Connecticut Public Television’s series “Makers: Women Who Make America” includes in its third video (Part Three: Charting a New Course) the following statement: “Feminism is an unfinished revolution.”
This rings inherently true to me, as a member of the most recent generation having to deal with the unplanned future of what women’s lib means not for the daughters, but the granddaughters of the movement. It isn’t just our foremothers breaking the mold, but also myself and my counterparts moving out into uncharted waters. For some of us it’s still safer to stick to a few known realities, sometimes to the chagrin of those foremothers: as Sheryl Sandberg the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook mentioned, she and her husband (who recently passed away) were certainly partners in the marriage but she’s still the one who feels guilty, and he doesn’t. Her brother-in-law calls watching his own children “babysitting.” Women still bear the psychological responsibility, domestic responsibility, trend-setting responsibility, and sometimes it’s easier to fall back into a few known pathways (motherhood, housewife) than forge completely, sometimes blindly ahead.
Today’s girls aren’t marching in the streets mostly because, I think, feminism has fractured enough to encompass a great deal of individualism, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Feminism activist Shelby Knox’s comment: it doesn’t matter what the woman calls herself as she’s doing feminist work, as long as that work is getting done. But there is also an inherent lack of structure and support which leaves many young women floundering. The Western women’s movement of the 70s and 80s pushed so hard to gain women’s rights in the home, in the workplace, sexual and reproductive rights, rights to representation, etc. Now, women are encouraged to independence, pushed to independence, but that freedom is not defined. There are role models in the political, social, sexual sphere, but so many of those images are idealized and surreal for many women’s daily lives. It isn’t so much that there’s a singular focus of the movement as there are many issues which are spearheaded from different directions and taken up through myriad different approaches. It can be incredibly confusing: who to believe, who to follow.
Today’s girls aren’t marching in the streets also because, in my opinion, the feminist movement has already come a long way and gained a great deal of ground, and women are busy filling in those spaces rather than fighting for the right to do so. There has been a lot of success, and so instead of crying “injustice!” I think more women are making the changes and advancements more subtly. There’s still a lot of subtle backlash against “playing the gender card” just as there is against “playing the race card” where it isn’t applicable. This forces a lot of girls into ambiguous positions, in my opinion. How much of their stance is tenable against the last remnants of a chauvinistic system and how much is simply frustration? And I think this isn’t necessarily a cross-generational problem, either: the “first” feminists, in the 70s and 80s envisioned a world with equality, but their daughters had different experiences than expected, and passed down more ambiguity to us, their daughters, my generation, than they did structure and familial leadership. There’s more intersectionality to feminism today, much more complexity, much more confusion.
And there’s a great deal of militancy associated with the term, as well. The most fascinating aspect of the contemporary wave of feminism is that, for the most part, it defies actual definition. Echoing the “all-or-nothing construct” perception which Lauren Duncan describes in her article, “Women’s Relationship to Feminism” (2010), “[t]aking on the feminist label is an indication that one has politicized one’s gender identity” (Dunca, 2010). The advent of social media has only further exacerbated polarization and near-militarization of the term; thus, both the positive and the negative emotions which Duncan references in her article as commonly attributed to feminists.
However, although thorough and expressive, Duncan’s article does not encapsulate all aspects of the ongoing conversations about feminism. While her exercise asking feminists to list the definitions, stereotypes, and associations they had encountered while bearing the label “feminist” is very enlightening, her interviewees were among those most comfortable supporting and defending the term. While arguably the majority of women in the contemporary United States would welcome improved social status, equality of pay, and equal respect for biologically different labor, many women balk at the superiority and anti-male sentiments also implied in the term (Duncan, 2010).
One enormous benefit of the worldwide revolution touched off by feminists is the global impact. As a student of global social work I think it’s amazing that women are slowly starting to incorporate women’s global issues into traditional feminist (there’s a great phrase!) values and demands. I love that feminism has opened up to incorporate so many men, and that empowerment includes not only women in the American workplace but also disadvantaged women (and any disadvantaged population) around the globe. The awareness that comes when human rights are called into question is far reaching and extremely significant. I don’t usually find myself agreeing point-blank with Hillary Clinton, but her Beijing statement: “women’s rights are human rights” and vice versa was simply amazing. I couldn’t have put it better myself.