Unicorns and Young Feminism

This post is one of 37 submissions in the ‘This is What a Young Feminist Looks Like’ blog carnival. Head over to our host, Fair and Feminist, for a list of participating blogs.

Today, I’m declaring my solidarity with the unicorns. After all, I’m also part of a marginalized group that many insist doesn’t exist and upon which many more impose their hopes, dreams and fears. We don’t have horns but, at least in my personal opinion, we have magical powers that can and will change the world in ways no one can yet imagine.

I am a young feminist. Once and for all, I am a very, very real. And I am far from the only member of my pack.

Every couple of weeks another well-known older woman publicly bemoans the extinction of feminism in my generation.  And unfailingly, after each speech I give about my nine years in the feminist movement, someone stands up to ask why young women are unwilling to take up the banner for equality. Each time, it feels like a personal jab. I know or have met many of the older leaders who propagate this myth and I wonder, “Did you forget the conversations we’ve had about organizing in high schools and on college campuses? Are the young women who run your websites and table at your events and stuff packets for your conferences really invisible or do they just mean that little to you?” To those at my speeches I want to scream, “Did you tune out the last thirty minutes of me talking about college feminists in Colorado getting their peers to vote against anti-choice ballot initiatives and immigrant young women in California helping nail salon workers form unions and brave young women teaching comprehensive sex education in the South?”

But, I don’t say any of those things. I go back to my herstory and try to remind these older women, often veterans of the Second Wave battles, that one of the reasons some young women fail to see gender equality as a main issue in their life is because their work eradicated many of the overt oppressions against women that, before, were simply known as “life.” My generation has never experienced segregated employment ads or “men only” signs or been unable to get credit without a male co-signer. The feminists of the 1970’s dreamed and labored into a reality a country in which little girls are told they can be anything they want to be and have far more role models to prove it. If we seem ungrateful, it’s because we can never truly know how bad it was and, I believe, most of the women’s liberationists wanted it that way.

I also find myself trying to explain why, for very valid political reasons, some young women don’t identify as feminist. I feel my older colleagues pain on this one – I, too, feel my life was saved and radically transformed by this thing called feminism and I can’t think of a better way to describe my work and worldview than the f-word. Yet, my ability to love and use this word is strongly tied to my privilege as a white, middle-class, educated, able-bodied, cisgender woman. People who share these privileges have historically and continue to control the mainstream women’s movement and that movement has a history and often a present of silencing, shaming, and/or marginalizing women who don’t fit into that privilege set. For these reasons, many young women of color, queer women, disabled women, and trans women don’t consider “feminist” a safe or useful term.

That doesn’t, however, mean that these women are not working for gender equality and working in ways that extend the scope and impact of social justice organizing like we’ve never seen before. For example, young women doing their activism under the umbrella of the woman of color led reproductive justice movement are expanding the fight for reproductive rights from a legal and political struggle to a community conversation about economic access to services, the rights of incarcerated mothers, and the impacts of often intersecting identity-based oppressions that influence individual ability to parent, get health care, and use those hard won legal rights. To discount these young activists as apathetic or uninformed because they use a different label or refuse a label at all is to replicate the silencing that drove many away in the first place and that has splintered social justice efforts for centuries.

Of course, there are some young women who don’t identify as feminist because they don’t like the connotations of the word or they think, falsely, that women have achieved full equality. This is the “I’m not a feminist but” crowd and, yup, that’s a frustrating implication of the backlash against feminism that we’ve been talking about since Susan Faludi named it in 1991. Instead of dwelling on it, I choose to look on the bright side. When 18-25 year old women were asked in a 2007 Harris poll if they believed in the goals of the women’s liberation movement, 90% responded in the affirmative. Young women all over the country and the internet are talking about and doing activism for gender equality and they are doing it at an age when the pressures to sexualize themselves, find a romantic partner, and assume the role of “woman” as seen on TV is at it’s highest. Many are doing it in educational institutions that act as bubbles of perfect equality before that bubble pops upon entering the workplace. Instead of asking why more young women aren’t identifying as feminist, why aren’t we remarking on how many are, against all odds?

Some older feminists do that, of course. I have many wonderful older friends and colleagues who’ve never denied my lived experience and who have worked with me on feminist projects for years. This speech is not to them or about them but to the small part of their group that, like the actually apathetic “I’m not a feminist but” part of my group, has it completely and utterly wrong. If you’ve found yourself here as a skeptical older feminist or a skeptical, “women are equal, right??” young non-feminist,  go check out the 30+ posts in this young feminist carnival. See what this whole newfangled thing is all about. Get inspired, get excited, get pissed off and take action. That, after all, will change the world far faster than sitting around debating the existence of unicorns.

5 Comments

Filed under Feminism

5 responses to “Unicorns and Young Feminism

  1. Pingback: Fair and Feminist » Blog Carnival Update 1

  2. Stevie

    At least we’re unicorns!!!!

  3. Max

    Good piece, Shelby. Some of us older feminists do recognize your very real existence, but I am still not sure about unicorns.

  4. KaeLyn

    I found myself saying, “Yes!” over and over while reading your post. Thanks for articulating a respectful and unabashedly honest response to those that believe young people are apathetic.

  5. That graphic is fantastic. Another amazing post!

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