The most pressing question of Women’s History Month: What is feminism in 2018?
Ever since Donald Trump became president, women have been having a moment. Or many, many moments — some complementary, some conflicting — depending on your perspective.
Upward of 3 million people participated in the first series of women’s marches held across the country in 2017, around 2 million kept at it for the second wave this past January, and since Trump’s election, more than 34,000 women have announced their intent to run for office, many citing the new POTUS as their specific motivation for running.
Still, the women’s movement — and, more specifically, “feminism” — are nowhere near being one-size-fits-all concepts for women in America. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Historically, the word ‘feminism’ has meant so many things to so many different people,” Catherine Denial, PhD, the Bright Professor of American History at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We talk about first wave and Seneca Falls in 1848 and moving to the battle of the right to vote, but even that is reductionist … when you start thinking about who didn’t get the right to vote in 1920.”
That included women of color, among others, Denial points out, setting up a pattern often repeated when looking at the history of the feminist movement. Denial notes that even during the second wave — the period of feminist activism between the 1950s and ’80s — “many things people remember coming out of that movement are thought of as white achievements, and things that mainly apply to white women’s lives: equal pay, the beginnings of talk about sexual harassment.”
So while “it’s not that feminism was a white movement by any means — and many, many strands of feminism were driven by women of color,” the lasting impressions among the masses have not always reflected this. And that’s why, Denial says, many (mainly white) women might feel today that “feminism is over, that there are no feminist concerns anymore.”
But, she says, “I think that’s not true. The achievements of the feminist movement have disproportionately benefited white women, and I think there are multiple fronts still seeking justice.”
Add to that the fact that many conservative women are now calling themselves feminists — or at least decrying the women’s movement and specifically the Women’s March as causing them to feel “left out” — and the important question, says Denial, becomes less about goals and more about learning that many of these women “are coming at the world from a very different viewpoint.”
“They often don’t believe in systemic oppression, or that institutions have deep-seated problems within them that replicate inequality,” she says. “If you don’t see the world in that way, then the framework under which you operate is going to look more like, ‘Did I get mine? Did I get paid equally? Am I safe from workplace harassment?’ Feminism, then, is going to feel like a kind of personal reckoning — and then feminism is going to feel like it doesn’t apply to you, because it is in fact a movement, and not just a personal accounting. And if you identify as an individual first, this is going to feel inapplicable since the movement is much larger than any one person.”
“To me, it just seems like a basic, fundamental understanding — it’s cliché at this point: Feminism is the radical notion that women are equal. Period. Full stop,” Hogue tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The complexities about feminism arise around the history of feminism, and how it has been enacted when it comes to women of color and those with less power in a traditional society — and that is absolutely a conversation we need to engage in.”And so the focus of the movement, Hogue says, should be on the fact that “we do need to reach women who feel left out but want to be a part of making change, because they know it benefits their families.”Hogue believes that more women than not can, in fact, identify with the modern-day women’s movement, as it recognizes “all the seen and unseen work that women do to make our families and society function. I think that’s what is so interesting about this current resurgence of feminism — you have both stay-at-home moms and working moms saying, ‘I don’t want to be recognized for just my outward contributions.’ Raising a family and keeping a household running are some of the most important work we can do.”
And that’s something with which almost all women can identify.“A generation ago, it was all about how we could advance professionally, and that is important,” Hogue says. “But I think what’s wonderful about what’s happening now is that it’s my whole being that contributes. It’s about asking people to recognize that which I do that may not be visible to you. And I think that when we reach people who by choice or by necessity do that invisible work, we make change.”Of similar mindset regarding the women’s movement and what it is and what it should be is Fatima Goss Graves, the president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). “The people saying, ‘The movement doesn’t speak for me because full social equality, full economic equality, full political equality is not for me,’ then I’m not sure if they ever really bought into feminism to begin with. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that the feminist movement ‘left’ them,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle.“I think that in order for the feminist movement to really be one that is sustained and strong in its power, it cannot carve out identities for what it means to achieve equality,” she explains. “We cannot carve out low-income women and their needs. We cannot carve out women with disabilities and their needs. Gender has advantages in this overall [societal] structure. That’s easy for folks to understand and acknowledge — that folks experience equality differently. You can know that, and still understand the need for full equality for all people.”And that’s why, Goss Graves says, the women’s movement is now primed for some of its most dynamic, productive work yet — including when it comes to the ongoing effort of defining what “progress” actually means.
“Right now, there are opportunities to build differently. We don’t have to start with correcting historical mistakes of who’s been left out and whose voices are not being heard — we can build together,” Goss Graves says. “In my mind, the progress of the movement will only continue to involve more people and expand. But we have to do so in a way that connects and puts those most vulnerable at the center, and also in leadership. It’s crucial to our development and that of the nation and the women’s movement platform to challenge the current status quo and make progress.