Thursday, June 30, 2011

Our Founding and Future Feminists

By Guest Blogger, NWPC Intern Lauren Harding

I am a feminist. After studying feminist literature, participating in the Vagina Monologues, and spending the summer as an intern with the National Women’s Political Caucus, the label does not faze me. The Feminist Majority Foundation reports that 56% of women and an even higher proportion of young women self-identify as feminists, according to a Newsweek/Gallup public opinion poll.  Therefore, I am not alone. Or am I? 

While these numbers are encouraging, the common consensus between most self-proclaimed feminists is that they often feel that they are in the minority. Why do many women still resist the label of feminist?  Perhaps the resistance stems from the stereotypes that cloud the perception of feminism - which I need not reinforce here. Perhaps the resistance to labeling oneself as a feminist lies simply in confusion about the meaning of the word itself. Curious, I called upon our feminist Founding Mothers and current feminists at the National office of the NWPC to answer: What does it mean to be a feminist?

Historians and academics attempt to fit feminist thinkers into the categories of first, second, and third wave. Instead of segregating women into groups (we get enough of that already), feminism is better viewed along a continuum, gaining momentum with each generation of feminists. As we forge our future, we must give credit to our founders for their successes and for creating a collection of feminist definitions for future generations. As founder Liz Carpenter said, “I have met brave women who are exploring the outer edge of human possibility, with no history to guide them, and with a courage to make themselves vulnerable that I find moving beyond words.” The history of the National Women’s Political Caucus guides young feminists today in their struggle for equality.
In 1971, nearly 300 women founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, each with her own experiences as a woman, and as an activist. Together, they created a historical collective of the definition of “feminism.”  Founder Betty Friedan said, “Men are not the enemy, but the fellow victims. The real enemy is women's denigration of themselves.”  More bluntly, fellow founder Gloria Steinem said, “A liberated woman is one who has sex before marriage and a job after.”  Whatever their different perspectives and backgrounds, the founders focused their definition of feminism on equality. The States’ continued failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1970 motivated women from all ages, ethnicities, and economic classes to form the NWPC. In short, the founding feminists believed women are equally qualified to participate in politics and their voices and perspectives must be at the table where the decisions affecting our lives are made.
There is certainly a consistency of ideals that link the feminist founders of 40 years ago and the young feminists working at the NWPC office today. Anna Tsiotsias, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “To be a feminist is to be the change that you want to see in the world! To advocate for equality and to be constant proof that a woman can do anything just as well as a man.”  Mary Baumgard, a junior at the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota, says, “First, feminism means admitting that while men and women are oftentimes not treated or viewed equally, they can be. Secondly, one must actively work to achieve this equality.”  Bettina Hager, Programs Director at the NWPC, states, “Feminism is the radical admission that there is a fight for women’s equality, and that it has yet to be won.”

For me, a feminist is someone who not only embraces gender equality, but also advocates for equality among all people—man, woman, white, black, or purple. Despite 40 years of dynamic change, our current definitions of feminism vary little from the founder’s.

Not only has the definition of feminism and the quest for equality remained constant, but the issues are also hauntingly similar. Legislation aiming to ban a woman’s right to possess control of her body is not only being introduced in Congress, but seems to be a daily development in state legislatures across the country. Today, 48 years after President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, women continue to make 77 cents to every dollar a man makes. Additionally, the United States remains at 71st place in the race for gender equality for elected officials.  Finally, the Equal Rights Amendment remains a dream and not a reality.

Rather than being discouraged, future feminists must remember their connection to the founders who so bravely forged our path. As Liz Carpenter said on another occasion, “Instead of looking at life as a narrowing funnel, we can see it ever widening to choose the things we want to do, to take the wisdom we've learned and create something.” The feminists of tomorrow must not narrow the feminist cause, but continue to widen its mission. This nod to the past and simultaneous step into the future will continue creating a definition of feminism committed to equality, which unites all women advocates across history.

1 comment:

  1. Well said, and a welcome contrast to the academic categorizing and pigeonholing engaged in by tenure-seekers. Change is fluid, and history will have a way of changing those categories anyway. Your noting the debt that your generation of feminists owes to the founders bespeaks a sense of history that is all too lacking in so many people's view of the world.

    With you and your NWPC colleagues in the most recent generation of feminists(um, am I categorizing and pigeonholing?), I'm filled with hope that progress will accelerate and that political and social change are nearer than we think.