When the organizers of the Decatur book festival paired up Erica Jong (author, most prominently, of Fear of Flying) and Roxane Gay (author, most recently, of Bad Feminist), the symbolic contrast was likely intentional. Gay is one of the most popular and prolific voices of feminism’s current iteration, associated more with the Internet and prioritizing diversity than any numbered wave; Jong’s politics, age, and race place her squarely in the movement’s second, which crested in the 1970s. The pair’s joint keynote, delivered last Friday, was thus bound to be as much an allegory for the relationship between feminism’s past and present as a discussion between two individuals.
The Guardian’s report on, and dozens of tweets from, the event bear this narrative out and then some. Gay played a Beyoncé track in honor of the star’s birthday… only for Jong to lecture her, and the audience, on the history of African-American music. Gay dropped “intersectionality,” the ultimate buzzword for a movement increasingly aware of its historical blind spots…only for Jong to ask what the word meant. And so on, until Jong responded to Gay’s observation that feminism has frequently ignored other forms of inequality with a rather tone-deaf defense:
“I also want to say that anybody who says that feminism is only a white thing is ignorant of the history of feminism,” she began. She mentioned blues singers, black abolitionists, and black female civil rights leaders, “who were all passionate feminists beyond any white women you could name”. Jong said she thought anyone who claimed otherwise was speaking from “historical ignorance. “We have a long tradition of people of colour, of women of colour, being feminists,” Jong insisted. “A long tradition.” …“Gloria Steinem when she started Ms. magazine made people know who Sojourner Truth was,” Jong continued. “People didn’t know about her before. This white movement began popularising these figures who had been buried.” The rest of Jong’s response included her assertion that the Black Lives Matter movement (referred to in the original audience question) was “a political movement trying to show us our failure of empathy, and as such I salute them”. And she was adamant that reading black writers was important, as was reading “African and European and British and Caribbean and whatever” writers. “But let’s not confuse animals,” she urged. “Feminism has always been interested in people of colour, in my view.”
Jong, of course, misunderstands the criticism Gay has just paraphrased: the issue isn’t whether women of color have contributed to feminism, but the degree to which those contributions have been erased from the movement’s narrative and historically excluded from its organized efforts. Ironically, Jong ends up illustrating Gay’s point for her when she (falsely) claims “people didn’t know about” Sojourner Truth before Gloria Steinem, apparently unaware of who she’s implying constitute the “people.”
But patronizing and off-base as Jong’s comments were, when contrasted with Gay and the trajectory Gay represents, they’re also evidence that feminist thought is doing exactly what it should be: evolving over time. Jong’s failure to keep abreast of changes in the discourse, from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s coining of “intersectionality” in 1989 or the importance of Beyoncé as a feminist figurehead from the mid-aughts onward, may be disappointing. The fact that the discourse itself has moved forward without her is reassuring.
It’s worth noting that Jong’s work has always been concerned more with personal experiences of sexuality than politics; her latest novel, Fear of Dying, is about the sex life of a woman in her 60s (Jong is now 73). Her admitted ignorance of intersectionality, and even pioneering stand-up Moms Mabley, is thus unsurprising—and feminism’s attention to a new set of priorities as it incorporates a new generation even more so.
As exasperating and out of touch as Jong’s opinion may be, both the Decatur crowd and the Guardian’s readers appear far more sympathetic to both Gay and her arguments. And in the long run, their ability to recognize Jong’s shortcomings is far more important than any one author’s resistance to a changing zeitgeist.