Her rhetoric is aggressive. She champions women for president. Planned Parenthood and the Women’s March Organization can count on her steadfast support. She fixates on the sexual victimization of females and is compared to Rosie the Riveter as an icon. Her presence is boisterous, demanding, and inescapable.
She is Gloria Steinem: a stereotypical feminist.
“Nowadays, they’re just pushy and mean,” says Newton South High School senior Cameron Gilchrist, when asked to describe feminists. For Gilchrist, who is not a feminist, shining a light on their movement reveals little more than a group of angry women. “People don’t want to associate themselves with that type of woman,” he states.
As a man, Gilchrist is not alone in his attitude toward feminists. Fifty-six percent of millenial males in a recent Washington Post poll responded that feminism has a bad reputation (Washington).
“Parts of it are authoritarian,” offers non-feminist Jake Levy, another Newton South senior, in an effort to explain how the women’s movement earned its criticized status. His friend Mathew Huller, who also does not identify as a feminist, agrees: “the feminist movement today is much more radical” than its historical suffrage beginnings. “On some level,” says Levy, “men can be worried that it affects their position in society.”
And yet, these three highschoolers don’t believe that men and women should be unequal. “By the dictionary definition,” which describes the movement’s supporters as advocating equality of the sexes, “yes, I’m a feminist,” says Levy.
The issue for most youth – not only males, but females as well – isn’t that they oppose gender equality. Eighty-five percent of Americans believe in equality for women (Allum). At Newton South, ninety-five percent of students also share that belief – and nearly half of that number are non-feminists (Binns).
The problem lies with the interpretation of feminism’s definition.
“The traditional definition of feminism no longer accurately represents the movement that has assumed the title ‘feminism,’” says Levy. Fellow classmate Stephanie Luiz, a self-described egalitarian, but not feminist, agrees. “I think that feminism has moved in a direction that doesn’t actually promote equality anymore,” she says.
Their claim that the movement has changed is credible; at the core of traditional feminism, also known as first-wave feminism, was the vote. Since suffrage has been tucked safely under the female belt for a century, the question becomes: what does feminism stand for now?
To Huller, the movement has extended past the long-established, equality-of-the-sexes principle. “It means being in favor of abortion. It means believing in the gender wage gap and solutions to try to stop that. It means, in many ways, being in the left-wing politics,” he says.
Levy agrees that there has been a politicization of feminism, noting that “people on the far right have spoken out about it.” More importantly, though, he notes that they “have used outliers like people in the UC Berkley window-smashing to paint everyone with the same brush, while in reality this is a movement with millions of people,” not just the radical few.
This is the crux of the modern tendency to shy away from identifying as feminist: prominent coverage of the “outliers.”
“People get distracted by those few individuals who might be hardcore or militant,” explains Robert Parlin, who has taught a class on gender at Newton South High School for the past twenty years. “They have misinterpreted a few strident voices to represent all feminists,” he says, “and unfortunately, I think that has taken away power from the movement.”
Context is key to understanding the present climate surrounding feminism. Today’s youth spend more time than ever in cyber space. Mobile devices allow ninety-four percent of teenagers easy access to the internet. For those who use social media, seventy-one percent use more than one platform, increasing their chances of viewing articles and videos that pop up in their Facebook and Instagram streams (United).
At their finger tips is a universe of information, with no barrier to separate what is factually true from what is not.
“I’ve seen, like, YouTube videos,” says Gilchrist, referencing what has shaped his perception of feminists as “pushy.” However, he cannot provide details or verify the authenticity of what he has seen on the internet.
Gilchrist’s online experience is not uncommon. With forty-nine percent of social media users reporting fake news sightings at least once per day, any topic – including feminism – can show up, facts unchecked (To).
The same is true of people. Helpful and convenient though the internet may be, it can also be a mask. Online, anyone can classify their words as “feminist”.
For those who use online experiences to defend their views of the women’s movement, Parlin says that the question becomes, “Who are they citing? Who are their referring to?” Although he admits that “there are some voices online” that support the stereotypical feminist image, his rationale remains: “You can find anyone online who’s shrill.”
“Because of that,” says teenage feminist Jessalyn Kaur, “people will say, ‘I’m not a feminist,’ when really, if you want equality, then shouldn’t you be a feminist?”
The issue, it seems, always circles back to feminism’s definition.
With a concept so broad and complex as feminism, finding one phrase capable of encompassing everyone’s sentiments about it proves difficult. “Just because you define a word in a certain way doesn’t mean the whole movement acts in conformity with how it’s been defined,” says Huller.
Professor Robert Selman of the Harvard Graduate School of Education believes in a flexible, individualized interpretation of feminism. “To understand what each person thinks feminism means to them, they ought to debate and discuss concrete topics with others. It’s only then that one would really have an understanding of what each of us believes the concept is,” he says. Selman, who specializes in the psychology and social awareness of adolescents, says it is for this reason that “the dictionary definition [of feminism] is very weak and unimportant.”
Perhaps there is no singular definition, but the traditional dictionary definition can still have a stranglehold on the movement, ultimately excluding those who would rather not identify with it at all than have to conform. For those people, the side effect of shying away from one title is to be marked with another: the anti-feminist. As Levy puts it, it is this “either you’re with them, or you’re against them” characteristic of feminism that is so detrimental to the movement. It is simply inaccurate.
Luiz does not identify as a feminist because of the “negative connotations” associated with the modern movement, but her rejection of the feminist title does not mean that she is anti-female. “I one-hundred percent believe in equality between men and women,” she says. “That’s not even a question.”
Levy, Gilchrist, and Huller have the same opinion. Each has his own critiques of the movement as a whole, but none opposes equal rights and opportunities for women. Says Levy, “I absolutely support gender equality. For me, it’s just a question of the methodology.”
The number of young adults like these, who prefer to refrain from associating with feminism than to claim it and its accompanying negative reputation, is climbing. But members of this group call for feminists to acknowledge the pro-female beliefs shared by both parties rather than ostracize and condemn each other.
“Understanding feminism is a shared burden,” says Huller. “Non-feminists, on one hand, should seek to understand the specific issues and see past the connotations of feminism. Feminists, however, should not be dismissive of opposing views, and shouldn’t silence opposing views based on gender.”