Diversity and Inclusion

Finding Feminism: Millennial Activists and the Unfinished Gender Revolution

Editor's Note: On April 25th, 2017, we celebrate the publication of Clayman Institute Associate Director Alison Dahl Crossley's book, Finding Feminism: Millennial Activists and the Unfinished Gender Revolution, by NYU Press. Here is a sneak peek of her work—an excerpt from Finding Feminism—before its arrival into stores. Enjoy!

"This May Have Been the Best Year for Women since the Dawn of Time" —12/23/2014, Time

Oversimplified and contradictory notions of feminism and gender equality circulate widely in the media. This is not a new phenomenon. In the 1990s, the “feminism is dead” pronouncement had its heyday. Much to all feminists’ chagrin (young and old mobilized as feminists during this time) the phrase was splashed across headlines and the cov­ers of major magazines. Media critic Jennifer Pozner called it the false feminist death syndrome, which, according to Bitch Media, is “a time-honored journalistic tradition.” While these obituaries continue, there is now a counterpart to their narratives: “feminism is everywhere.” At the same time that feminism is being declared dead or irrelevant, femi­nist ideologies are declared to be engrained in all our lives, like “fluoride in the water.”…

Given that the data supporting the existence of the stalled revolu­tion is vast, the prevalent messages about feminism, women, and girls are superficial at best or erroneous at worse. They overstate the exis­tence of gender equality. They reflect an inaccurate image of gender arrangements, and drastically simplify the complexities of inequalities and feminist movements. Cultural discourses such as these result in three interconnected impediments to feminist organizing. First, if gen­der inequality is not recognized as a social problem, when a woman does experience sexism she may interpret it as an individual problem rather than a systematic problem. Second, when the injustice of gender inequality and the need for redress is overlooked, the matter of gender equality lacks immediacy. Feminists may seem dull and outdated, or as though they are overreacting. Third, as a result, feminist organizations and communities may be challenged in building membership or finding allies who are critical to the support of a movement and the cultivation of new feminists. At the same time, the feminist mobilization that is happening is disregarded and undervalued….

Finding Feminism highlights the nuanced and multifaceted nature of feminist movements—and how millennial feminists are mobiliz­ing despite living in a culture that is not always supportive of women. This book asks, How has the feminist movement changed over time? Is the feminist movement alive, dead, or everywhere and nowhere? What are college students’ experiences with and perceptions of social inequality? What are the forms, strategies, and tactics of college student feminism that allow the movement to persist? What are the factors that shape feminist cultures, and how are they influenced by institutional environments?

"2014 Was a Bad Year for Women, but a Good Year for Feminism" —12/24/2014, Huffington Post

This study reveals the inaccuracies of the views that feminism is ei­ther a relic of the past or naturally within all of us, or that millennials are selfie-obsessed narcissists clueless about the inequalities all around them. Instead, in my diverse sample of students with varying racial/ethnic, class, and sexuality identities, a more complex picture emerges about the state of the movement and the characteristics of young activ­ists.... I address larger questions regarding the consequences of the stalled gender revolution and possibilities for its reinvigoration, the grievances and tactics of young activists, the incor­poration of social movements within institutions of higher education, the dynamics of movements over many years, and the multiple dimen­sions through which context alters movement culture. Finding Femi­nism answers pressing questions about the present state of feminism, one of the longest-lasting social movements in modern history.

In the following selection from Chapter 2, “Feminism: Activism, Inclusivity, Intersectionality,” I highlight the contextual and intersectional nature of feminism on college campuses today:

Participants’ feminism was shaped by their experiences with inequality, their perceptions of women’s status in the United States, and the barriers they expected to face in their lives. What did feminism mean to the participants in this study? Where did feminists learn about the movement? How was it related to their grievances? Much of participants’ feminist identities was consistent with previous versions of feminism. In the survey, the people and activities that were most influential in inspiring a self-identification as a feminist were mother, friends, and websites or nonschool reading. Overall, self-identified feminist participants described feminism as a concern for women’s rights, equality between men and women, and an emphasis on the intersectional nature of oppression. Their responses were on a spectrum from very detailed descriptions to more general comments about the movement. For example, Smith student Eileen said simply that feminists strive for women to be “treated equally both by individuals and structurally by law and policy.” U of M student Maxine said passionately that feminism is a “constant vigilance to protect and defend the rights of women from the history and current manifestations of patriarchy.” UCSB student Anselmo, along with a number of other participants in this study, spoke generally of feminism as a movement that is concerned with equality between men and women. These themes were similarly reflected in the survey, in which the most common definitions of feminism included the terms “gender equality,” “activism,” “social/legal rights and equality,” and “intersectionality.”

Feminist study participants not only spoke of their personal thoughts about feminism but also emphasized mobilization around gender inequality and injustice in general. U of M student Zan said, “[M]y feminist identification is very interrelated to my activist identification. . . . [I]t’s not just [emphasis added] aligning with political views of feminism.” She continued: “People who identify as feminist are oftentimes the people who are more vocal and open about their beliefs, and they’re really passionate about that, otherwise they wouldn’t have that identification that people disagree with.” In this respect, Zan feels that it is the responsibility of feminists to point out incidents of inequality and injustice. Similarly, Smith student Liz said feminism must include speaking and being active: feminism is “taking a stand against gender roles and gender inequality, and not only believing that it’s wrong but also speaking about it and being active.” UCSB student Lola said that feminists are:

opinionated in a positive way. Having their voices be heard. Straightforward. If there’s an issue, or discrimination, it would be taken care of. I feel that being feminist means that you are outspoken. And if something is keeping you back, you’ll do anything fight it. You are more aware of others around you, you notice inequalities between men and women, but inequalities in general.

A central feature of many of these participants’ feminism was action or activism, which meant speaking out when they encountered interactional inequality and collectively organizing around feminist grievances. One criticism mounted against young feminists is that an individual focus comes at the expense of perpetuating a broader movement, so it was noteworthy that so many emphasized acting upon their feminism.

“Feminism is . . . not only searching for oppression but acknowledging it exists because you are a woman. And then to take that further, not just being a woman, but looking at class and race, and how that intertwines with gender, and also acknowledging your privilege as a White woman.”

Participants in this study also spoke of the expansive features of the feminist movement. Regardless of their race, class, or sexuality identities, they carefully included considerations of differences in race, class, and sexuality in their descriptions of feminism. Said Smith student Liz, “[N]ot everyone, not every woman experiences the same types of problems,” which to her meant that women practice different types of feminism. Smith student Anna P. said, “Feminism is . . . not only searching for oppression but acknowledging it exists because you are a woman. And then to take that further, not just being a woman, but looking at class and race, and how that intertwines with gender, and also acknowledging your privilege as a White woman.” Anna P. highlighted that although White women are oppressed because they are women, they also have racial privilege, which is denied other women. Participants also emphasized the nonmonolithic nature of feminism. Smith student Vivica simply said, “Not assuming that one feminism is the same for everyone else.” Bette said, “I feel like the word ‘feminism’ is different for everybody. . . . On one hand, I feel that I should be about lesbian rights, but for me, race and class issues are more important.” After speaking about the patriarchy, U of M student Maxine said that feminism is “different for everyone.” To Vivica, Bette, and Maxine, the broad reach of the movement was assumed and not particularly noteworthy. UCSB student Anselmo stopped himself after he began to define feminism:

A caveat that needs to be added . . . there are different interpretations of feminism, and people use “feminism” differently, there’s a third world feminist critique of Euro-American feminism as a justification of cultural imperialism, a Middle Eastern critique of Western feminism, is, for example, people using the idea that Muslim women are slaves to their husbands as a justification for war.

Anselmo here carefully points out how one person’s feminism is another person’s oppression, introducing power and privilege into the conversation about intersectionality. This is an acknowledgment of the contextual nature of feminism, and of its direct relationship to an individual’s interests and worldview.