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The most pressing question of Women's History Month: What is feminism in 2018?

Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy
Contributing Writer
Yahoo Lifestyle
Photo illustration: Yahoo Lifestyle; photos: Getty Images

To mark the International Day of the Woman on March 8 and Women’s History Month, Yahoo Lifestyle is exploring notions of feminism and the women’s movement through a diverse series of profiles — from transgender activist Ashlee Marie Preston to conservative campus leader Karin Agness Lips — that aim to reach across many aisles. 

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.”

An attendee holds a sign before entering the Sam Boyd Stadium during the Women’s March Anniversary: Power to the Polls event in Las Vegas on Jan. 21. (Photo: Michelle Gustafson/Bloomberg)

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.”

Meanwhile, Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America and a longtime grassroots activist, sees most chatter about “feminism” having multiple definitions as off-base.

Signs reflect a range of viewpoints at the Power to the Polls event in Las Vegas on Jan. 21. (Photo: Getty Images)

“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.

Young women with GOP-theme skirts at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. (Photo: Getty Images)

“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.”

Not that progress always comes quickly — or that swift change would be without swifter backlash, as evidenced by many cautionary tales throughout history, warns pioneering journalist Lynn Povich. She was one of the 46 women who filed a sex discrimination suit against Newsweek in 1970, when women were not allowed to be reporters or editors, and went on to become the magazine’s first-ever female senior editor, in 1975. To Povich, 2018 feels strikingly reminiscent of the feminist wave she helped shape, and that prompts caution.

“The danger is backlash, which I understand is happening already,” Povich tells Yahoo Lifestyle, referring to the power of the #MeToo movement. “Corporations are scared to hire women, to bring women on business trips, have lunch with women. I think this all might swing back the pendulum. And if so, then you’re doing nothing more than penalizing women for the bad behavior of men over so many years.”

And that’s something that will be felt by all women in the workplace, she says, regardless of how they choose to identify in terms of feminism and partisan politics.

“I always think it’s more about policies than people,” Povich says about conservative pushback to mass protests like the Women’s March. “I don’t know how conservative women who have certainly experienced things like sexual harassment and workplace harassment respond to this, given that this is something that feminism has always worked to abolish and bring out of the darkness. I don’t know how you wouldn’t be sympathetic to end this as well. Saying that you believe that, but don’t believe in the basic definition of feminism — which is just equal rights and equal opportunities — and dismissing women who do identify as such, and saying that isn’t how women should act, is similar to me to saying, ‘You don’t believe facts as truth.’”

Povich says that women coming together to talk about the issues that are affecting them because of their gender is critical to the movement’s success, regardless of how they identify.

“We try to pigeonhole feminism into one definition — and that’s often a whitewashed version of what feminism needs to be,” notes Lisa Pecot-Hébert, PhD, the coordinator of the undergraduate journalism program at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, echoing Povich’s call for understanding one another. “But the voices we need to be hearing from are voices of difference, and how people come to know their version of feminism based on their identities.”

Further complicating the present understanding of the women’s movement is the fact that the word “feminist” is often still “vilified in the media, and misused by people using the term as a guise for something else,” Pecot-Hébert says.

“I also think that it’s very important to have conservative voices heard. In order to understand someone’s perspective — to even commit to the idea that your own perspective is the perspective you should be moving forward with — you should understand the perspective of someone else.”

Including this broad range of ideas in the media, she says, is essential, because feminism itself is something that should never not be covered — and covered well.

“We absolutely still need these movements. We need the women’s movement. Women need to speak out about inequality. Men need to speak up about inequality. It’s a conversation that should always stay in the media, but what we can’t do is water it down and make it a conversation about a ‘women’s issue,’ or power, or movement through the lens of the male perpetrator or wrongdoer.”

To do this most effectively, Pecot-Hébert says, the press needs to be hyperconscience to not villainize feminism — in turn, setting the precedent for women to not villainize each other for not meeting each other’s definition of the word.

“This is America. You can have conversations about difference, and better understand each other for it. When we understand how someone has come to their opinion, and respect that they have an opinion even if it’s not yours, we’re all better off,” she stresses. “Women will be stronger as a unit if we can stop villainizing each other if we don’t agree with each other. We still want to be paid equally, to be respected in our jobs, but women can have different approaches to how they understand what that means in the context of the women’s movement. Someone who identifies as a feminist isn’t a better woman than someone who doesn’t, and that’s always what we must put forth.”

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