Young women who reached adulthood in the late 1960s and 1970s had generation specific issues facing them. At that time, the nation was just coming out of the “Father Knows Best” era. Women had limited educational and employment opportunities (nursing, teaching, and secretarial work were predominant options). They weren’t earning a significant percentage of graduate degrees, and they certainly weren’t earning equal pay. In fact, many of them had trouble getting a professional job at all.
In common parlance of that time, it wasn’t so much referred to as “feminism”, as much as it was called the “women’s liberation movement.” It was liberation from old stereotypes, repressive policies and beliefs regarding reproductive freedom, employment discrimination, domestic violence, and controlling marriages. It signified a freedom not only to speak up, but perhaps even to be heard.
Fast forward 40-50 years. What is the state of the women’s movement today? Were our earlier efforts sustainable?
I recently heard Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speak at part of a “Women in Work” series. Drawing from her recent book “Off the Sidelines”, she noted that “we’ve left the women’s movement slip away.” She also said that many women assume others are taking care of our issues, and that “the absence of women’s voices has harmed America.”
Scanning the news, it does seem like ground has been lost.The Paycheck Fairness Act was just blocked in the Senate. Reproductive rights have been under constant attack at both the state and federal levels for the last decade. Sexual harassment is rampant in the military. Partner violence has become a focal point in the lives of male athletes. We still have inadequate day care and no paid family medical leave. Many single moms still struggle with crushing poverty.
So, what has been gained? Many of today’s millennials have been raised by mothers who were also raised by feminists. This third generation of women is different from their mothers and grandmothers. What our generations worked so hard to assimilate, to rise above, is now part of the DNA of young women. They expect to be treated fairly, to be taken seriously, to be able to choose, to participate fully, to succeed. They can’t begin to understand the barriers once facing women’s liberation because they grew up liberated in so many ways. Their baseline is different, more advanced, than ours was. This makes them a force to be reckoned with.
Young women now have unprecedented opportunities for education and self-fulfillment. They also have unprecedented opportunity through social media and digital activism to raise their voices, to organize, to protest, to bring about positive change.
Maybe the word “feminism” won’t survive. (However, Beyonce recently brought the word “feminism” into the homes of 12.4 million viewers during the MTV Video Music Awards last month, so it could also have a resurgence in popularity).
Despite its traditional meaning of granting woman political, social, and economic equality with men, feminism as an overarching framework may be too narrow, or too problematic, or too old-fashioned for this generation of young women. They might find other expressions like empowerment or humanism or anti-oppression better suited for their time, place, and purpose. They may reject labels altogether.
It’s never been the word that mattered anyway, but the actions elicited. As Senator Gillibrand noted, “We need to use the power we have as women to shape a country that supports all of us.” This means combining the powerful voices of all generations of women.
Millennial women, and men, have the makings of activists, but perhaps activists of a different type. They are connectors and collaborators, and they are interested in social justice and social issues for women, for men, for people of color, for society. But they will do their activism their own way, just as we did.