Feminism in Flux

By Sarah Hirschhorn (Correspondent)

The International Women’s March on January 21st in 680 cities across 7 continents drew an estimated 5 million people. It was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history.

With this amount of support for women’s equality and pro-feminist efforts shown by millions of people, it’s no secret that feminism still has a strong presence in world politics. But, for some,  it’s getting more difficult to distinguish between feminist activism and overall human rights efforts.

“I have passionate opinions about gender equality, but I worry that to freely accept the label of ‘feminist’, would not be fair to good feminists,” said Roxane Gay, author of books Bad Feminist and Difficult Women, in her 2015 Ted talk “Bad feminist.”

Gay had preconceived notions about feminism before she came to terms with the real meaning of the word. “I had strange ideas about feminists as hairy, angry, man-hating…as if those are bad things.”

These days, Gay sees how women are treated the world over, and anger, in particular, seems to her like a perfectly reasonable response. “As I have gotten older, I have begun to accept that I am, indeed, a feminist, and a proud one.”

“I hold certain truths to be self-evident: Women are equal to men. We deserve equal pay for equal work. We are not just women. We are people with different bodies, gender expressions, faiths, sexualities, class backgrounds, abilities, and so much more,” Gay added.

Gay says that a part of the movement is just having the guts to admit to your feminist identity and that many women, powerful ones, are afraid to stand up and tell the world that they are feminists. “They’re afraid to stand up and say, “Yes, I am a feminist,” for fear of what that label means, for fear of being unable to live up to unrealistic expectations,” she said.

Gay offers up a solution that could end up benefitting any of those more introverted feminists, “We can commit these small acts of bravery and hope that our choices trickle upward to the people in power—the people who can make bigger, braver choices to create lasting, meaningful change.”

Liberal feminist poet, Katha Pollitt, said in her  New York Times article, March, Huddle, Fight: Why Feminism Is Back in a Big Way, that the women’s movement is back, and “not a moment too soon.”

“The Women’s March was arguably the biggest demonstration Washington had ever seen, to say nothing of the huge marches the same day in other cities,” Pollitt said.

Pollitt says that the idea of feminism has changed and lost its sincerity, in light of her own personal experience with her daughter, “When my daughter was in college 10 years ago, she was one of only two or three girls who raised their hands when their sociology professor asked if any of them called themselves a feminist.”

Pollitt recently visited a sociology seminar at New York University and asked the same question. “All the students raised their hands — including the two men. ‘Feminism is cool now,’ explained one young woman, citing the movement against sexual assault on campus as one factor, and the influence of pop culture idols like Beyoncé and Emma Watson as another.”

“The goals may be the same as ever, but the movement feels different. It is more interracial, younger, queerer and far more internet savvy than it was a decade or so ago.” Pollitt added.

Dr. Denise Cummins, a cognitive research psychologist, told the PBS NewsHour in Why millennial women don’t want to call themselves feminists, that the majority of second-wave feminists (like me) were women of the 1960s and 1970s who believed that the rights and privileges of citizenship should not be curtailed on the basis of gender. “Second-wave equity feminists smashed the barriers to greater political, educational and economic opportunities for women,” she said.

“We acted on these beliefs by fighting to improve women’s socio economic and educational opportunities, and to improve women’s access to reproductive health care… Ironically, it is the very triumphs of second-wave equity feminism that lead young women to believe feminism has nothing to do with them,” Cummins added.

Cummins also says that the success of earlier “second-wave” feminism is becoming a forgotten form of feminism, as gender feminism is starting to take it’s place. “Gender feminism is very much alive and well in American colleges and universities, housed within many Women and Gender studies programs. And it is there that some young women decide to distance themselves from the term.

Dr. Cummins says that there are going to be some bumps in the road for the new modern waves of feminism that are taking the world by storm. “The new challenge for third–and fourth–wave feminism is to take back the term from radical gender feminists and to take back our personal lives from an unyielding workplace,” Cummins added.

Contributing writer for the New York Times, Barkha Dutt, who grew up as the daughter of India’s first woman war correspondent said in her article Why They’re Called to Action at Women in the World that women need to take bold steps to break through gender barriers.

“My mother, Prabha Dutt, who was initially denied a job at a leading newspaper (female reporters were good for covering flower shows is what they told her), went alone to the front line to report the 1965 India-Pakistan war,” Dutt recalled about her mother’s brave profession.

Dutt wrote that later on in life she also became a war reporter, but that her job as a journalist wasn’t accredited. “I reported the 1999 Kargil conflict from the war front, but only after bypassing massive resistance to having a woman in an all-male battle zone.”

Dutt said that she learned from her mother, that “the women of her generation had wrenched the doors of prejudice open, to let in the light for those of us who followed. That, my mother taught me, is what feminism is about — freedom.”

The word feminism isn’t just a trending ideology, but it is clear that a generation gap exists when defining it. The challenge for millennial women is to keep the movement alive and inspire others to embrace the idea of equality.

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