On a sweltering September day around three years ago, a liberal arts professor in one of my classes at Temple asked, “Who here considers themselves a feminist?” My hand flung up in the air without a second of hesitation. When I scanned the sea of desks for concurring hands, and found not a one, I was puzzled. My teacher also seemed bewildered, figuring, like me, that all young people—and especially females—living in a post-civil rights movement world wouldn’t hesitate to align themselves with a social justice movement. We were wrong.
I consider myself a feminist, and I proudly proclaim it. Yet, I always tack an amendment onto my claim to clarify exactly what kind of feminist I am (i.e., not the radical kind). Among my peers, the concept of “feminism” still generally conjures up images of a group of bra-burning, hairy-legged women lamenting the evils of men while drafting blueprints of torture devices designed to crush men’s balls as well as their dignities. No wonder many young women are afraid to even remotely associate themselves with the feminist movement. The relative political tranquility of the 1980s and ’90s didn’t bleach out the stereotype left over from the revolutionary days of the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Most college-age women I know are nearly always hesitant to say they are feminists, for fear of being branded a lunatic, as well as getting a negative reaction from men. You often hear, “Well, I guess I’m kind of a feminist, I think … ?”
College-age men usually have a knee-jerk reaction to feminists, demonizing them as fanatical and man-hating, and usually labeling them lesbians. Michael Anderson, a 21-year-old criminal justice major at Temple University, admits the term “feminist” initially conjures this cliché in his mind.
“The first thing I think of when I think of feminism is women protesting by doing things like burning bras, and destroying things that are not oppressive in itself. But to reach equality, they take a stance against things, like bras, that are strictly for women,” Anderson said.
Yet, most young guys simultaneously realize that feminism is more varied than the limitations imposed by cultural stereotypes. Some college-age women and men make the distinction between feminists and so-called “femi-nazis.”
“Femi-nazis empower themselves to the point of wanting to destroy men,” Anderson said. “I don’t like those people. But the feminists today are women who actively try to make it in the professional world and can make their own choices.”
Why are college-age women and men still afraid of feminism? My boyfriend (who has a degree in advertising) put it wonderfully: “Feminism just needs re-branding.” Exactly.
The misconceptions heaped upon feminism make twentysomething women afraid to proclaim themselves feminists, and cause twentysomething men to shy away from “crazy feminist women.” They do know that there’s a sane strand of feminism, but stigma wins over logic.
Feminism needs re-branding to gain supporters. Liberal feminist groups should launch an ad campaign explaining 21st-century feminism. First, feminists need to re-state that feminism birthed different strands of a movement, not just radical ones.
The second wave of feminism (after the initial suffragette wave in the early 1900s) that emerged in the 1960s spawned many groups dedicated to challenging normative gender roles by improving sociopolitical opportunities for women and eradicating sexism, such as NOW, the National Organization for Women, which is the most well-known liberal feminist group still in existence. There were socialist feminists, anarcha-feminists and conservative feminists. And yes, there were some radical, lesbian separatist movements that advocated an all-female society free from the oppression of the supremacist patriarchy.
However, such groups are on the fringes of the feminist movement, and have not gained political traction. Today’s feminist movement is mostly comprised of women who seek to eradicate sexism and discrimination, and advocate for women’s rights politically, culturally, sexually and socially—all while living harmoniously alongside men.
Twentysomethings need to be feminists, now more than ever. Feminism needs adherents to work to block anti-female legislation and help women retain—and gain—the rights that we deserve. Evangelical Santorum-type conservatives want to hijack the Republican Party and cajole federal and state legislatures into denying women access to contraception and the right to choose, imposing unnecessary practices like transvaginal ultrasounds, and defunding Planned Parenthood and other crucial social services for low-income women. The litany of anti-female dogma is buttressed by the prevalent, though illegal practice of paying female workers less than men.
Twenty-first-century feminism isn’t about destroying feminine “articles of oppression,” or virulent man-hating. On the contrary, 21st-century feminists can wear high heels and makeup (as I do) and also have boyfriends and husbands (who support women’s rights, of course). Twenty-first-century feminists work with people of all colors, gender identifications and sexual orientations to secure the rights of women and other marginalized groups. College-age youth should use feminism to fight back against the incredibly archaic and oppressive “War on Women.”
Now is the time that twentysomething women and men need to look beyond feminism’s outmoded, misleading exterior and embrace the original value that lies underneath.