It seems everyone today is using the “F” word. No, I’m not talking about “fabulous” or “fierce” or “fun.” I’m talking about “feminism.” Only this new wave looks different than the faces of the past.
“We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.” Malala Yousafzai
This new face of feminism is not easily identifiable. She grew up on a farm or in the city or maybe in the land of strip malls. While she has an aura of educational privilege, her economic category cannot be pegged. Her skin color cannot be identified and her family heritage is compromised of destinations from around the globe. Her hair flows in a variety of colors and styles from braids to waves. She discarded her pantyhose long ago. Her wardrobe is an interesting juxtaposition of styles from Target to vintage. She grew up believing she could be anything she wanted to be. She was the princess, the President and the stay-at-home mom. She is not shy, timid or afraid. She’s not naive, meek, and certainly not passive. She’s self-assured, self-aware, and, yes, maybe even a little selfish. She is present and accounted for, and she is not going anywhere.
Feminism has been a decisive issue among women since the 19th century when the first wave of feminists championed a woman’s right to vote, finally winning the battle in 1920. The second wave of trailblazers burst onto the American landscape in the late 1960’s drawing momentum from the civil rights struggle of African Americans and the rebellious attitude deeply embedded into the counterculture of the times. These women passionately fought for change to secure equal rights in all aspects of life, from reproductive rights to education and the workplace.
Some women shied away from the feminism drumbeats. They couldn’t identify with the singular voices leading the cause, such as Gloria Steinem, who seemed radical to many at the time. Others felt the movement was forcing them to choose between all or nothing — why couldn’t a woman be strong, remain desirable to men and still maintain her rights?
We hear the word “feminist” but what does it really mean?
To different women it means different things, depending on their experiences.
“For me, feminism is a plural movement that dates back to the mid 19th century, with a broad umbrella for social justice concerns on activism and working to achieve social equality,” says Amy Reid, former director of the Gender Studies program at New College of Florida.
As a child who grew up in a military family, Valerie Goddard, executive director of the Women’s Resource Center of Sarasota County, says she was aware of the role feminism played in her life. “My mom had a career where we relocated, so when my dad retired, he said, ‘you did everything to live out your purpose and now I will support you. My grandmother and mother were very strong, educated women who instilled in me that there are opportunities for a woman to fulfill her dreams and maximize her potential. I tell my daughter to do the same.”
In my case, both of my parents encouraged me to fight and stand up for social equality issues that were important, though I wouldn’t call myself a feminist in the traditional sense. I couldn’t identify with the women who marched and chanted for equality and against sexism, but I appreciated that they would take to the streets and band together to bring attention to the issues.
My mother’s example showed me at an early age that in order to get ahead in life, you don’t need to ask permission to do something, but forge your own path, work hard, and negotiate the rest. I may not have been “labeled” a feminist, but I was among the generation that could see how my foremothers fought to allow girls and women to be treated as equals. I didn’t know a world where girls couldn’t play sport or be denied access to classes once reserved for boys only. The road to the future is paved with opportunities generated in the past, so I am mindful that my foremothers lobbied for the change that shaped my world, and now my daughter’s future.
While the issues have evolved over the generations, the real conversation behind feminism today is how it has changed from a singular voice to a chorus of multi-cultural and multi-generational voices. It’s a sizable shift from the days when the only faces that represented the cause were white women’s. While NOW remains a vocal proponent for women and Steinem continues her fight for women’s rights, the face of feminism has broadened beyond individuals and applies to both women and men.
“We are now becoming increasingly comfortable with the plurality of voices,” explains Reid.
One of the biggest critiques of the second wave of feminists was the lack of intersectionality, or diversity among the group, explains Jerin Arifa, NOW’s First Virtual Chapter Young Feminists & Allies President. She says, “Feminism today is certainly not perfect when it comes to including non-white, straight, and middle-class women, as proven by the viral hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen. However, in general, younger women tend to be more conscious of the inequalities among different groups of women.”
This past year feminism came roaring back to the foreground of popular culture. A word that had long ago lost its racy reputation was dusted off and electrified. 2014 was a year when women of all ages, races and backgrounds stood up to be recognized. Beyonce famously emblazoned the word “FEMINIST” in lights as her backdrop for her performance at the 2014 VMA Awards on MTV. Actresses Emma Watson and Lena Dunham and Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, were among the women that lent their voices – and faces — to the conversation. On the global stage, Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and Pussy Riot gave credence to the feminism fight. The result? A spontaneous wave of women who identified with the message of feminism and championed the sisterhood.
Or not? While Watson’s impassioned, game changing “HeforShe” speech before the United Nations on gender equality commanded headlines last fall , she seemed an unlikely spokesperson for her generation. As Watson remarked in her speech, “Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and unattractive.” Many Millennials today, including actresses like Shailene Woodley and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting have denounced the word “feminism” and being labeled as “feminist” because of the so-called negative connotations associated with those words. Feminism experts also contend that Millennials shy away from being associated with national organizations, preferring the grass-roots efforts to realize impact and engagement.
Then a social media millennial backlash began to sweep the Internet as young women took to their keyboards and cameras denouncing feminism as an outdated concept that did not apply to them. Once again, the word has become a source of division due to perception.
But for that sect of Millennials today, I would contend that they don’t understand the real definition of feminism, which means equal rights for both men and women. It’s not “us vs them,” as Watson emphasized in her gender equality speech.
“It is time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals. We should stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by who we are. We can all be freer and this is what HeForShe is about. It’s about freedom.”
While many battles have been won in America, the fight for true equality is hardly over. When those female millennials begin their careers and realize their paycheck is over 25% less than their male colleagues, they might reconsider their position. As the men in their office receive promotions ahead of them, they may find new affinity for the movement.
While equality in the workplace and sexual harassment remain real issues, a new wave of feminists are focused on battling the rise in the number of sexual assaults in the military and on college campuses, helping women who are attacked in prison, and identifying with more identity-based issues such as LGBT rights and gay marriage. Across the globe, the fight continues to allow women the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, fighting sexual harassment in France, or the struggles in Third World countries battling against female genital mutilation, so-called “honor” killings, female infanticide, forced marriages and child marriages, and having access to contraception and safe abortions.
Atrocities against women around the world are far from over. While many advances have been made in America in the past 100 years, women are far from equal, even in America, and certainly, not around the globe. Perhaps, we are on the cusp of the next wave of feminism, a battle that will be raged on the international stage beyond the borders of Western civilization.
As the fight for equality matures a new and valuable weapon has been added to the arsenal: social media. By utilizing the power of social media in the feminism fight, the movement has taken on a global army leveraging Facebook, Instagram, online petitions and other tools to gain supporters and push agendas, allowing women to bond and talk about the issues and struggles in their countries.
Even with all of the progress made, the struggle continues with the torch passed to the next generation who fight to bring even more rights to women around the globe. They appear to be a force to be reckoned with, the fight appears to be in good hands.
by Katherine Ferrara Johnson and Jules Lewis Gibson