How Young Women are Embracing Feminism

I have been personally asked by the editor of Barnard College’s blog to stimulate the conversation around feminism by replicating their article on my blog, so here it is!

Dare to Use the F-Word is a new monthly podcast series created by and for young feminists. Street harassment, food activism, body image and slut-shaming are among the diverse issues discussed in the series, which is produced by Barnard College and the Barnard Center for Research on Women and aims to spotlight contemporary issues and activists. The podcast is available for download on iTunes, where you can also subscribe to the series.

In a recent episode, Barnard President Debora Spar, author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, talks with feminist media activist Jamia Wilson about how the drive for perfection affects young women today. Following the interview, President Spar shared her thoughts on the direction of feminism for the next generation.

Read this exclusive piece below:

Since the release of Wonder Women several months ago, one of the questions that I’ve consistently been asked is “how is feminism different today? What do you hear on campus? Do young women want to be feminists, or not?”  It’s a complicated question, without an easy answer.  Because young women, of course, don’t speak with a single voice or share a common attitude.  Some are quick to embrace the term feminist.  Others despise it. And many – sadly, for the mothers and grandmothers who opened doors for them – no longer really have a sense of what the word implies.

My own view – shaped, I’m sure, by the particular environment of Barnard College, a staunch and early defender of feminism in all its many guises – is that most young women today are feminist in nature if not in name.  What I mean is that they implicitly assume that the goals that feminism fought for are theirs to claim.  They assume, for instance, that they will work, for pay, for at least long stretches of their lives.  They assume that all jobs – be they in finance or law or public office or industry – are open to them, and that they will receive roughly the same salaries as their male co-workers.  They assume that their bodies are theirs to enjoy, and treasure, and share as they wish.  They presume that birth control is widely available; that relationships are theirs to make, break, and determine; and that the world is every bit as open to them as it for their brothers.  In other words, they think, without even thinking about it, that they have equal rights with men.  Which was, after all, the central goal of feminism.

What they don’t do, necessarily, is credit the feminist movement for this state of affairs, or eagerly claim the label of feminist for themselves. This is perhaps unfortunate but also understandable.  Because how many young people generally race to thank their ancestors for bequeathing the world they did?  How many adolescents want to attach themselves to the same political causes as their parents or grandparents – especially when they feel as if those causes have already been fought for and won? Or as one older woman once expressed it to me:  how many hard-core feminists of the 1960s defined themselves as suffragettes?

To be sure, there are many young women today who proudly wear the label of feminism, and are expanding both advocacy and theory in fascinating ways: leading the global fight against sex trafficking, for example, speaking out against domestic violence, and pushing at the very definitions of sex and gender and identity.  But there are others, too, the reluctant feminists, who carry the mantle even if not the name.

Continue the conversation by spreading the word about the amazing feminists covered by this exciting new show. Click to tweet: Listen to Barnard College’s Dare to Use the F-Word podcast series to hear how young women are reshaping feminism.

18 thoughts on “How Young Women are Embracing Feminism

  1. I would say that for the most part, my friends (but a lot of young women) nowadays are as the article say, “feminist in nature if not in name”. Many of my friends may not even know that they hold the values as a feminist, but they do.

    I think this is positive, as sometimes when you label something, people don’t want to have anything to do with it. Keeping the values while remaining “normal” (non-fanatic) is what a lot of people seek.

    • This is from a guys perspective and I think too that feminism today is different. I mean this is always going to be a hot topic and I don’t want to offend anyone but in my opinion I feel that the term feminism now just suggests to many supporting superiority of women over men. Theres nothing wrong with embracing feminism, but it should be more clear that what it should be aiming for is gender equality in general. The aim of feminism should always be about equality. Any feminist that isn’t focused on this is in my opinion only a feminist in name. Tons of men face actually more inequalities now and have far more social expectations placed upon them. I think to choose a gender and campaign against the other is in itself discriminating. Like with the race issues, equality has become more recognized. That is because they have shifted their aim on quality relationships between the groups, not a campaign on a race fighting against the other races. Men and women should do the same. Should act together as a group. There will be a better chance of meeting the goals and the true values of feminism. If it continues to be guys vs girls fighting, then eradicating inequality will be very difficult, like it already is!

      • I totally agree Jan and I too do not want to offend anybody. This is a very hot topic.

        I have a great deal of admiration for the women who sacrificed so much early in the feminist movement, and I believe an effort like that needed to happen for women to get basic rights.Now, however, the movement has taken on a life of its own for some people, in some respects, and sometimes, it feels like we’re leaning too far in the other direction. Feminists are leading the fight with the global issues such as rape, incest and prostitution and these are the young women that proudly wear the feminism badge and someone has to lead this fight but it is a different meaning now than then so it is hard to compare. Many woman literally fought for equality throughout history. We now have laws which require and encourage equality, things have changed a bit, and there is still room for change in some respects. Those who are not treated equal, need to be empowered to speak up for themselves with a little boost of encouragement from all of us. So is being a Feminist the same definition or meaning as it was in the 1800’s?

      • I see what you mean! I personally am very aware that feminism is about equality, but I have friends who think it’s about hating all men and being superior and that’s not what we want, because then we’ll have the same issue. People need to learn that there isn’t always one extreme or another, there can be an in between!

    • I would have to agree, Andrew. I am guilty myself for being a “feminist in nature and not in name”. I do not hold all of the values presented in feminism but I feel almost obligated by my peers to be feminist by virtue of being a female.

      Part of my issue is the constant redefining of the term. I am unsure from one campaign to the next what I am truly fighting for. I can be for women’s rights but not necessarily for shaming men in the process. I suppose my views are based in meeting radical feminists who look down on me for shaving and be happy for a male friend receiving a promotion.

      Of course there is not a one size fits all solution but cant their be a better way to fight for equal rights for all.

  2. I live in the rural US. Wyoming is my home, and it was the first state in the country to allow women’s suffrage. I am the sixth generation of my family living here, which means that the women in my family have enjoyed equality with men longer most places in the world. However, when you use the word feminism here people think no bra, no shaving, and rudeness. This is what has happened in the freest part of the free world, and it’s sad to me. Most of the self proclaimed feminists I know are true ladies, and seem to be pretty on top of their personal hygiene and appearance, lol. It can be hard to break these old stereotypes, but I think that information travels a lot faster these days and we will see more people realize that feminism was never about burning bras, it’s about women being seen for who they truly are.

  3. Young women today are definitely “feminist by nature” in the way this article described it. I don’t know of any woman (or man, for that matter) who thinks that women shouldn’t be in the job force or have the right to vote, etc.

    On the other hand, language is not stationary; it evolves over time. Like some of the previous commenters have said, feminism is very often associated with an extremist mentality that is often looked warily upon. However, the term “feminist” in the end means different things to different people…

  4. An interesting point raised here – feminist in nature if not in name. I think a rough comparison some people might be able to relate to is religion – generally the morals and life lessons of a religion are positive and something many people agree on. Respect for others, staying humble, being happy for what you have, loving each other, etc. But a lot of people don’t want to subscribe to any religion and you will find many atheists or agnostics who despise religion or even just avoid it while possessing almost every characteristic that would make them a model follower of that religion. From a neutral viewpoint the common reaction would be that it is a positive thing and the more people encouraging these ideas the better no matter their title. This is where the comparison to the feminist case differs in my opinion.

    What I see is that they shouldn’t fear the title at all. It is not like a religion here where the title brings with it other responsibilities and that are written in doctrine and unavoidable. Feminism should have no standard like this and nothing should be implied. By ignoring the title you’re accepting the prejudices and avoiding issues that must be resolved to undo harm to your own cause. Even when the title is long gone your cause remains the same and the harm will carry over to the new title, whatever that may be. People have to realise that just like a vegetarian can chose their diet for health reasons, or simply because they abhor the harming of animals, or a vegan who chose their way of life because of family, there are different motivations and practices that fall under the feminism title – different flavours. It would be a shame to admit defeat but there’s a lot of damage to be undone. The opportunity to unite the fractured communities of people who are fighting the same fight shouldn’t be allowed to pass!

  5. LOL I just cited Deborah Spar’s book in one of my comments (your post on books for teens). I wish I had read this post first!

    I feel like the term feminist is very narrow. For better or worse, using that term now in a conversation on any topic brings all kinds of eye-rolling and assumptions into the discussion and people immediately turn off from the message. IMHO there have been women breaking through glass ceilings for a very long time and only one generation that coined the term feminism.

    I look back to my grandmother – an excommunicated Catholic with no education who left her first husband and raised her children as a single mother during WWII. She worked as a dancer, a foreman in an armory, a housekeeper, a receptionist. She did everything she had to in order to provide for her children. Ironically, if I called her a feminist she would have laughed at me!

  6. Oh yes! I agree wholeheartedly. I think most young women of today are feminist by nature. We believe we are created equal and we act accordingly. Interestingly, I think most young men feel this way too. That is something to be thankful for and to celebrate! I’m looking forward to downloading the podcast and listening in to hear what the other ladies have to say. Great blog!

  7. Well, I guess I’d like to thank those that have fought the hard fight and have helped women to have the freedoms that we have today. I usually take so many of those freedoms for granted. Thanks for the wonderful food for thought.

  8. *sigh* The feminism conversation. I have a long standing love/hate relationship with the term feminism. I don’t believe the term is necessary in today’s society because it is more polarizing today than it was when it was first established. I fully believe in human equality across all boards, not just equality between men and women.

    I think the feminism conversation can be distracting and paralyzing. Feminists can tend to focus on what isn’t instead of celebrating what is and building on that. I think that young women celebrating their womanhood is the legacy of feminist forerunners like Betty Friedan, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Gloria Steinem, and Gloria Anzaldúa, and I am appreciative of that, but the scope of the universe has expanded while the rhetoric has remained much the same.

    I am hopeful though.

  9. As a 29-year-old man, what I see in today’s youth is the general attitude of forgetting the sacrifices made by the previous generations, not only regarding women’s rights but for people’s work rights, freedom of one’s country (I’m a Cypriot-we still try to get our island’s freedom back), education means and lots of other aspects of our everyday lives as well.

    What I am trying to say is that “being something in nature and not in name” applies almost to the whole younger population and maybe that is not a bad thing. The ones who fought and earned all these positive results did it for these younger ones. Of course our youth needs to know about these people, but not necessarily follow exactly in their steps, as now there are other things to fight for!

  10. I’ll never forget the day I was called a feminazi by a male friend for stating that it was sexist that girls can’t show their shoulders at school but males can. That seemed unbelievable to me. How could someone even say that in this day and age? And that was the day I realized that it was still hard for feminists now. Too many people think we are men hating lesbians. It’s hard out there for us, but we are making a difference.

  11. It makes me happy to see that young girls are becoming feminists and standing up for their rights, especially since they are going to be the ones in control of the future. I was lucky to be raised in a feminist household where not only my parents but their families supported gender equality. Unfortunately, not many girls are raised in that way, and some may not even be aware of feminism. I think that all girls should be feminists, at least to the extent of basic equality. It’s gotten a bad name in society, as if it means to hate men and think women are better than men, but that’s not what true feminism is about at all.

  12. I am appreciative for all the privileges I have as a woman today, living in a society that assumes (or at least promotes) equal treatment of women and men in the workplace and in society. However, I would not define myself as “feminist” because the definition is, to me so broad these days. It doesn’t mean the same as it did 30 years ago, nor even the same as it did last week. When someone says the word “feminist” in a sentence, in context, I can say “yes, I am” or “no, I’m not.” But to just ask me, “Are you a feminist?” I would respond “certainly not” because of some things I have seen so-called feminists fight for that I would definitely not promote myself. For instance, I am a feminist who expects to raise my girls in a society that will accept them whether they like to play with Disney Princesses or Matchbox cars, and which empowers them to speak proudly and boldly for what they believe, without regards to fitting into a mold or stereotype. Yep, I’m proudly a feminist there. But, I would not want to be included in a feminist rally promoting abortion or birth control practices, which I personally do not agree with. So, I think the idea of feminism is related to the context in which it is described. And for that reason, I believe “feminist” is unfortunately not a very well-defined term to describe *all* or *most* women in general today. I think more specific descriptors are used today, such as “supporter of gender equality” or “pro-choice” or “activist against gender discrimination,” for instance. Then, those of us who proudly support one camp yet avoid association with another are correctly defined.

    • Absolutely Phoebe, I couldn’t agree more! We all have different believes and a word could not possibly encompass us all! 😉

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