Thursday Thoughts: On Being a Young Feminist

Ah, to be a young feminist today! Wait, what would that look like? The 2010 National Young Feminist Leadership Conference that was held last weekend in Washington, D.C. provides us with one picture: 390 young feminist leaders came from 122 colleges in 30 states plus D.C. and Canada to learn more about what they can do as feminists to support abortion and reproductive rights, international family planning, the LGBTQ community, climate change, organizing on campuses, and feminist issues in general. (For a schedule of all events, see here.)

How does this kind of event compare with what was going on when I was a young feminist?

For one thing, there were no leadership conferences in Washington, D.C.  Instead, there were protest marches and consciousness-raising groups. Oh, the National Organization for Women (NOW) had just been formed, but its founders were older than women in my age group. I went to college in 1970, before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was illegal in every state except for a handful that allowed it in cases of rape, incest or the physical disability of the mother. New York became the first state to allow abortion for any reason up to the 24th week of pregnancy just a few months before I had my abortion in 1971. I was lucky, not because I was able to have an abortion (or because I needed one), but because I didn’t have to resort to an illegal abortion which might have jeopardized my health and future fertility.

Countless young women came to feminism via the same route I did. Finding ourselves pregnant and unable to obtain a legal abortion made us angry. Or if we had had abortions, it made us angry that we had to go through legal and medical hoops to get them (if we were able to get legal ones at all). The anti-abortion movement had not yet found its impetus; that would come with Roe v. Wade.  The mood was ripe in the country for a woman to have a right to privacy as to what she did with her own body. And that had a lot to do with the feminist movement.

But there were other issues that we were focused on in those days that were missing in the agenda for the National Young Feminist Leadership Conference. The excesses of the patriarchy was one. The fight to free women from being seen as sexual objects was another. Free love (made possible by the Pill), ownership of one’s body, the dissolving of sex role stereotypes and expectations, and a rediscovery of a woman’s right to forge her own path in life were all a part of the Women’s Liberation Movement (as it was known in those days). Even the name brings to mind images of women shouting in the streets and staging sit-ins and protest marches. It was an exciting time to be a feminist.

Have things changed that much? I think so. The sense of sisterhood that was present in the late ’60s and early ’70s has all but dissipated.[pullquote]The sense of sisterhood that was present in the late ’60s and early ’70s has all but dissipated.[/pullquote] This is partly because many women became disgruntled by the attention paid to white upper-class women. Today’s feminist movement is much more inclusive: more “colorful” and more global. But I think it has lost some of the fervor that characterized the Women’s Liberation Movement. Women were being radically changed by their “conversion” to feminism. And it was like a conversion. As Helen Reddy (a feminist musician) once said, the Movement “was something that profoundly altered how I felt about myself and about life. From that time on I was changed.” (Source.) Her response was not unusual.

I remember feeling that way myself. All of a sudden I realized that there were real reasons for my feelings of inferiority, that society had put me in a box and was attempting to keep me there at all costs. If I saw the patriarchy as a kind of conspiracy, at least I was putting the blame where it belonged: on men who had a vested interest in keeping women down. I became more self-aware, more proactive and more forgiving of my own weaknesses. (And yes, less forgiving of men’s.)

Because of the backlash to the Women’s Liberation Movement that started in the ’80s, most young women today hesitate to call themselves feminists. They’re afraid of being seen as man-hating bitches (because then how would they ever get a date?). What they don’t realize is that while a lot of laws and practices of society have changed for the better, men’s attitudes toward women haven’t changed significantly. They are still threatened by strong women, women in the workforce, in the military, in the professions and in politics.

So what is the answer? Should young feminists today take to the streets again? Should they seek to salvage men’s fragile egos so that they can do what they want without recriminations?

I believe that the answer lies somewhere in between. And no, that’s not a cop-out. Today’s young feminists should protest but then act, criticize but then correct. They need to know where they stand and stand firm. And they need to realize that we are all in this together. Sisterhood is still powerful.

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