photo by NIKKI VAN DER GAAG
Feminism has become a dirty word for the generation in their twenties.
Amy Richards and Julie Parker explain why.
Amy: There is an assumption that the ‘twenty-something’ generation is lazy, apathetic and irresponsible. Much of this grew out of the media’s characterization of ‘Generation X’. Recently I was sitting through a meeting with older feminists and the question arose ‘What is happening with young women?’. Even though my hand was raised – and I was one of only five young women sitting around the table – no-one looked to us for input. It is discouraging to have it happen in the media, but downright disheartening when it happens in your own backyard. I was left assuming that older women fear the confidence young women have and are somehow threatened by what we have accomplished at an early age. Do they really think young women have forgotten their struggle? We have not – but I know that as much as we have to embrace their history, we have to pave our own path.
Although it took me 20 years to identify myself as a feminist, I know that my feminism has always been with me. I remember being angry that the girls’ soccer team had to wear the boys’ old uniforms while the boys got new ones; that I was usually one of only two or three females in my advanced math and science classes; that, until I got to college, I had read five plays by Shakespeare and had never read or learned about Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston or Virginia Woolf and the only glimpse I got of women’s experiences in the US was through a ‘Social History’ class.
The final push came when I was in the safe community of a women’s college, surrounded by women who weren’t afraid to identify themselves as feminists. By accepting the label, I felt better about myself and was determined to help other women come to this realization. I was no longer afraid of the F-word.
Julie: I don’t think I ever acknowledged the acute gender inequalities that exist in this world until I travelled to Morocco, the summer before my senior year in college, to work on a community relief project. For the first time, I was denied the right to go for a walk on my own, forced to be escorted by several males each time I tried to venture out to explore. I felt cloistered and oppressed. This experience was the catalyst for me to embrace my own brand of feminism. Since then, I have tried, sometimes in vain, to make everything I do woman-centered, to somehow channel my energies, enthusiasm and resources towards creating a more balanced world.
Amy and Julie: It is thanks to our foremothers that a gender consciousness has been awakened in many young women and men today. The first wave of feminism began to swell more than 150 years ago with the abolitionist and suffragist movements. The second wave of feminism has been working toward equality for the past 30 years. While the first wave secured basic rights for women – like the right to vote and the right to own property – the second wave defined specific injustices, such as domestic violence, incest, illiteracy, the lack of reproductive rights and equal pay for work of equal value.
A third wave of feminism has now come along to continue their work. And there is still much to be done. Although progress has been made since then – a few women have cracked through the glass ceiling and some now have access to safe and legal abortions – other areas remain static. In the unglamorous and poorly-paid world of pink-collar jobs (waitressing and childcare), the majority of workers are women. Violence continues to await women in their homes and on the streets.
In most instances, young women’s issues – welfare, violence, access to safe and affordable birth control to name a few – are similar to those of our older sisters. Yet they affect us in different ways and sometimes to a greater extent. In the US, for instance, one in five girls is sexually abused before reaching the age of 18; 40,000 teenage girls drop out of high school each year because of pregnancy and women under 30 represent one-quarter of today’s homeless.
Although the issues facing the second and third wave are similar, sometimes we differ in our approach and our expectations. Because we grew up in the wake of the second wave, we were afforded more opportunities and feel entitled to want and ask for more. As Barbara Findlen, the 30-year-old executive editor of Ms magazine puts it: ‘The more justice you think you can achieve, the more you try to achieve it.’
Our generation in the US is also wont to take certain rights and opportunities for granted. Many of us can’t remember what it was like before Roe versus Wade (the 1973 US Supreme Court case that legalized abortion) or when a woman was expected to stay home at the expense of her career. Today we can get a legal abortion or we can have a child; we can be a teacher or a Supreme Court Judge; we can have the job of our choice and even have a husband who stays home and raises the children.
We have grown accustomed to having options and in many cases don’t know the struggle that went into obtaining these basic rights and the pressure needed to keep them available. We are less likely to embrace a project, movement or event that is not truly representative of our generation. We ask why there are no women of color involved or why, if they are doing an article on ‘young feminism,’ they are only interviewing ‘older feminists’, or why foundations who support projects for youth don’t have young people on their boards. We do this because we want to be involved in a movement that speaks our language and addresses our issues as young women.
The third wave of feminism was birthed at a point in the movement where men’s inclusion became necessary for us to carry the movement forward. Much of the organizing of the second wave took place in women-only groups. This was necessary for women to have a voice and to express their experiences. Now that women have found their voice and have established a platform for a women’s movement, we know that we will not be truly equal until men change too.
By definition, feminism is ‘the principle that women should have economic and social rights equal to those of men’. Given this definition, a Harris poll recently found that 71 per cent of all women in the US identify themselves as feminists. The most common comment from young women who are asked about feminism is ‘I’m not a feminist but...’ The ‘but’ usually goes on to include a laundry list to the effect of – ‘I want equal pay; I want access to better jobs; I want to have the right to choose whether to have an abortion’. Essentially, these women aren’t ready to join a feminist movement of women and men because of the stereotypes attached to the label but they want to reap the benefits from it.
Many young women shy away from a feminist label because of the media’s misrepresentation of it, or false assumptions about its history. Others prefer their own label. And still others come to feminism only after a specific experience in their own lives: being sexually harassed at work, for example, or being passed over for a promotion in favor of a male colleague with less experience; working two full-time jobs, one inside the home and one outside, or becoming pregnant and being told only a parent or a judge can authorize a legal abortion.
We, too, struggled with the F-word, fearful of repercussions from our peers and/or family and friends. We embraced the label only after we understood the word and defined it in our own terms. We have both joined an organization called Third Wave to bring a feminist consciousness to our generation and to act on our political convictions.
Third Wave was co-founded in 1992 by Shannon Liss and Rebecca Walker. Third Wave’s first project was a cross-country voter-registration drive which brought together a diverse group of 120 young women and men to register 20,000 new voters in inner cities across the US. Third Wavers come from a multiplicity of backgrounds and look to Third Wave as a way to stay connected to a movement, to give validity to their experiences and to celebrate the talents and strength of young women. We want to spread the word that young feminists in 1995 are female and male and they exist in a full range of colors, sizes, sexual orientations and classes – and most importantly we want our voices to be heard.
Many other new organizations have also been created to give space and voice to young women’s energy and activism. Anna Maria Nieves, a 23-year-old activist and former program director at one of these, Students Organizing Students, carried the spirit of this generation when, asked recently if all the obstacles for women, and especially for her as a woman of color, seem to be overwhelming. She responded ‘I may not be able to change the whole world, but I can change my block.’
Amy Richards writes for Ms magazine and Julie Parker makes documentaries. Both are 25.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995