Why Young Women Need Feminism

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If you'd have asked me two years ago, I'm not sure I would have described myself as a feminist. It's not that I didn't believe in women's rights—what modern woman doesn't?—but it was just that, well, I didn't really see the point. When I think about it now, it sounds ridiculous—I know. But it's telling of a generation like mine, who shrugged our shoulders at the thought of feminism; we were already convinced that we had won the war.

I was born in 1981, sixteen years after Barbie became an astronaut and just around the time that Sally Ride joined NASA. I might as well have come out of the womb with POSTFEMINIST etched into my forehead: by the time I reached age 1, women had surpassed men in earning college degrees; I turned 11 during the "Year of the Woman," and I remember annual trips to my dad's law office, long before Take Your Daughter to Work Day became Take Your Child [boys, included] to Work Day. All my life, I was told that men and women were equal—so equal, in fact, that it wasn't even worthy of discussion. Like most of my friends, I outpaced my brothers and many of my male peers by a landslide in school, and took on extracurricular activities by the handful. I'd had it ingrained in me that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. And I did, without ever embracing the fabled F word, or even learning about it in school.

So for all the talk about feminism as passe, mine wasn't a generation that rejected it for its militant, man-hating connotation—but because of its success. Women were equal—duh—so why did we need feminism?

It's only recently that I, and women my age, have come to eat those words. (In the words of Clueless's Cher, our own postfeminist idol, "As if.") High on our success in academia, entering the workforce was something of a shock: we felt like outsiders in a male-dominated club. I'll spare you the depressing statistics—if you want them, there are more than enough in this week’s issue of NEWSWEEK to get you started—but the point is this: equality is still a myth. We need feminism now more than ever. "I've heard people say, 'Why are you a feminist? You can work, you can vote, you can do everything you want,'" says Jessica Valenti, the author of Full Frontal Feminism. "And just because there aren't all these laws against us—your husband can't [legally] beat you—it doesn't mean that sexism has gone away."

It hasn't gone away, but it may be harder to pinpoint. Which makes the support of other women, whether they call themselves feminists or not, all the more important. "I think the biggest issue young women face today is that there's no real movement behind them," says Susan Brownmiller, the feminist scholar. Case in point: a 2001 Gallup poll found that only one in four women consider themselves feminists. I'd bet most of those feminists are my mother's age.

Part of the problem with feminism, of course, is the word itself. Though it was meant to be inclusive (men could engage in feminism in a way they couldn't engage in the "women's" movement) it has alienated from the start. When feminism first hit the American lexicon in the early part of the 20th century, suffragists were divided over its use; as early as 1919, women were calling themselves "postfeminists," says Harvard historian Nancy Cott. "There was only about two seconds in the history of the world in which women really welcomed [feminism]," says Gail Collins, The New York Times columnist. "There's something about the word that just drives people nuts."

Many would argue that it was the media which would pervert feminism's modern use: as NEWSWEEK put it in a 1970 cover story, "A new specter is haunting America: the specter of militant feminism." Even today, describe the the bloggers at The F Word, "No woman I know would unapologetically describe herself as a feminist." Feminism is something dirty, denigrated—to be looked upon with scorn. If, in the modern culture, gender equality does come up, the response is simply: "I'm not a feminist, but—" (Translation: Please don't think I'm a man-hater/ugly/being difficult!)

Feminists have long labored over how to change feminism's image, and the notion is perplexing. But perhaps the more important question should be not how we repair the word, but how we show young women that the meaning behind it—the simple belief in gender equality—is still relevant, even in 2010. "I don't think that not wanting to identify yourself as a feminist is particular to this generation," says Collins. "But the assumption that everything is fine is very strong with this [group]."

As Gloria Steinem once put it, you're either a feminist or a masochist. At 28, I now proudly choose the former. I hope the women that come after me won't have to wait that long.

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