Are Young Women Carrying the Mantle of Feminism?

January 30, 2014

Since the release of Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection several months ago, some of the questions that I’ve consistently been asked are “How is feminism different today? What do you hear on campus? Do young women want to be feminists, or not?” They are complicated questions, without easy answers. 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.

This blog is written by Barnard College President Debora Spar. It was originally published on Barnard College’s website and is republished with permission.


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