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The Changing Nature of Feminism

Millennial feminists are working toward a more equal society for all, not just between men and women.

Feminism is one of the most prevalent ideologies and activist movements guiding Millennials, particularly (and perhaps predictably) Millennial women. According to HerCampus’s 2015 Feminism on Campus Survey, 78 percent of college women in the United States identify as feminists. Today’s feminists, however, are unique in that their goal is not just gender equality, but creating a more just and equitable world for all marginalized groups.

Despite its widespread popularity, a cohesive profile of feminism is difficult to pin down. “There’s not one definition,” Erica Somerson, Vice President of Feminists for Action (FA) at Ball State University, said, “it means something different to everyone.”

Erica started exploring the ideals of feminism after her junior year in high school. She attended an engineering camp with only three female participants; the rest of the attendees were male. Despite her competent skills, she says the guys in her group told her just to work on the slide presentation.

“They used my idea and didn’t give me credit for it. So, come time to present to all the families, I was the only one who knew what to say,” Erica remembers. That was when she realized, something isn’t quite right in our society. “I was not welcome in a place where I was thriving, you know?”

FA represents a new type of feminism which evolved from roots during the pre-Civil War Era. Efforts by figures like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton finally resulted in suffrage for women in 1919. The second wave of feminism began in the 1950s as women fought against gender norms confining them to domestic roles. In the 1990s a third feminist era broadened the focus to other marginalized groups of women.

Today’s feminism is governed primarily by one ideal — inclusion — which is closely tied to the 1990s holistic view of people’s rights. “The third wave is really about the big picture,” says Dr. Courtney Jarrett, a Ball State professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department. She is also the faculty coordinator for the Ball State chapter of FA.

Not everyone agrees on what current wave of feminism exists; while some think we have moved into a fourth wave, others believe the third wave that began in the 1990s is still in effect.

“I think the key aspect to feminism today is that it’s intersectional, which means we are looking at how different forms of oppression intersect,” said Erica. “So it’s not just saying, hey, we need gender equality, it’s saying, ‘How is that gender equality impacted by race, color, ethnicity, religion, age, ability, and all other social constructs?'”

In recent years the movement has reached out to women of different ethnicities, races, and sexual identities. Support has increased for trans women in particular, and with good reason. Seventy-two percent of anti-LGBTQ homicides are carried out against transgender women; eighty-nine percent of those are transgender women of color.

Additionally, the wage gap exists not only between men and women, but is further segregated by race. In 2013, African American women made 64 percent of a white male’s income, with Hispanic women taking home 55 percent. White women, on the other hand, made 78 percent.

By focusing on the effects of intersecting forms of oppression, Millennial feminists are working toward a more equal society for all, not just between men and women. An article from Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research said young feminists see themselves as a part of a larger student movement, looking for justice for all – not just women.

The intersectional movement also works to correct mistakes made by previous generations of feminists. In the past, white, wealthy, middle-class women pursued agendas that were progressive, but more narrow-minded. Because of this, today’s feminist movement can sometimes be misunderstood as non-inclusive to people more familiar with its past.

Despite the emphasis on inclusion and the high rates of college women identifying as feminists, there is one group that still hasn’t quite found its place in the feminist movement: Millennial men.

Quentin Thompson, a male member of Ball State’s Feminists for Action Club, feels that men stand to earn just as much as women from the progression of feminist ideals: “Feminism has a lot of benefits for men as well; one of the main parts of feminism is getting away from hyper masculinity, hyper femininity, and removing those necessary gender roles. While there’s a lot of focus on the female gender side, there’s a lot of benefits to taking down gender roles on the male side as well.”

Though feminism offers benefits to men, many are still unsure; according to the same 2015 HerCampus survey, when college women feminists answered “yes” to receiving backlash for their views, 73 percent of the time it was received during discussions with male friends.

Erica felt that for some men, the potential consequences of feminism may be hard to swallow, and, while not right, is understandable: “I still think there are a lot of misconceptions, or that it’s just hard to identify with a movement [in which] a lot of the problems stem from the patriarchy, which benefits men.”

Quentin had some words of wisdom for young Millennials (especially men) looking to get involved in feminism for the first time: “The best thing you can do is get educated, learn about the problems people face, and then be able to be active about it.”

“Don’t speak for anyone, be an ally,” he said. “Oftentimes allies, especially white males, speak for the group and you don’t want to do that, you want to help bolster their voice — if you speak for them it’s problematic.”

Nationally, there has been a push to include more men in the feminist movement; the HeForShe solidarity campaign was put together by UN Women in 2014 in an effort to encourage men to take action against gender inequality. The campaign was headed by UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson and has had strong success, particularly on social media; within the first two weeks of the movement’s launch, #HeForShe was tweeted 1.1 million times and reached over 1.2 billion Twitter users.

There are still some women who prefer not to identify as feminists, too. This could be due to a wide range of issues: they feel un-included in the conversation, they have a misunderstanding of the movement, or they simply feel that feminism isn’t for them.

Erica is familiar with this viewpoint, and while she would love for everyone to become a feminist and work together, she understands that some people may not be comfortable with the idea. “I’ve definitely experienced many women saying, ‘I don’t identify with the feminist movement,’ partly because they don’t see it as being inclusive; they either have experience not being included, or that’s just what they see. But, if you don’t identify with it but still identify with fighting for gender equality, you can do that in your own way.”

Dr. Jarrett felt that if women don’t identify with feminism, it is probably due to misconceptions or false stereotypes about the movement: “Honestly, it’s really whatever they’ve heard about feminism is mythical, it’s not what feminism is in a day-to-day kind of setting, because it really just means equality for everybody, but not everybody believes that.”

Activism within the movement continues to thrive, especially among young feminists. College campuses are an especially salient environment for protests, demonstrations, and above all creating a dialogue between students about feminist issues. At Ball State, FA makes their voices heard often. This fall, the organization participated in their third annual Slutwalk protest on campus; the goal of the event was to bring issues of victim blaming and slut shaming to light in relation to sexual assault.

Erica felt that this protest was particularly powerful: “My favorite event is Slutwalk, just because it is impossible not to pay attention to a bunch of half naked people walking down the street; I hope a lot of people listened to the message and know why that happens.”

Overall, today’s feminists are characterized by the very fact that feminism is just one on a long list of causes they support. As Quentin said, “One of the good things about feminism is that it can work with and connect with many different things—[it] ties into LGBTQ rights, but it also works into multiculturalism; there’s usually this broad umbrella of feminism and then these other concepts can be brought in under it.”

Despite persisting misconceptions about feminism, its following within the Millennial generation is strong and only continues to grow as it becomes more intersectional. Though the nature of feminism may be ever changing, it is safe to say the movement itself continues to be a strong, driving force for positive societal change.

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