A few weeks ago I attended a local Slutwalk. It was my first, and truth be told I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to go but for one reason– the entire event had been organized and paid for by fellow high school students.
There have been quite a few articles recently about the death of feminism due to an unengaged younger generation. This, of course, goes along with a larger trend of hating on millennials, but in the feminist community, it has become bigger than that– after all, you can’t have a movement if there aren’t people in it. Recent polling by the Huffington Post and YouGov showed that only 20 percent of Americans call themselves feminists; with numbers like that, many are worried. There are other signs of trouble– for example, Yahoo! CEO (and new mom) Marissa Meyer doesn’t consider herself a feminist, despite working and giving birth in an incredibly competitive, mostly male-dominated industry. When placed alongside the war on women, many begin to wonder: Is feminism dead? What does that mean for the future of women’s rights in America?
The truth is, though, that those worried about feminism’s future don’t need to be. Women may not call themselves feminists, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t subscribe to feminist beliefs; in fact, I believe that support for women’s rights is increasing with every generation. The Huffington Post poll in which just 20 percent of Americans called themselves feminists, for example, also found that 82 percent of Americans believe that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.”
Another poll found that 66 percent of young women (compared with just 59 percent of young men) rate a career as high on their priority list– and even more of them, according to a third poll, say that the women’s movement has made their lives better. And while Marissa Meyer might not call herself a feminist, she’s an example and inspiration to women in business everywhere, no matter what she calls herself.
Why have women stopped calling themselves feminists? Many women today see “feminism” as a political term – divisive, partisan, angry. While they may agree with the ideology, they don’t want to be associated with a movement that for some reason makes people think of the (actually fictional) bra-burnings of the 60s. Or, in some cases, women have chosen not to call themselves feminists, though they strongly agree with the ideology, because of its sad history of classism, racism, ableism and the like. Yet while these women might not use the name “feminist,” that doesn’t mean that they subscribe to the ideals any less, and they fight just as hard as the rest of us.
In fact, the whole feminist name kerfuffle reminds me of a similar issue with the term “pro-choice.” While a recent poll found that just 41 percent of Americans call themselves “pro-choice,” 72 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal. To paraphrase Shakespeare – who cares what’s in a name?
So, what’s the solution? Should women’s rights advocates and critics of the patriarchy abandon “feminism,” the way Planned Parenthood has abandoned “pro-choice”? And if so, what should they replace it with? After all, feminists aren’t just advocating for women; the patriarchy hurts all of us, including men and those outside the gender binary. But “critics of the patriarchy” is not only a mouthful, it’s dry and foreign, certainly not what advocates are looking for to help draw in the next generation to youth activism.
Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter what the movement is called, and young people will come to it without needing a catchy title. The many, many angry responses to recent articles asking where young feminists are (hint: online!) testify to the strength and passion of the young women fighting for it, which I also know from personal experience at my high school’s Young Feminist club.
However, while feminism might not exactly be dying, that doesn’t mean it’s not having some growing pains. As the third-wave (or more recent generation, if you’re not into “waves”) begins to take control of not just the movement online but “important” feminist organizations (for example, Nancy Keenan recently stepped down as head of NARAL Pro-Choice America to make way for a younger leader), there are bound to be differences of opinion as everyone adjusts. And while second-wave feminists don’t need to worry about the future of women’s rights, they might want to prepare themselves for their movement to expand a bit. Why? Because the biggest change I see in the (very near) future for feminism is a focus on intersectionality.
“Intersectional feminism,” or “third-wave feminism,” is predicated on the notion that denying women rights simply because they are women is on the same spectrum as denying people of color rights simply because they have darker skin, denying LBG people rights simply because of the gender of those they love, denying trans people rights simply because their birth-assigned gender is different from their true gender, or denying disabled people rights simply because they have conditions that make them “different” from the abled. And while many, if not all, people would agree with this, the feminist movement has for far too long both ignored and actively discriminated against the LGB, trans, POC, and disabled communities. However, third-wave feminists aren’t interested in that; as the leader of my club frequently says, “If it’s not intersectional, if you’re involved with groups that ignore the rights of the trans*, PoC, LGB, or any other oppressed communities, then I don’t consider that feminist at all.” At the Slutwalk she coordinated, there were speeches from queer feminists, feminists of color, trans feminists and more. No one saw this as odd; this is the feminism of the future.
Hopefully, as newer leaders take over feminist organizations like NOW, NARAL, and more, they will get on the bandwagon as well. If they do, then perhaps some who have felt excluded in the movement will feel comfortable coming back in. However, there is also a possibility that the name “feminism” is just too much for many people, even if it’s prefaced by “third-wave” or “intersectional.” And if so, no big deal– it’s the ideology that counts, not the name.
Photo: Steve Rhodes via Flickr