Friday, December 14, 2007

Why Young Women Fear the Feminist Label. Or: The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall and Rise of Feminism.

Feminism as a movement, like most political movements, comes in waves. Feminism as a movement is different from feminism as an ideology, and when critics argue that young women are not that interested in feminism they really refer to the movement concept rather than the ideology concept. Polls suggest that the vast majority of young women agree with the ideological goals of feminism: equality of opportunity for both women and men. But whether they belong to a feminist movement depends on the zeitgeist of a historical era. And the era we live in is not an era of a major feminist movement, though it just might be the birth throes of one.

I have read several articles in the last fifteen years or so about the death of feminism. That is a favorite topic in the trend-making business, of course, but the frequency of those articles also reflects something deeper, which is that many people wish and hope for the death of feminism. Some do so, because they don't like the feminist demands. Things are so much simpler if social norms and rules are not criticized, and life is much cozier for those whom the norms and rules favor. Others do so, because they want the business of feminism done, the world fixed, and the society perfected.

Well, neither of those groups will be happy, because feminism is an ongoing project. Neither feminists nor the gender-based injustices they fight will go away on some near-future date, though at times it may look like it. The feminist movement will ebb and wax, and the anti-feminist movement will follow that ebbing and waxing, too. This doesn't mean that the same battles are won over and over again. The battles change, from those early ones demanding women some legal rights within the family (such as the right to own property) to the battle for female suffrage to the battle for equal access in the labor markets and for the end of sexual violence to future battles which we can't yet quite define.

Two approaches have helped me in understanding feminism in this context. One is looking at the history of feminist movements. This shows how ideas about gender equality follow the wave pattern of a feminist advance, an anti-feminist backlash, a lull of some indeterminate length, another feminist wave and so on. (I'm not, however, convinced that the feminist wave is somehow the cause and the anti-feminist wave a response. It might be the other way round, at least in some cases. Reading about the 1950's suggests to me that misogyny and the oppression of women intensified during that period, compared to the 1940's, and that the Second Wave of feminism grew out of that. But the major point is to note the wavelike pattern over time.)

It was pretty upsetting to learn about the inevitability of the backlashes, but knowing that they will come helps in keeping optimistic in the longer run. Yes, progress does seem to advance with two steps forward and one step back, but the net result is that things are getting better.

The inevitable backlashes against feminism are also linked to the question of why more young women today won't call themselves feminists. Here is a quote on the topic:

Modern young a strong hostility to the word "feminism," and all which they imagine it to connote. They are, nevertheless, themselves the products of the women's movement.

Can you guess the year when this quote by Ray Strachey was published (in a book called Our Freedom and Its Results)?

The year was 1936, and the feminist movement the quote refers to is the movement to get women the right to vote. But something very similar is being written about young women today, and it helps to put it all into a historical context.

Another useful approach in analyzing the feminist movement is to look at the life cycle of successful social and political mass movements. Feminism is unlikely to differ from other types of movements, and understanding how such movements are created, how they grow and how they ultimately weaken and die (at least within that historical period) can let us understand the current stage of feminism, too.

A movement begins when there is some cause for it to exist and when the time and place for action are favorable. Thus, social mass movements tend to be less successful in authoritarian countries where the government applies violence to keep the population quiet, and social movements tend not to be created around trivial injustices. As the movement becomes better known its support also grows, and so does the resistance to its goals. The larger the movement the more likely it is to be successful, in the sense of getting at least some of its goals met. Paradoxically, these victories contain the seed of the movement's ultimate death, because working for such a movement is exhausting and intense and the costs of doing so start looming larger when the most urgent victories are already achieved. At the same time, the resistance to the movement's goal often reaches its major force around this time. It has learned how to effectively smear the movement and its goals and it is angered by the victories of the movement.

This is the point when many active members of the movement drop out, in order to have a life, as they say. Those who still remain tend to have more "extreme" demands. These demands are unlikely to be met, given the reduced resources of the movement and the increased resistance to its goals. Ultimately, even the most diehard members of the movement end their active participation in the movement.

It is interesting to apply this to the First or Second Waves of feminism. The First Wave was effectively over when women got the right to vote, despite the many other goals of that movement which remained unmet. Getting the vote was enough to reduce the impetus for change, and the backlash era followed. The Second Wave succeeded in creating more gender-equal conditions in the labor markets and in education. It also reframed the debate on sexual violence against women. These were major achievements, but the movement failed to get lasting change in the sexual division of labor at home or the way women's sexuality is treated in general.

Both periods were followed by backlash eras, eras when feminism was redefined to apply only to the most "extreme" demands of some in the movement. We are still living the end of that latter backlash era.

This is the way I look at the question posed in the title of this post. If young women don't support feminism as a movement it is because of the historical period we live in and because of the ubiquity of anti-feminist definitions of feminism in the popular culture. Nobody likes being called a man-hater and unfuckable, and those are the kinds of definitions feminists are often defined by. Add to all this the general way we human beings tend to view the world through the lens of our own lifetime only, and it becomes pretty easy to understand why coming out as a feminist isn't exactly the in-thing to do. But given the wavelike patterns of history, this, too, can change. Perhaps even quite soon. It all depends on how strong the current anti-woman wave in politics might become.

How does this explanation strike you? I like it, on the whole, though I should warn you that there is no natural law which states that the wavelike pattern of past feminist movements must continue into the future.