were inflicted on us because we were female. Discovering that we weren't in control of our decisions -- because these decisions were actually in the hands of the "state" -- made the personal/political link all the more obvious and, likewise, all the more frustrating. I remember sitting with you one night watching a documentary about women's reproductive choices. You said that you "had yet to see any film capture your experience with abortion" -- one that was void of guilt and shame. You told me you have never once thought about "what 'it' would look like or how old 'it' would have been by now." Knowing this realigned my thinking because I was still trying to make myself feel guilty for becoming pregnant in the first place. When I have made remarks like, "After having had a legal and safe abortion, I will always fight for reproductive freedom," or "Such and such happened when I was pregnant..." people have responded, "I'm sorry." Sorry for what, I wonder. Sorry for "my loss"? Sorry that I made that choice? Could we all still be victims of anti-choice brainwashing? And, how, Gloria, have you managed to fend it off? I made a promise to always speak openly about having had an abortion to keep others from feeling isolated. Each time I have shared, I feel relief -- my openness has helped others deal with similar decisions, just as your openness in the pages of Ms. about having had an abortion comforted many women, myself included. I know that it was this kind of consciousness raising that inspired the feminist movement of the 1970s -- and that is needed to continue to inspire the feminist movement of the 1990s. My abortion was safe, legal, and in the most basic sense accepted. The doctor who performed your abortion made you promise two things: one, that you would never tell anyone his name; and, two, that you would always do whatever you wanted with your life. The doctor who performed my abortion didn't need to use those words with me; he didn't have to: My decision was a commitment to do whatever I wanted with my life. What we share is that both experiences brought us to our feminist activism. I had assumed that going undercover as a Playboy bunny sparked your feminism, but, in fact, it was a public hearing on abortion. Both of us awakened our personal commitment to approaching wrongs through a gender lens -- the push we needed to stop divorcing the "us" from the "them" -- those whom we wanted to "help." Once I'd arrived in a feminist world, I couldn't imagine where I'd be without it. But I can't help but ask why so many people wait for a personal experience to make that political connection? I look at Anita Hill and how she was jettisoned into feminism by being forced to painfully revisit her sexual harassment on national television. Through my work with Third Wave (a national philanthropic and activist organization for young feminists), I see many young women -- and men -- who are reticent to speak out on issues unless they themselves are directly affected. But I cling to Third Wave's philosophy: See It? Tell It. Change It! I just wish we could work on "changing it" -- whatever "it" is -- without having to first experience it so intimately. Do you think it's inevitable that we get motivated to be activists only when we experience injustices? The journey toward equality will hopefully bring some answers, and it's because of your work and others' that we can even formulate the questions. As a feminist activist on this journey, I'm privileged to have your life and work as an example. It makes my trip a little less lonely and certainly less daunting. Still, as you have calculated, we have at least a hundred years left on our quest to a world "where women matter." To combat frustration, I always remember your standard reply when people ask why and how you do what you: "Because it's harder not to." I am always thinking of ways to thank you for your example and for all that you have exposed me to. Nothing seems like quite enough. The most appropriate way is to promise to provide others with the example you've given me...and to do whatever I want with my life. With thanks, sisterhood, and oh so much love, Amy * * * Dearest Amy, I like this idea of writing to each other. For one thing, it makes a place for us to understand each other even better. Though we've spent six years working together, we're both too subject to outside demands and deadlines to have enough time to talk and explore, so in a way this assignment is a gift. For another, I think our letters may help disprove the myth that younger women learn more from older women than we older women do from you. In my experience, it's pretty balanced: experience in return for fresh perspectives, a longer view in return for a clear focus on the present. With you as an individual, I also have special rewards. You are one of the most constructive, energetic, intelligent, and empathetic people I've ever met, regardless of age. I learn from you every day. For example, I learned from your letter that even you, who were born into a time when abortion was legal and women were allowed to be sexual beings, still tried to force yourself to feel guilty about needing and having an abortion. That surprised me, for more than thirty years before, I had done the same thing. This makes me more aware that deep change comes slowly, that even though decriminalizing abortion has saved women's lives and health, women are still being held more responsible for sexual behavior, not to mention for the decision to give birth to ourselves instead of (or before) giving birth to someone else. However, I'm glad your time of feeling alone was measured in weeks and months, not years. That's the difference between struggling in isolation and having a women's movement. You could share your experience and know you were not alone. That didn't happen to me for more than a decade. Yet we were both prevented from exploring our true feelings at the time and honoring our decision as taking responsibility for our own lives. It makes me understand that if I focus on how much better it is for you than for me, I will fail you. This is the way older women often fail younger women: by comparing emotions instead of respecting experiences as absolutes. As Letty Cottin Pogrebin has said, there can be no "competition of tears." Tears are tears, joy is joy, and all of our feelings are to be honored. There is no hierarchy of emotion. Neither of us should have to decide whether it's better to be young or old, born into this era or that, with or without a particular race or class, with this sexuality or that ability. Feminism is not about ranking, but linking; about creating a community with others who are just as unique as we are. Unless women act together with this consciousness of balance between sameness and difference, we will remain a very long way from the vision of the old Irish woman taxi driver who said to me in Boston many years ago, "Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament." She understood what was shared, regardless of age. What you and I experienced is also an example of the large body of research that shows -- despite media depictions of abortion as an always agonized choice -- that the most common emotion after an abortion is relief. Regret, depression, and guilt occur mainly when abortion is the result of pressure, and is not freely chosen. Nonetheless, its popular image is still one of tragedy -- more tragic than going through a forced pregnancy and bearing an unwanted child, even as a result of rape. (To assess the real cost, we need only think about the torture used to break the will of women political prisoners: forcing them to bear the child of their torturer.) In other words, most women who choose abortion have an experience that is closer to yours and mine in taking control of our own lives, yet the idea of abortion as always tragic renders our two realities invisible, and also devalues the tragedies of women who are coerced and pressured. Maybe this respect for similarity and difference -- for a shared emotion, created by a different cause in a different time -- is the key to making friendships across generations. It keeps older women from telling younger ones, "You shouldn't be feeling thus and so" (because your circumstances seem so much easier than ours), and keeps younger women from saying, "You can't possibly know what I'm feeling" (because circumstances were so different from the world as it is now). To put it another way: We all fight for our lives on the barricades of our times, in ways large and small. Each generation fights to clear more safe territory -- or fails to fight and loses territory. So the next generation experiences a parallel struggle, but in a different place. For example, you and I were both the daughters of single mothers and spent most of our lives as partners in a family unit of two. This made us independent and taught us how to survive in the world. We also shared feelings of shame at being different and a romantic envy of the so-called "normal" family we didn't have. On the other hand, my mother came of age in the regressive years between the first and second waves of feminism, and was made to feel crazy for wanting to follow her personal star, instead of following her husband -- a struggle that had broken her spirit long before I was born. It was different for your mother. Younger than I am, she had more support for her courage in leaving an impossible marriage, struggling for her own education, and finding work that could support her and her daughter. She didn't remarry, yet she did have male companionship (which my mother would have rejected as improper, even though she, too, had fallen in love with another man after my father). She also found an alternate family in her women's group, a small circle of friends who have supported each other for more than twenty years. All of this means that you and I shared independence and outsiderness -- as well as respect for our mothers' struggles -- yet we grew up with a very different model of female strength and possibilities. I don't know whether you will marry, live alone, with a partner, or choose some combination of these in sequence over your lifetime, but I see you and your generation as much better able to forge equal partnership. Mine absorbed the message of marrying the person we wanted to become, not becoming that person ourselves, and so marriage came to seem to me like the end of all possible change -- a little death. You can imagine an equal partnership and redefine marriage as an institution for two whole people, not a person-and-a-half. Your sense of self can continue to grow after marriage -- not to mention your legal ability to keep your name and civil rights -- in a way that rarely existed in our hopes, much less our realities. Still, inequality is likely to arrive when and if you decide to have a child. Men are not encouraged or required to take care of children and the home as much as women do -- to put it mildly -- so women still sacrifice more of their own time, possibilities, and sense of self. Equal parenthood will have to be imagined before it becomes real, and even so, it will take big societal shifts in work patterns and a new vision of both men and women as achievers and nurturers. In other words, my generation demonstrated that women can do what men can do. Yours will have to demonstrate that men can do what women can do. Barriers in the workplace have also moved, leaving more free territory, but much still to be cleared. I was turned away from jobs and entire professions for being female: "Help Wanted -- Male" and "Help Wanted -- Female" were categories in want ads until the 1970s (as "White" and "Colored" had been until the civil rights movement), and professional schools categorically excluded or allowed only small quotas of females. Your generation can enter the work force pretty much anywhere and do well for a decade or more. But then the barrier reappears: The glass ceiling shuts you out of high positions, and the sticky floor of the pink-collar ghetto still keeps most of your generation of female workers in poorly-paid, mostly female jobs. Future victories will be won partly by the tactics that worked for us -- and we'll be glad to share them -- but you will also need tactics that only you can imagine. You also may have learned from observation that women are the one group that gets more radical with age. In the suffragist era, the critical mass of activists were over fifty, sixty, even seventy. In the current feminist one, most are over forty or fifty. In a patriarchy, this political pattern makes sense: women lose power as we grow older, men gain it; women gain more reason to rebel, men grow more conservative. The miracle that you and many other young women have performed is measured by the degree to which you have overcome this pattern. You are honoring yourself and other young women. But you still may need the comfort of remembering -- especially when looking at your contemporaries who are still fearing feminism and playing by the patriarchal rules -- that life itself will eventually radicalize them. You also will see this pattern disappear little by little, a decade at a time, until female power is finally no longer derived from youthful sexuality, childbearing, and finding Mr. Right. Eventually, women and men will be valued for all the varying periods in our lives, not for playing one conformist gender note. You said you were surprised that my feminism was as "challenging, delayed and difficult a journey" as yours. Perhaps each of us sees the other as having been "born feminist," or generally having an easier time. That's the impression we get from all the no-process, no-struggle images of the media. The only answer is to talk to each other and, whichever side of the generational divide we're on, to answer each other's questions honestly. For example, we both feared "ending up where we began," the penalty for those of us who have traveled a long distance in our lives. I can only tell you that as time and confidence increase, the fear melts. Sooner than I did, you will bring all your worlds together. Which leads me to something I think we both need in form, even though it varies in content: a group of women friends to meet with once a week or so. My generation called this a consciousness-raising group; and later, a networking group. Some young women now call it a book club, a coven, or just "my group." But as long as women are marginalized, we will need a place where we are central. At least for a few hours, we can nurture strength and a collective vision. Besides all these examples of cleared and uncleared territory, there are free spaces only you as an individual inhabit: You are so responsible that you never forget the largest political issue or the smallest need to lock the door; you are ten times faster than I am at every task and give me the feeling of wind whistling past my ears; you not only know what's wrong with the welfare system but take your personal time to help a mother on welfare go to court to keep her children; and in the midst of growing into a world-class feminist organizer, you never forget the joy of cooking or dancing, shopping or having fun with friends -- which is, of course, part of being a world-class organizer. After all, revolutions must include dancing and sex, poetry and good food, friends and fun. Otherwise, we won't have them when the revolution is over. Never forget: The means are the ends. No matter how equal our exchange and mutual learning, however, I'll always have one great advantage over you. Because of my age, I'll never have to live in a world without you in it. With love and trust, Gloria Copyright © 1999 Anna Bondoc and Meg Daly. All rights reserved.