By Lily Horton, IWPR Communications Intern
Women in the workforce, particularly those with children, have been the subjects of a renewed (and rehashed) debate on the definition of feminism and whether women can have it all. Writers Anne Marie Slaughter and Hanna Rosin have famously weighed in. Alongside, young women have also been rehashing the idea of feminism and its significance to them. This particular discussion, possibly more present in the media than in reality, has prominent young women saying they do not define themselves as feminists. The word itself now sometimes simply referred to as the f-word.
But what does feminism really mean to young people, like myself? Are young women actually retreating from the term, or is that a misrepresentation? Publicly rejecting the term feminist has been a visible trend among young celebrities of the millennial generation and beyond, including Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Demi Moore, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
The millennial generation may have lost sight of the first and second waves because they have grown up being told and encouraged to claim their space, to be anything they wanted to be. As a student at a liberal arts college in Washington, D.C, I have noticed a surprising number of young people turn their backs on the term feminist. Both men and women alike hesitate to identify as feminists because the term continues to conjure images of radical protests. Thus, there seems to be a lack of understanding of the fluidity, flexibility, and diversity within feminism.
But not all women have disassociated with the continuing movement. In reality, many young women call themselves feminists, according to a November 2012 poll commissioned by Ms. Magazine with the Communications Consortium Media Center and the Feminist Majority Foundation. The poll found 55 percent of women voters and even 30 percent of men voters consider themselves feminists and—among women voters under 30—59 percent consider themselves feminists. But the poll also showed that young women are hesitant to call themselves “strong feminists.” Even after being provided with a dictionary definition of the term, a smaller percentage of 31 percent defined themselves as “strong feminists.”
In my experience, student discussions of gender equality are usually marked by across-the-board consensus that women deserve access to the same opportunities as men. There is not a lack of feminist beliefs or values in the millennial generation, but, as the Ms. Foundation poll showed, young people do not want to be identified as radically “strong feminists.”
Some young women of the millennial generation may think feminism places women against men, instead of working alongside them. In XO Jane, Margaret Cho wrote that characteristics attributed to feminism today are not actually inherent to it; for instance, the idea that women should reject conventional forms of beauty and should embrace ‘puritanical’ attitudes toward sex. Cho, a comedian who is known for blazing trails, emphasized the fact that all feminists differ as women and there is no uniform code that makes a woman a feminist.
In an e-mail interview, author and co-founder of the blog sexyfeminist, Jennifer Armstrong, weighed in, reiterating Cho’s point that feminism takes a variety of forms. The ultimate goal shared by all feminists is “making sure women are treated equally with men,” said Armstrong.
Armstrong thinks women in the millennial generation are skittish of the term because “it is oddly controversial and, alas, is still pilloried as no fun, too demanding, too shrill, and unsexy. This is thanks to impressively relentless negative PR campaigns waged by everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Suzanne Venker.”
In the end, women need feminism. Despite the millennial generation’s distaste for a perceived divisive label that has the potential to alienate their male counterparts, the reality is that the fight for equality is not over. Women continue to suffer political, economic, and social injustices on a basis of gender.
IWPR addresses these injustices by disseminating knowledge and advocating for policy changes. The millennial generation needs to consider policy issues that continue to disproportionately affect women like access to paid sick days and Social Security. Also, young women face a gender wage gap, and a job and training gap when it comes to higher paying jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). These issues currently affect their work lives and economic security, and will affect their future. The work that IWPR does proves that feminism is, in fact, necessary in the 21st century.
For young women and girls today to shy away from feminism is a missed opportunity. As Margaret Cho said, “they will desperately need it out in the world, and to fear what will help you, make you stronger, better, happier makes no sense.”
Lily Horton is a Communications Intern at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. She is presently a senior at The George Washington University majoring in International Affairs and minoring in Women’s Studies
To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org