Looking Back and Looking Up: How Feminism Has Reshaped Youth Activism

Watching Parkland activist Emma Gonzalez boldly take the microphone during the Never Again march brought me to tears of joy—and, more, a little envy.

Emma Gonzalez speaks at the Rally to Support Firearm Safety Legislation in Fort Lauderdale in February 2018. (Barry Stock / Creative Commons

Activism is exploding with a vigor and determination not seen since the ’60s, just as we face the fiftieth anniversaries of seminal events that created the character of the generation that grew up under the dark drape of the Vietnam War—my own. The convergence of these two forces is causing many of us, who mark time by where we were when we heard about the Kent State Massacre, to examine our feelings about activism then versus now, and, if we’re women, to trace and embrace the rocky path between the days when we were committed but weighed down by the limitations of our time to the free and blinding confidence of Emma Gonzales.

The issue that mobilized us back then—to stop a pointless war that was annihilating thousands of our youth—is, sadly, equivalent to the current drive to end domestic gun violence, which is doing the same. And though today’s activities make the old activist juices flow for many of us with a desire to join a new generation on the front lines, it’s difficult not to remember and still feel just how unbelievably hard it was to be heard as a woman back in the antiwar days.

We couldn’t just roll up our sleeves and cut to the chase. We had to fight the war, while justifying our standing to do so. We had to simultaneously maneuver the sexism of the times as well as deal with our own rapidly changing attitudes about ourselves as women and feminists. I’d say—with a nod to Tim O’Brien, author of the Vietnam classic The Things They Carried—that we had a lot to carry ourselves.

Ending the war was a cause so obvious during an era of the draft that you’d have thought it would be galvanizing for both men and women. You’d have thought that anyone ready to join the effort would be welcomed and encouraged. Truth is, it was those affected most viscerally who led the way and made the decisions, the ones who’d be directly affected—the guys. And they told us so. As women, we weren’t going to be drafted and find out if we could pull a trigger, if we would be brave or cowardly. We wouldn’t be “in it.” We couldn’t possibly understand. We heard those withering words endlessly repeated to underline the futility of any argument we might make about the viability of our activism.

At the same time, female role models were confusing. Marcia, the friendly radical who first introduced me into the movement, was present and popular, but not in charge. She was like the other women: at the table, being counted, but not always participating. Alternatively, I looked to the two unquestionable female leaders on our campus. They presented themselves defiantly, in shapeless clothes, without makeup or adornment. Both were hyper-articulate, confident, driven and seemingly undeterred by what anyone thought of other than what they said. They were inspiring, though they scared me to death. They’d catch you if you said the right thing in the wrong radical or feminist way. They were instructive but abrasive. As much as Marcia was nurturing, they didn’t have time for such stereotypical female behavior.

I stayed quiet and part of the group. It was enough to be present and counted, I told myself. I longed for the confidence of these female radicals—but clung, instead, to safe feminine norms.

Still, I felt part of it. After plunging into the first Moratorium Against the War and the March on Washington, I came to feel, for the first time in my life, a mission larger than myself. Nothing was more important than ending the war, I felt. Any other change in the world would start from that point, even feminism, I justified.

Meanwhile, I worked hard to earn my radical “stripes,” though my boyfriend at the time and the other guys would undermine me mercilessly, making fun of my new radical-speak language and zeal for a cause they felt only they could understand. I was shot down again and again, inadvertently offering myself up as a target as I tried to grow into a stronger version of myself—until Lottery Night. That fateful evening, when the government would draw lots in a televised roulette “game” to determine the order of who would go to Vietnam, I parked myself in the back of the north TV room with a few other women. The guys piled in, anxious and angry. They ran out of seats.

I heard a voice call out. “Is there more room in the back?” Another answered. “No. That’s girls.” I turned to the women I was with and we snuck out, feeling guilty for taking up space. We sequestered ourselves in a corner of the lobby waiting for whatever boom would be lowered on whatever guy. They were right after all. We couldn’t understand. To compensate, we persisted madly in our traditional helping roles, doing whatever we could to make up for the fact that we weren’t in actual danger of losing our lives. We continued to organize the details of the protest activities, helped our friends and boyfriends dodge and “cope,” which often included drugs. We held hands, dried tears, offered physical comfort, listened to them rage, mopped up vomit, talked them down from bad trips, experienced survivor guilt.

It felt like we were in it. We were in it. Though our lives weren’t on the line, our bravery was tested all the same.

One night, I was in a classroom that had been taken over for a meeting to plan “action” to respond to the university administration’s efforts to close the campus after Kent State.  For the first time, there was an actual Vietnam vet in the room. One of the moderators, trying to earn his chops, went after the vet, forcing him to admit that while “in-country,” he’d killed people. “We don’t listen to people who kill people,” he said, whipping the crowd up to agree and taunt the vet.

I was dumbfounded. I knew I should stand up and tell them to stop; if ever there was a need for the confident voice of a leader, this was the moment. But I faltered. I was afraid they wouldn’t listen, and that they would ridicule me all the more because I was a girl. Shamefully, I couldn’t muster the courage.

I’d failed my test. I wouldn’t have been able to pull the trigger.

It was a harsh but formative incident in my life. I vowed from that moment on that I would never let that happen to me again—and new courage, even if initially feigned, powered my subsequent, successful business career. But the specter of that incident always haunted me—and I continued to wonder why such lessons needed to be so brutal.

In the years following, I learned more about what happened outside my own campus. Though many of us had felt disenfranchised, I came across those who knew that women had actually been in charge of much of the antiwar movement, and bristled at the old phrase that “men manned the battlements while women made the coffee.” I confronted the fact that although there were always strong and vocal female leaders, the tremendous sexism of that early-feminist era intimidated many others—and that sometimes that intimidation, as in my own case, was self-imposed.

Today, it’s wonderful to see that student activism has no gender. There’s no question the girls aren’t just as brave as the guys. I wonder how much of it is because the movement to end gun violence, particularly in schools, is one where the stakes are even and how much of it is because the new generation of activists is fueled by, among other social movements, the growing popularity of feminism.

Had Emma Gonzalez been transported back to 1970, I imagine what she would have said to the guy who heckled that vet. I think she would have stood up and spoken up and won the day. She’s braver than I ever could have been. She’s my hero—unburdened and unabashed.

Gonzalez has her own challenges, but they didn’t stop her. Here’s hoping that some of the baggage we carried is no longer weighing her down.


Rita Dragonette is a former award-winning public relations executive turned author. Her debut novel, The Fourteenth of September, is a woman’s story of Vietnam. She is currently working on two other novels and a memoir in essays, all of which are based upon her interest in the impact of war on and through women and her transformative generation. She also regularly hosts literary salons to introduce new works to avid readers.