Feminism thriving on college campuses today

You are here

Feminism thriving on college campuses today

Scholar finds widespread evidence of feminist activity, even as popular press proclaims "death" of feminist revolution

by Karen Powroznik on Monday, January 20, 2014 - 1:28pm

Woman holds NOW sign, "Young Feminist Mobilizing"Where have all the young feminists gone? The popular press proclaims the “death” of the feminist revolution. According to some accounts, today’s young women refuse to identify as feminists, largely because they believe gender equality has already been achieved.

But these postmortems of feminism are wrong, argues sociologist Alison Crossley, a postdoctoral fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. After all, young feminists have a popular media presence—in blogs like Feministing and books such as Colonize This!. Just last week, a student's feminist poem garnered 3.5 million YouTube hits. If today’s youth are truly disinterested in feminism, then what explains this current of feminist activity?

Feminist activism on college campuses looks different from what some people expect—perhaps this is why media fail to notice it.

To learn more about young feminists, Crossley traveled to three college campuses. An expert in social movements, Crossley wanted to understand how feminism persists at a time when "its goals are widely understood to have been achieved." Everywhere Crossley went, she found impassioned young women dedicated to feminism. But today's feminism looks different from what some people expect—and perhaps this is why media fail to notice it.

It's not only that so much feminist activity is taking place online, where it's easy to overlook. It's also that young feminism is hard to define—activities vary from campus to campus, and students reject labels such as "third wave." What's more, young feminists engage in a range of social justice activities, not confining themselves solely to "women's issues."

Young feminists engage in wide range of activism on college campuses

Bumper sticker: "Of course I'm a Feminist. Stanford Women's Community Center."College campuses provide a fertile environment for organizing and activism, says Crossley. Tight networks of energetic students and the institutional support of women’s studies departments fuel students’ interest in feminism.

Crossley explored feminist activity at Smith College, University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), and University of Minnesota (U of M). She found feminism to be alive and well—even integrated into students' daily lives.

The range of activities was wide. Young feminists coordinated Take Back the Night marches, raised money for survivors of sexual violence, and organized discussions on issues ranging from disabilities to blogging. At U of M, feminists mobilized hundreds of their peers to rally over several weeks for educational accessibility for low-income students. At UCSB they organized a women's banquet honoring a renowned Chicana feminist scholar—with seating for 250 and a budget of $14,000.

Campus culture shapes feminist activity

Young woman holding sign stating "Chicana"No one form of feminist activity dominated across campuses, explains Crossley. After all, these are three very different schools. Their campus cultures, their past histories of feminism and activism, and the presence of on-campus opposition affected feminist students’ challenges, goals, and strategies. "When we think about how a movement persists," explains Crossley, "we must understand how it is dependent on its environment."

Smith College, for example, is an all-women’s institution with a strong feminist legacy. Here, discussions of gender inequality were widespread in campus life, even in informal settings such as student parties. The Smith students in Crossley's study were more likely to identify as feminists than the women students at the other two schools. They were also more likely to participate in events that promoted gender equality.

Despite this positive environment, mobilizing support for ongoing activities and organizations was often difficult. Student organizations with seemingly similar goals competed for members and struggled to sustain students’ interests in participating. One way that feminist organizations overcame this challenge was to host a joint event—a "cupcake social" where members decorated cupcakes while meeting representatives of feminist organizations.

Mobilizing students was easier at UCSB. With a campus history of progressivism and protests, students at UCSB regularly engaged in political activism. Numerous student organizations, including several feminist groups, received support from the student government in the form of both resources and political action. For example, the student government banned on-campus advertising from crisis pregnancy centers.

At U of M, students found the most success when they allied with other diversity-focused groups.

At U of M, Crossley observed the most united feminist presence. Faced with opposition from both the university administration and conservative student groups, students in feminist organizations formed a small but dedicated group with a strong collective identity. Given their small numbers, these students found the most success when they allied with other diversity-focused groups.

Students embrace diversity, but don't identify as "third-wave"

College feminists engaged in a range of social justice activism, according to Crossley. Students actively embraced the intersection of gender with class, race, religion, and disability—and they formed coalitions with other diversity-focused organizations. They saw themselves as part a larger student movement dedicated to social justice for all, not just women.

Young feminists see themselves as part a larger student movement dedicated to social justice for all, not just women.

Although "third-wave feminism," is often thought to incorporate this new diversity of goals, identities, and activity, the young women in Crossley's study distanced themselves from this label. They objected to the idea that their feminist identities had to align with a unified "wave" of feminism—even as they were mostly positive toward feminism in general.

Looking to the future

Upon close examination, it is clear that feminism is thriving on college campuses and students are eager to participate in activism for social justice.  Crossley is optimistic about these findings. She believes the activity she observed will continue to reinvigorate both the feminist movement and the broader movement for social justice.

Crossley wants her research to help us understand how social movements continue over long periods. Activism is most easily noticed during peak periods such as the 60s and 70s—but other, more subtle forms of activism are important as well. In this light, a feminist cupcake party or a women's banquet are crucial to sustaining the movement, because they affirm group culture and sense of collective identity. Crossley wants us to appreciate these quieter, more everyday forms of activism, in addition to mass mobilization and protest.


More Gender News:


Image rights: Young feminists mobilizing by ctrouper, CC BY 2.0. Feminist bumper sticker image courtesy of Stanford Women's Community Center. Woman holding "Chicana" sign by Nuevo Anden, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Alison Crossley
Alison Dahl Crossley
Postdoctoral Fellow

Alison Dahl Crossley is a postdoctoral fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. She holds an MA and PhD in sociology from University of California Santa Barbara with an emphasis in feminist studies and an AB in women's studies from Smith College. Her research focuses on the continuity of contemporary feminism, particularly on how young feminists fuel the movement.

Alison Dahl Crossley is a postdoctoral fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Her research focuses on the continuity of contemporary feminism, particularly how young feminists fuel the movement during periods that are not amenable to social movement mobilization. - See more at: http://gender.stanford.edu/news/2013/program-feminist-gender-and-sexuali...
Karen Powroznik
Karen Powroznik
PhD candidate, Department of Sociology

Karen Powroznik is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and a member of the Clayman Institute's student writing team.