Mean Girls, the Internet, and Politics

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 23: Gloria Steinem visits CBS This Morning with Co-hosts Charlie Rose, Norah O'Donnell and Gayle King on F
NEW YORK - OCTOBER 23: Gloria Steinem visits CBS This Morning with Co-hosts Charlie Rose, Norah O'Donnell and Gayle King on Friday, Oct. 23, 2015. (Photo by Heather Wines/CBS via Getty Images)

This column was written with Helen A. Berger, Resident Scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center and Author (with Douglas Ezzy) of Teenage Witches: The Magical Self and the Search for Identity.

My mom was fierce. If she heard me denigrating someone she would say,"S/he is some mother's darling!" Reminding me not to be a mean girl. This syndrome seems to have moved out of high school into the political arena. There is now online a "taking down" of Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem, two older women who have given their lives to making the world better for women. They made a mistake. Madeline has tried to walk it back.

I am proud of Madeleine Albright breaking the glass ceiling of Secretary of State, even if I don't agree with all she did (but then I certainly didn't agree with all that the male secretaries of state did either). I am proud of Gloria Steinem, who is still fighting at 81. I have done some good things, too, but none have had such widespread impact as theirs. I know the difficulties they have encountered and so I am willing to be forgiving.

Who of us that have been in the world for more than a decade have not said something that they wish they had not? Which one of us has never had a tantrum in frustration? Let her be the first to throw vitriol at these two women. Road rage, checkout counter rudeness attest to the prevalence of misplaced frustration.

I certainly wish I had at times remained silent, at others spoken words, and at yet other times said something different. But now there is a group denigration of these icons. I don't like it. I didn't like the mean girls in high school. Wouldn't it be better if we explored uncomfortable statements and try to understand where the anger is coming from, instead of returning anger with fury?

I remember being young with fire in my belly; with a sense of urgency to eliminate the inequities of the world. I was annoyed at those before me for what I saw as their complacency and for not doing enough. But, of course , now I understand they too fought their battles and won some things, and lost others.

I wish I had honored them more. I now think how terrible it is I did not celebrate what they were able to accomplish.My parents' generation fought for and helped establish trade unions--and it is the unions that, for better or worse, have fought against wage inequality. Others in their generation fought for the rights of Catholics and Jews to worship and for Italians, Irish, Chinese, Japanese and Jews to gain access to jobs and education. It is not an accident that we have a new gilded age with the decline of the unions. It is not an accident that we are still trying to figure out how to make entry to the most prestigious colleges fair. We learn the unintended consequences of each step of progress. Unions raised wages, but maybe there is a grain of truth that they fossilized job descriptions and made cooperation harder. Geographical diversity in admissions advantaged the white male over the urban immigrants with high scores.

Maybe this is the seesaw of life - when we are young we need to believe that we can completely repair the world and that those before us just weren't motivated enough, right thinking, or something else. Our thinking as we age changes. If we are lucky we come to feel that we have done a little something to make the world a better place. But, we are also aware that we didn't do it all, or as much as we had hoped. And what we did manage to change was in part the result of strides made by those who preceded us. We would like the young to realize what we did - and maybe they will when they are older and reflect on their lives as we do now.

I remember my generation being dismissed by the older generation for our clothing, our pretense, and our fights. But, we in the end were right about the Vietnam war, which was immoral, we were right about racism, we were right about gender inequality, and we were right about gay rights. The young today too are pointing to real problems and issues. The 99% movement made us as a nation focus on the growing social inequality that is threatening the very fabric of our social compact as a society. It is essential that we fight to change this.. But, denigrating Icons of the social movement before yours who misspoke does not move that agenda forward, if anything it is a diversion from real change.