New research: Millennials passionate about feminism
Recent media takes of the feminist movement have criticized young women for their superficial attachment to the politics of the movement and their seemingly naive preoccupation with the identity—debating who is feminist—over substance.
Yet new research suggests the opposite: that young women not only have a deep personal commitment to feminism as expressed and lived in their daily lives, they also have a profound intersectional understanding of feminism that is evident in their coalition work and broad dedication to social justice.
For her new book, Finding Feminism: Millennial Activists and the Unfinished Gender Revolution, Alison Dahl Crossley surveyed 1,400 undergraduate students at three college campuses across the country, in addition to interviewing 75 students—25 at each campus. Her research participants were male and female, cis and trans, black, white, Latino, and Asian. She discovered that young women’s commitment to feminism is strong and that, while the Internet has undoubtedly facilitated the spread of feminist ideas, college campuses in particular are critical to the longevity and continuation of the feminist movement. Her research aims to dispel “the inaccuracies of the views … that millennials are selfie-obsessed narcissists clueless about the inequalities all around them,” she writes. Instead, her data suggests that young women have a richer, more nuanced understanding of feminism than is popularly suggested in the media.
Crossley, the associate director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, writes: “77% of the survey respondents were women, and the women were more likely to identify as feminist (33.5%) than the men were (11.1%).” There was little difference in feminist identification among women of different races; however, she notes, women of color were more likely to modify their feminist identity than white women—identifying as “Chicana feminist” or “womanist,” for example. She found that LGBT students “were more likely to identify as feminist than heterosexual students.” Regardless of students’ identification with the feminist label, a majority of respondents observed societal gender inequalities, even if they did not believe they personally experienced these inequalities themselves. As Crossley explained in an interview with the Women’s Media Center, “Experiences with inequality—racial, gender, and otherwise—prime individuals to develop feminist consciousness and identities.”
On college campuses across America today, students, as well as their professors, understand feminism to be intersectional because it is lived at the intersection of many identities and political perspectives. Classroom education, especially the prominence and availability of women’s and gender studies courses, are another element of how colleges contribute to young people’s feminism. Thirty-four percent of Crossley’s survey respondents were students of color, but she found that “[r]egardless of their race, class, or sexuality identities, [students] included considerations of differences in race, class, and sexuality in their descriptions of feminism.” For example, female student members of a multicultural sorority at UC Santa Barbara incorporated feminism into their daily lives through cosponsored events with explicitly feminist organizations. Additionally, they believed that “feminism was implicit in the collective identities [Latina and Chicana in particular] of their organizations.”
One student interviewed by Crossley, an Armenian woman at UC Santa Barbara, explained that feminism is embraced by her cohorts largely because of its intersectional nature and inclusiveness:
I think our generation is actually embracing this more. Women of color are embracing it more as it becomes more inclusive. It’s talking about intersections. I don’t think any other framework is talking about intersections. I think that’s why feminism is going to be successful. That’s what our generation is going to add to it, you know, it’s not about women, it’s about gender, and class and race, and nationality and ability. So many identities. That’s what I love!
Some participants in Crossley’s study characterized their feminist perspective as “always with them.” One participant said that the feminist movement “defines most of the things I do. It’s always there.” Another said, “I think about [feminism] all the time. It’s constantly in the back of my head.” In our interview, Crossley noted that “feminism was practiced in a variety of ways by my respondents. In addition to protesting, organizing campaigns in their feminist groups, and creating community and solidarity, participants spoke easily about the ways in which feminist principles guided their everyday lives. This everyday feminism is critical to the perpetuation of the movement.”
The broad meaning of feminism has elicited some recent criticism—the argument being that this broadening has denuded the movement of its political focus and that it has watered feminism down to the point of meaninglessness for its commercial viability. But Crossley has a different interpretation, grounded in her research: “The perceptions driving the dismissive opinions about young feminists rely on narrow definitions of feminism,” she wrote, such as feminists marching in the streets or focusing on a limited subset of issues. Yet the reality, she said, is that "feminists have always employed a wide range of tactics and targeted a broad subset of issues. Feminism has been heterogeneous related to community or geographic location.”
This narrow definition of feminism is abetted by how we as a culture have understood feminism’s history, in terms of waves. Crossley shows that the concept of the “wave” is inaccurate and fosters an egregious misunderstanding of the lived reality of feminism. “The wave framework is not reflective of the realities of feminist mobilization or identities,” Crossley asserted in her book. “The wave approach not only flattens complex activism, but it also creates unnecessary separations between feminists of different generations or backgrounds. This oversimplification manufactures generational divides—feminists from all political generations have dismissed each other, criticized each other, or questioned each other’s motivations and accomplishments.”
In addition to fostering intergenerational strife, the notion of the feminist wave also simplifies the complexity and rich history of the feminist movement. “The erasure of women of color in the mainstream narratives about feminism specifically impacts public viewpoints and the central narratives of feminism: feminism is a white women’s movement.”
In response to this categorical misrepresentation of the feminist movement, Crossley has proposed the concept of “waveless feminism,” which, she writes, “emphasizes the persistence of feminism over time, the variations in feminism, and the interaction between feminism and other movements.” Waveless feminism highlights the reality of feminism as it is lived today, especially online, as well honoring the fundamental intersectionality and coalitional politics of the movement itself.
Just as Crossley’s research points to the intersectional nature of these students’ feminism, it also points to their wavelessness. Of her 75 interviewees, only three identified their feminism with the third wave. Only two students saw their feminism aligned with the idea of a fourth wave. This suggests that the new generation of feminists is not holding on to the wave framework—and this, for Crossley, is not a bad sign for the future of feminism but an optimistic one for the evolution of feminist movements. She said in our interview that this “allows for a perpetuation of feminism that is not constrained by inaccurate stereotypes of who a feminist is and what she does, or limited by unproductive and divisive boundaries between generations.”
Crossley’s new research offers an optimistic view of the future of feminism and the vibrancy and diversity of the movement fueled by the activism and passion of young women and men.
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