I got back from the Gender, Work and Organization Conference about a week ago, where I heard a presenter refer to feminism as the F-word. And in all honesty, even though this is the 21st century, that is probably what a lot of people still think of it as – a bad word. Still, feminism has enjoyed something of a revival lately thanks to people like Caitlin Moran and Sheryl Sandberg, who have made it sort of cool to be a feminist. This is, according to another speaker at the conference, apparently especially true among male politicians, although it ironically turns out that claiming to be a feminist tends to work against you if you are a female politician.
So we can safely say that feminism continues to be very controversial, even though the form of feminism that has been gaining popularity today really is quite moderate. The feminism we see today is a far cry from the radical feminism of the 60’s and 70’s. Radical feminists may have rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but let’s also acknowledge what they and their contemporaries have done for equality. Without them, women today just wouldn’t have much of the opportunities they have.
But because it is so moderate, contemporary feminism worries many of the so-called old school feminists. This became clear during the conference and I have to say I do understand them. The thing is, we have something today that Linda Hirshman in her article ‘Homeward Bound’ has termed choice feminism. The rhetoric of choice is strong in contemporary society and choice feminism resonates well with that. It represents the belief that women can choose how they want to live their lives and whether or not they want to take advantage of their hard-earned rights to work and participate in the public sphere on equal terms as men. Since the assumption is that gender equality already has pretty much been achieved (which it hasn’t, trust me on this) women can choose to embrace traditionalist gender roles and still be considered feminists because they choose to do so. However choice is complicated. What we may think as free choice can actually be a lot of things. For example, generations of cultural conditioning regarding what is considered admirable and desirable for men and women, which informs our decisions without us even being aware of it.
So the reason older generations of feminists are worried, is that choices like this risk undoing much of the gender equality that we have fought so hard to achieve. In other words, many believe that the feminism of today is doing more harm than good in the name of free choice. While it may help the individual woman in her struggle to maintain coherence in her life and combine all the different parts that are important to her, it doesn’t do much for womankind as a whole, which is exactly what the gender equality warriors of the 60’s and 70’s were concerned with.
As Maria Laurino, author of Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom, writes, “Early feminist leaders were firebrands and iconoclasts who paved the road for changes that benefited the lives of women with more moderate views and temperaments. And today […] feminism – we hear time and time again – is about giving women choices. But outside the fight to protect a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, that definition renders feminism virtually meaningless and politically toothless.”
I think that sums it up pretty well.
Well, I came back from the conference thinking about this, and when I came through the door, my daughter greeted me with a book* in her hand. She had just finished reading it and she seemed excited. She told me I have to read it; it was a book written for teens on questions of gender and power. And my thoughts went back to the women at the conference who are worried about the generation of moderate feminists who risk taking a step backward. Maybe, just maybe, they don’t need to worry so much. After all, there is a new generation of people – girls and boys – who seem to be both self-aware and very well-informed regarding everything from gender equality to environmental issues and animal rights. I’m very intrigued by this new generation and I can’t wait to see how things will evolve as they grow into their roles as the future leaders of the world. And yes, I’m definitely going to read that book.
*) A Swedish book: Tänk (tvärt) om! : tjejer, killar och makt by Anna Norlin