Feminism Today Breaks New Ground, But It Isn’t Pro-Life
Recently feminism has come under attack, both from older feminists and pseudo-feminists on the right that try to co-opt the term. Two British authors try to make sense of all this.
Over the last few months, there has been a growing feeling that feminists—particularly young feminists—are under attack. In April, Newsweek ran an article in which NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan worried about the graying of the feminist movement, noting some recent polling data that showed young people who opposed abortion viewed it as a "very important" issue while pro-choice young people ranked it as less important. The article seemed to say young women weren’t carrying the torch of the "postmenopausal militia," to cite a term Keenan labeled herself. And in May, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin invoked conservative, pro-life "feminism" in a speech for the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony’s List, a political PAC that has a mission of electing anti-choice women to office. The media narrative seemed to indicate that not only was traditional feminism dying, but that it was also getting co-opted by the right.
Enter Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement,a new book by British feminist blogger Catherine Redfern and University of Derby sociologist Kristin Aune, who note that for young feminists, demonstrating their commitment to women’s rights is a Sisyphean task. Young feminists today blog, write, campaign, and volunteer, only to be set back by yet another headline eulogizing feminism’s decline. But while the "feminism is dead" narrative is all to common in America, Redfern and Aune are viewing this problem from across the pond, noting that challenges to feminism come in the United Kingdom as well.
In 2001, Catherine Redfern began The F Word blog to create a feminist space online for young, contemporary feminism, which she saw as particularly lacking in the U.K. A lecturer in sociology, Kristin Aune began working with Redfern through their shared interest in the young feminist movement. For Reclaiming the F Word, the authors conducted an independent survey of 1,265 feminists, asking about the feminists’ backgrounds and their views on women’s rights. What the authors provide, then, is an in-depth look at the ideas and values of the young feminist community of which they are a part. According to Redfern and Aune’s survey, 62.3 percent of respondents were 29 years old or younger.
For those who are familiar with the feminist blogosphere, Redfern and Aune’s feminism will be nothing new. For readers new to feminism, the book reads more like Feminism 101, covering issues like body image, sex trafficking, and gender equity in political representation. Reclaiming the F Word is a succinct and convincing explanation of how women are subverted in society today.
Redfern and Aune don’t shy away from issues like abortion and equal pay, two staples of Second Wave feminists. Instead, they add to these demands a new awareness of broader issues that particularly affect women. In the United States and probably in the United Kingdom as well, today’s Millennial generation [PDF] is the most socially liberal and ethnically diverse demographic, so it is logical that feminism should expand to include young women’s perspective. The strong presence of LGBT rights and global feminism is perhaps the strongest evidence that the priorities of a younger generation are changing the movement.
This is how Redfern and Aune approach and define feminism. It’s not just women who suffer gender discrimination; men are also victims of reductive masculine ideals. They also acknowledge that LGBT people endure discrimination and abuse because of such stereotyped gender roles. Using examples that illustrate how society’s expectations of women’s bodies are harmful, Redfern and Aune also note that clothing made in factories in poor countries exploit women. As for violence against women, the authors present the issue in a global context: while approximately 80,000 women are raped every year in the U.K., they point out that poverty and inequality make women the victims of systemic violence around the world. They additionally look at prostitution in the U.K., while not forgetting the 1.2 million involved in sex trafficking, around the world. In 1960s and ’70s feminist activists often excluded women who were not white and middle class, but Redfern and Aune realize that today’s feminism is aware of women’s diversity, the broader experience of gender discrimination, and feminism’s global potential.
While the authors can’t resist paying their dues to Germaine Greer and Naomi Wolf, there are more references to blogs like Feministing and Jezebel than feminist scholars or Second Wave icons. Drawing on the feminist blogging community, Reclaiming the F Word is limited because it doesn’t extend beyond the community. At the same time, the book proves a broader point about the breadth and interconnectedness of young feminists.
But while Redfern and Aune provide a more holistic perspective to modern feminism, Reclaiming the F Word also illustrates how those of us in America compare to the U.K. According to research cited in the book, 83 percent of British people believe women should be able to choose an abortion (although abortion there is subject to limitations, especially after 24 weeks), as opposed to 47 percent [PDF] in the United States. In the U.K., 94 percent of abortions are paid for by the National Health Service; in the U.S., 57 percent of women pay out of pocket. Both systems need improvement, but based on the examination of the very specific issue of abortion the two countries are at different places in the fight for reproductive rights. If these statistics on the narrow albeit polarizing issue of abortion mean anything, it’s that the U.S. needs more than consciousness raising; America is a country that still needs the money and influence of large feminist organizations.
Much as article after article might like to claim otherwise, Redfern and Aune capably document evidence that feminism is not dead. Today’s feminism is still a critical social justice movement, but feminism is evolving and doesn’t look the same as when Keenan and others of the "postmenopausal militia" first became involved in the movement. Part of this change comes from a disconnect between the large organizations that older feminists run, and younger feminists who use more social media and online tools to organize.
Redfern and Aune bridge these two worlds well. They criticize older feminists and their organizations for making it difficult for young women without money to donate and get involved. But Redfern and Aune urge young women to join organizations that fight for women’s rights, whether they are big legislative changes or organizations that focus on smaller—but equally legitimate—goals.
Reclaiming the F Word reads like a feminist’s guidebook, but it speaks to the slow establishment about younger feminism. This is the kind of book that is — above all — useful; I want to lend it to everyone who rolls their eyes when feminism is mentioned. Redfern and Aune have produced a useful document on where feminism stands today, who young feminists are, and what the movement is about. Unfortunately for Sarah Palin, they do a good job of proving that the future of the feminist movement isn’t conservative or pro-life.
Pema Levy is a staff writer for Campus Progress.