The recent centennial celebration of the March 3, 1913, Woman Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., is a reminder of what some perceive as the apathy of younger women regarding the continued struggle for women’s rights. These days, it seems that “feminism” is highly misunderstood and the word “feminist” conjures up images of both a badge of honor and a repelling force. Going back to basics, Merriam-Webster.com defines feminism as “1: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes, 2: organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.” 1 A feminist, then, believes in the concept of feminism. And his or her support of the concept could be as effortless as acknowledging a belief in equality or could be as avid as lobbying for women’s interests. Fundamentally, there is no activity required to BE a feminist. But the one hundred plus years since the first known use of the word “feminism” in 1895 have shifted the understanding of feminism solely to its activity.
Consider the transformation that occurred in the United States during the past century. The suffragettes who endured shocking consequences during the Women’s Rights Movement at the turn of the century finally achieved voting rights for women. The protestors who struggled through violent demonstrations during the Women’s Rights Movement of the 1960’s finally saw the culmination of their efforts when the Civil Rights Act, among others, was passed. So it should be no surprise that when people hear the word “feminism” or “feminist” their reaction, positive or negative, is directly related to their personal perception of these historic events. Unmistakably, exposure to feminism through education is to feminism, the activity; feminist, the activist. And “activist” is certainly not a label that exudes approachability.
Our current female icons of pop culture far from help to clarify feminism for younger generations. Katy Perry spread a diluted-feminism concept when she stated in her acceptance speech for Billboard’s Women of the Year, "I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women."2 Lady Gaga spread the feminism-equals-I-hate-men concept when she told a Norwegian journalist, “I’m not a feminist. I hail men! I love men!”3 Later, however, in an interview for the LA Times, she appeared to have come to terms with her inner feminist.4 Not wanting to mar their public images by being considered activists on any level, it is almost understandable that these very public and highly influential young women often distance themselves from the feminist label.
Because of our predecessors, society is much different than that which suffragettes and protestors experienced. And, clearly, young women understand and experience the inequality that women continue to face. But the feminism of the suffragette fighting for women’s voting rights has no relevance to the struggle of a single mother keeping a roof over her child’s head. And the feminism of the protestor seeking passage of the Civil Rights Act has no relevance to the struggle of a family searching for safe and affordable child care. In today’s world, young women face personal struggles and, increasingly, survival is their priority. Little time left to fight the causes of half the population!
So, we stand at somewhat of a crossroads between those who witnessed the dramatic changes in the lives of women and those whose exposure to these changes has been through history books. We wind up with younger generations having little comprehension of the still critical need to advance equality. With no clear voice of their own generation speaking-up for today’s feminism or simply explaining its needs, young women have little cause to ponder feminism at all. In retrospect, the generation that experienced World War II expressed great frustration with the younger generation’s lack of regard for those who lived through World War II. In its wake, not only were international relations forever transformed, but our national climate would never be the same. Yet, beyond family stories, books, movies, and, of course, history classes, we can never truly grasp the scope of the changes. In both cases, it is less about a lack of regard or apathy and more about our inability to relate to historic time periods for which we have no experience.
Speaking before the Texas Council on Family Violence's state conference in September, 2012, Gloria Steinem, iconic feminist, writer, activist and founder of Ms. Magazine, was “asked if she thought the Women’s Rights Movement was in a period of retrenchment,” according to the Austin American Statesman. Ms. Steinem describes “it as a time of dangerous repercussions in Texas and across the nation. Though advocates have made headway in their fight to bring issues like domestic violence to the forefront, it is precisely because of that progress that the country finds itself in a period of backlash…. ‘Things are changing profoundly, and that is the source of the backlash.’ Her words come during an intense political climate for women during which state lawmakers have cut funding for women's health and reproductive rights activists say politicians are waging a ‘war on women’ in the national arena.”5 There is still much work to be done in the fight for women’s equality and, although, feminism will always be pertinent, the social and economic climate has considerably diversified the movement.
So what now? We must stop any in-fighting created by the word “feminist.” We must stop assuming that self-proclaimed feminists are extremists and those who are opposed to the term are apathetic. We must embrace feminism with the understanding that the term comes with baggage and remember that we cannot fight individual perceptions of feminism - it is a losing battle to try. We must recognize that many women are already personally fighting society and that they are no less vital to the cause as examples to their children. Primarily, we must compassionately listen to women about their lives, their struggles and their foremost concerns. Their key issues are those that will lead to their personal growth and will then engage them in feminism at a grassroots level. And then we join them. Finally, we must younger generations as we need their support, but we have to understand that they will learn and grow only to the degree that inequality affects them. When they find relevance, they will find their voice and their own style of feminism, whatever the label.
Note: Originally posted on Women on the Edge Foundation