Losing our leaders

A story on the toll of last week's obituaries.

Published February 9, 2006 3:40PM (EST)

Speaking of Feministing's Jessica Valenti, yesterday she wrote a story for AlterNet bemoaning the losses, last week, of Coretta Scott King, Betty Friedan and Wendy Wasserstein.

It was a sad trifecta of deaths, and one on which I remarked here earlier in the week, but Valenti's piece is a longer rumination on the subject.

Valenti remembers each of the women and notes that "while there isn't much doubt that their work will be continued, there is some worry as to who will do it." She cites female movers in feminist thought, opposition to the Bush administration and the Iraq war, and the arts, but wonders, "Where are the new icons? Is it that a successful women's movement simply doesn't need icons anymore, or are they out there just waiting to be recognized by a mainstream that still doesn't take kindly to feminism?"

Valenti talks to her peers and colleagues about the question, quoting an optimistic Amanda Marcotte, who blogs on Pandagon, as saying that a political landscape without icons would be a positive development because "without having the same handful of feminist leaders to return to time and time again, maybe the media will be forced to acknowledge the geographic, racial and class diversity in modern feminism."

But Deva Kyle of the Young Women's Task Force tells her, "When there isn't an icon, people tend to think that a movement isn't there."

It's a fascinating discussion: Are we in need of a set of young leaders? Are the paradigms for political activism so changed that young women and men don't need and shouldn't expect charismatic mouthpieces to take the front lines and give voice to their ideals and goals?

I am surely doddering in my desire to be inspired and moved by some vibrant speaker and thinker, someone who could snap the nation out of its reverie, take over the airwaves, pull on American minds with as much force as the celebrities we worship. Maybe there's a better way. After all, Valenti points out, "As younger women struggle to move forward ... perhaps we'll realize that it's the lack of an icon that will make leaders out of all of us."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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