"I would not call myself a feminist," says Natalie, a University of Michigan junior. "I'm experiencing a lot of the advantages that feminists worked to achieve, and I'm thankful. ... But I don't know that women are still that much uneven from men, especially in the workplace." Told that on average a woman today makes only 76 cents to a man's dollar, Natalie is shocked. "I don't understand how that could be fair or even possible," she says.
Young women in the United States today do not seem to be opposed to feminism, as the Feminist Majority Foundation (FM) has defined it on the back of its business cards ("the policy, practice or advocacy of political, economic and social equality for women"), so much as they are put off by a bra-burning, hairy-legged image of the feminism of their mothers' generation. The daughters have reaped many benefits from the feminist revolution of the 1960s and '70s, the "Second Wave" of the U.S. women's movement. (The "First Wave" is associated with the women's suffrage movement.) Young women today have greater access to reproductive health services, greater opportunities in the workplace and more lifestyle choices, including the freedom to gleefully take up lipstick and miniskirts without conceding anything to the patriarchy. This is a generation that feels equally entitled to stay single, marry or cohabit, and with same-sex, opposite-sex or varying partners. Perhaps as a result, a do-it-yourself ethos permeates many young women's lives, and they have tended to shy away from group affiliations of all types.
That individualism is, in part, a healthy thing. But it also has a dark side: The reluctance to work together as a constituency -- or to fully engage in electoral politics -- may lessen this generation's ability to resist attacks on the freedoms it now enjoys. The American right has been working hard to overturn reproductive choice, roll back recent gains on gay rights and push "abstinence-only" policies on everything from sex education to funding for international health programs. And the Bush administration, for the most part, has signed on to this agenda. The president has also moved against overtime-pay and family-leave laws, steps that could strongly affect young women juggling work and family responsibilities. After years of helping ourselves to a full buffet of life choices, we may one day find the spread sadly diminished -- and on the table a sign telling us to get back into the kitchen.
Feminist activists say the current political moment is pivotal, a crossroads for young women and for feminism. Battling conservatives and fighting accusations of their own movement's stagnation and irrelevance, the organizations started by Second Wave feminists hope to draw young women into the movement and its leadership. The FM and the National Organization for Women have launched campus campaigns, held conferences for young women and pushed to improve women's health services on campus. Alarmed by news that only 44 percent of women under 31 voted in the last election, compared with 66 percent of women 31 and older, they've also launched voter-education and -registration drives.
And a number of young feminists have emerged. They are planning a massive abortion-rights march to take place in Washington next year, and their campus performances of The Vagina Monologues have raised money for Afghan women. Says Whitney Cabey, a recent Spelman College graduate and new FM campus organizer, "Calling myself a feminist is basically like calling myself my own name."
But there are more young women who, like Natalie, are ambivalent about joining in.
Part of the challenge may be feminism's own successes. To many young women today, their lives have little to do with the oppressions faced by their mothers' generation. Compared with young women in 1975, today's 25-to-34-year-olds are, on average, better educated and more likely to be employed. They are also more likely to delay marriage and childbearing, decisions associated with greater family stability and higher incomes. Those under 25 have come of age in a time of considerable freedom of sexual identity and "girl power," which, despite its current status as a marketing cliché, has had a positive impact on young women's attitudes toward athletic, social and intellectual prowess.
So has feminism outlived its usefulness? Certainly not, says Jane Mansbridge, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government who's writing a book titled Everyday Feminism. "We've gotten rid of a ton of overt discrimination," Mansbridge says, "but there's tons of structural discrimination still remaining." That kind of sex discrimination -- in workplace policies and in the general culture's assumptions about job productivity, family roles and caregiving responsibilities -- has particularly affected young women, for even more than their mothers 25 years ago, today's young women are juggling work, family and education demands simultaneously.
For example, nearly 64 percent of young, married women with children worked in some capacity in 2000, compared with only 38 percent of women in the same category in 1975. With their higher education levels and increased workforce participation, today's young women between 25 and 34 are "truly squeezed between the time and money demands of simultaneously investing in education, finding and climbing the first rungs of the career ladder, acquiring a life partner, establishing a home, and having and caring for children," say the editors of the demographic study The American Woman 2003-2004. "No other age group bears such a complex burden."
Young mothers have responded to these multiple demands by tailoring their work lives -- working flexible schedules or part-time, leaving the workforce temporarily or alternating work periods with a partner, if they have one. Such strategies allow them the time to be the primary caregiver, a role still largely filled by women, but they pay a price. Fewer work years can translate into lower Social Security and retirement benefits for women; part-time work may eliminate health and retirement benefits entirely. And all of the above take a toll on women's opportunities for advancement. "Those young women who say they might not need feminism -- they need to look at their lives in the future," says Mansbridge. "They'll need it later, with additional job, family and partnership pressures."
Young women who think we live in a postfeminist era have often led fairly privileged lives, says Amy Richards, co-author of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future and co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation, an organization of young feminists. Feminism's past successes haven't much diminished the burdens on the country's least privileged women, Richards says. Indeed, the wage gap between unmarried mothers with less than a high-school education and married women who are college graduates has grown over the last 25 years. In 1975 the poorer group made more than 20 percent the wage of the college grads; in 2000 its members made only 17 percent. Lack of education translates into the kind of low-wage work that keeps people at the bottom. And more than a third of young Latinas have less than a high-school diploma -- a troubling statistic for the country's largest growing minority group. As for African-American women, they have the highest work-participation rate of any group of women but are disproportionately in lower-wage occupations. They make up 7.1 percent of employed 25-to-34-year-olds but only 5.7 percent of those holding executive, administrative or managerial positions.
Poor women and women of color in the current generation face continuing inequality, and both they and more privileged women of the same age face a difficult time-money crunch. Feminism's work, particularly for young women, is clearly incomplete. It's also gotten harder. Due to an increase in life expectancies and low child-bearing rates, the U.S. population is steadily aging. In 2000, for the first time ever, more than half the American population consisted of adults aged 35 and older. Women under 25 now represent a much smaller percentage of the population than was true in their mothers' day. "As a result," say the editors of The American Woman, "the younger adults who traditionally have dominated the adult population are losing 'market share,' with predictable effects on their political, cultural, and economic impact."
In light of these challenges, young women's ambivalence toward feminism -- a movement that ostensibly recognizes and fights for their needs -- may seem surprising. But young women haven't missed the backlash against the feminist movement: the conservative messages of pundits like Ann Coulter and Phyllis Schlafly, who make lucrative careers for themselves out of telling other women to stay at home; the numerous articles and books on eligible-bachelor shortages, shriveled ovaries and the dangers of day care; the baby-scare tomes such as Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. They all imply that "it must be all that equality that's causing all that pain," as Susan Faludi put it in Backlash. "The women's movement, ... we are told time and again, has proved women's own worst enemy."
Not all the blame can be laid at the feet of feminism's foes, though. Even self-identified feminists among the younger generation confess to ambivalence about the movement. Some believe that the Second Wave was uninterested or even hostile to motherhood. One young feminist, who asked to remain unnamed, said that when she had children, she felt as if feminism had "abandoned" her. "Motherhood was left out of traditional feminism," she said. "I think the Second Wave of feminism had a necessary push against traditional gender roles in order to get equality in the workplace. And I'm really thankful for that. But in that push, motherhood was pushed against."
In general, this generation seems to have contradictory views on women's issues. On abortion, for example, the number of American adults who identify themselves as "pro-life" has increased as this younger generation has entered the polling sample. (According to Gallup Polls, 45 percent called themselves "pro-life" in 2000, up from 33 percent in 1995.) And the number identifying themselves as being in favor of abortion rights has decreased (from 56 percent to 47 percent). But the number of Americans who say the procedure should remain legal -- either across the board or under certain circumstances -- holds steady at near 80 percent. Young women appear to be more willing than their mothers' generation to explore the issue's complexities and their own misgivings, but they are not falling in line with conservative pressure to roll back Roe v. Wade.
So if young women aren't flocking to the women's movement, it isn't because they are against it. And if the activism of those who do consider themselves feminists has taken a decidedly nontraditional form, it isn't because they oppose feminism's traditional political positions. "Third Wave" feminism, however, is playful. It's tuned in to pop culture. It's ironic. Third Wave activists have reclaimed stereotypically feminine toys -- knitting, the color pink and Barbie dolls, for instance -- from the Second Wave trash heap. They've set out to strip formerly taboo words of their misogynistic trappings: The word "girl" has made a comeback; magazines are called Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture and Bust: For Women Who Have Something to Get Off Their Chests; Inga Muscio penned a book praising female anatomy and titled it Cunt: A Declaration of Independence. Even more than the Second Wave, the Third Wave has created feminist porn, feminist hip-hop and feminist spoken-word poetry in its efforts to explore the convergence of politics and art.
Some critics have charged that young feminists today are dabbling in identity politics and nail polish instead of working toward legislative change. But many young feminists seem to be active in other social movements -- doing environmental, racial-justice, anti-death penalty and/or anti-globalization work -- and they believe that in the process they are disbursing feminist ideas. It's an approach that may well reach and reflect a more diverse population than Second Wave feminism, which has so often been criticized for being primarily a middle-class, white women's cause.
Young women and men have "internalized feminism too much, thankfully, to swing too far from it," says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, who is writing a book titled The 'F' Word: How Women Are Redefining Sex, Power and Politics in America. But she also poses an important question: Do young women realize that the opportunities to be who we want to be, sexually and in other ways, and the self-sufficiency to enjoy the ironies of pop culture were won by political action -- and may have to be defended that way? "If we don't engage electorally," Rowe-Finkbeiner asks, "will we [remain] able to create our own identities?"
There are reasons to suspect that young women are figuring this out. Even Natalie, though still put off by unpleasant associations with the word "feminism," has signed up to take a women's studies class this fall. "As a woman," she says, "I just want to know where some of these rights have come from."
And who knows? If feminism faces a fight, perhaps at the center of those riding to its rescue will be its greatest beneficiaries, the young women who may be ambivalent, dismissive or unaware of the movement now but who have grown up enjoying its gains -- and knowing the power of taking a "bad word" and making it one's own.