One of my earliest childhood memories is the day that I found out Hanson was not a girl band. Their long blonde locks and tone of voice had deceived me, and I knew that loving “MMMBop” was somehow in violation of my strict “girls rule, boys drool” policy.
For as long as I can remember, I was hyper-aware of the fact that being a girl precluded me from certain things. My sense of injustice grew over time, but it wasn’t until high school that I realized there was a word for it: I was a feminist. Shortly after my self-discovery, I was ranting about patriarchy and quoting lines from Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique at the dinner table when my brother turned to me and said, “You’re such a little Feminazi.” That was the first time it had ever occurred to me that identifying with the word feminist could be seen as a bad thing.
The word feminism, by definition, merely means a belief in advocating for social and political rights equal to those of men. Yet many young women today, who support the message and embody the ideals of feminism, feel no connection to the word or the movement. When most young women hear the term used, they think about the movement of our mothers and grandmothers: burning bras, marches on Pennsylvania Avenue and the feminist faces of the sexual revolution. Modern-day feminism no longer means hairy armpits, man-hating and Birkenstocks. The modern movement can’t be placed in one category for it covers many diverse issues like violence against women, sex trafficking, equal pay, reproductive rights, media representation and gender stereotypes.
For me, identifying as a feminist was about celebrating the success of the past, while working toward the unfinished business of equality. We still need feminism because of the prevalence of violence against women, the inaccuracies of media representation, unequal pay for equal work, the lack of control over our own reproductive health and the gender inequity in professional fields. My feminism is not that of my mother’s or grandmother’s, it inherently belongs to me.
This made it hard for me to understand why my female peers felt disconnected to the word or bought into the negative stereotyping that came with the label. I was in a mostly female class when my professor asked how many people in the room identified as a feminist by show of hands. I was shocked to see that out of 20 students, only a few raised their hands. These were mostly female college students interning in the field of communications and politics, whom from my view are a direct result of the strong-willed career women before them who touted the feminist label proudly. After class, I wanted to understand why women that I would call feminists without hesitation didn’t see themselves the same way. I sought out some of my skeptical peers to interview and pitched them my column. The interviewees were intrigued and admitted that they hadn’t thought in great detail about why they were so quick to shy away from the term.
Boston-area native Nancy Kwan, 22, is the perfect example of a feminist in belief, but not name. A political communication major at Emerson College, Kwan hopes to enter the world of politics and help break the glass ceilings that feminists are fighting against, yet she personally does not identify as a feminist. For her, it was something she never really thought much about.
“No, I do not [associate with the term], said Kwan. “I believe in all the things feminism stands for — choice and fair pay — and I feel like I am an advocate, but I don’t like to call myself a feminist.”
Kelsey Scanlon, 21, from the San Francisco Bay area said that although she considers herself a feminist, she understands why many young women shy away from the title due to the extreme examples of equal rights advocates of the past.
“I think more commonly it’s misconstrued or there is a negative connotation with [feminism] among people who are ignorant,” said Scanlon. “There is a lot more to it than the stereotypical don’t shave my armpits, don’t wear bras and wear Birkenstocks, which is the complete extreme form of feminism.”
Their words resonated and reminded me of a recent Ted Talk called “Reinventing Feminism,” by feminist blogger and editor at Feministing.com Courtney Martin. As she spoke about her winding and indirect path to accepting the feminist movement, it eased the frustration I felt with the women in my life that can’t relate to the word.
The question then becomes how can young feminists attract their progressive and ambitious peers to a movement, which they define as extreme? Martin points to online organizing as the way to engage and connect a new generation of young feminists, but the young women I’ve spoken to say something else: integrate young girls into these conversations and rebrand the word to help them connect.
I believe the heart of the issue is young girls see feminism as a term for the history books and school projects about the suffragettes. It’s hard to rebrand such a politically and historically charged word without taking away part of the potential to connect women. The matter of fact is that each and every woman wouldn’t be able to enjoy the level of freedom and self-determination that she does in today’s culture without giving homage to her predecessors. We need to stop the word feminist from being a dirty word. Encourage youth role models to champion the word, relate the word to the issues it represents and make it so that feminism is included in classrooms, dinner table conversations and pop culture.
Here is my pitch to young girls: Make the word your own. Read contemporary feminist icons from Jessica Valenti to Ann Friedman. If you believe in female equality, and would like to honor the benefits you enjoy thanks to your bra-burning protest-having ancestors, figure out what feminism means to you. Embrace the parts that affect your life, talk about it with your peers and challenge yourself to look beyond the stereotypes.
Over the years, my own view of my feminist ideals have evolved from dinner table antics to volunteering for pro-choice organizations and doing domestic violence advocacy work. It was a natural evolution because with maturity came the realization that I could rant until I was blue in the face, but the only real change would come from action.
It never even occurred to me that my viewpoints were unique or that my volunteer work was considered activism until I spent a semester in Washington, D.C. Living in New York and then liberal Massachusetts, I had always assumed that being socially progressive was common sense. It wasn’t until my semester in the Capitol that I truly realized how culturally divided this country can be. I surely thought any anti-women sentiment was the remnant of an unenlightened generation, but as I met conservative peers from my program, I quickly realized that not all little girls were raised on girl power and Gloria Steinem. On the other hand, I also got to meet real activists behind the movement and truly understand the potential to take a passion for social justice and turn it into a career.
No matter how much my definition changes or is influenced by my experiences, the word will always resonate within me. The feminist label isn’t just a word to describe my views of social justice. It is the hard work of women who fought tirelessly so that I could enjoy the same opportunities as my brother did. It is the reason that I can speak freely about my opinions and that people listen. It is powerful and, most importantly, it is mine.