Feminism, Changing the World, and the Internet

The Daily Beast recently polled 1,000 US voters about sexism in the 2008 elections. For me, the most striking poll result was that only 20 percent of women are willing to use the word "feminist" about themselves, and only 17 percent of all voters said they would welcome their daughters using that label. Yet, more than 60 percent of women believe there is a gender bias in the media, and two-thirds say they are treated unfairly in the work place. So, what gives? What accounts for this disparity? Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff on the Women’s Space blog reminds us that "[t]he word "feminism" has been co-opted by all sorts of groups and individuals and organizations that are anything but feminist, and it’s confusing, discouraging and irritating." Okay, true, but I believe the disconnect is mostly one of timing.

When I left my parents’ house to make my way in the world, all I saw was the garish sparkle of opportunities guaranteed by law. At the same time, I was more susceptible to the zeitgeist of popular culture — what’s cool and what’s not — and also tended to be more sensitive about how other people viewed me. I think I regarded myself as a feminist, but truth be told, depending on where I was, the company I was keeping and who was doing the asking, I could very well have scoffed at the idea of feminism. I just didn’t give it a lot of thought because I couldn’t see the need. I think I was typical. And for the generations of women who came of age after the Reagan era, the zeitgeist winds blew colder every year for feminism, making it that much easier for them to casually turn their backs.

It was only after working and taking on the crushing responsibility of my family that I began to notice the growing number of obstacles in the way of my ability to conduct my life — the gender politics in the workplace, the difficulty of finding childcare, working out healthcare for aging parents, protecting my impressionable daughter from unhealthy stereotypes in the media, to name a few. These obstacles were infrastructural and extremely difficult to deal with for many reasons, the most obvious to me being the fact that most of the people best positioned to do so were men.

With a few years of life experience under my belt, I could begin to appreciate the role the women’s movement continues to play in fighting for those changes. I started to make that connection, but many women never do. When they’re overloaded by the demands of work and family, taking that extra step to find out how feminism — a theory, a movement, whatever — is related to those issues is asking for too much.

But while women may have no time for feminism, we are living the issues and policies that shape our society and directly affect our lives. So what’s that like? Decades after the feminist revolution, still not so good, it turns out. Linda Basch, president of National Council for Research on Women, tells us, "One out of eight women in the United States lives in poverty. Women disproportionately receive subprime mortgages. Women also hold more minimum wage jobs (68 percent) than men. Half of the work force, of which women make up 48 percent, does not have not one single paid sick day." Beyond our personal experiences, in this country, women as a whole still need to help ourselves.

If the purpose of the women’s movement is to improve lives for women, perhaps we could cut to the chase and spend less energy worrying about who’s willing to call themselves a feminist — about the "ism" in feminism, as it were — and more on bringing about change, which is after all feminism’s original and paramount purpose. And for the first time in history, to rally women to participate in change, organizers don’t need to jump up and down to get a piece of their thinly-spread attention to write letters to the editor or to their congressional representative, or, harder yet, to physically demonstrate. Such methods are still important, but where they pull in tens of thousands, organizing over the Internet can turn out untold millions.

And what does "turning out" mean over the Internet? At its most basic and more powerful level, I believe it’s encouraging women to continue do exactly what they’re already doing  — sending email, participating online forums, writing blogs, twittering  — but doing so with INTENTION, where there is an awareness that, with everything we write, every opinion we share, we are joining our voices and ratcheting up the pressure for change. As mismeta at the Adventures at Midlife blog points out, "I think it’s time to us women to start speaking up — in ways small and large, gentle and forthright, local and national — instead of hoping that our sheer numbers are going to speak for us."

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  • I’m on the exact same page you are, Gloria. I’ve identified as a feminist for over 25 years, and it’s a core part of my identity, especially since I devoted significant time & resources to doing an MA in feminist psychotherapy. The “isms” don’t make the movement; the relatedness of the women who want change is what matters. I must say that lately the activists I’ve been in touch with agree that feminism got co-opted by hostile press and those who are afraid of women having power. Things have improved, but there is much work to be done, not only in the U.S., but globally.

    So, how do we open up the tent and make feminism warmer and more accessible? This is what I’ve tasked myself with, and sometimes I’m pitch perfect and sometimes I piss people off! Is that ok? Is it ok for a feminist to do the kerfluffle thing and not be hauled in front of the left-brained punditry as a stark, raving mad manhater? Is it ok for a feminist to intentionally open up the distrust and fear that keeps people from working together to solve their mutual social problems? I hope so, because that’s my territory.

    My use of the internet to do my feminist work is to go as multimedia as I can, to get real women as visible as I, a piddly little activist, can (there are so many free online platforms, it’s hard to choose!), and to create a warm, safe space where invisible women can join the conversation. Right now I’m lining up interviews with women about how they got feminist for my podcast, Interview4Obama. I started this during the campaign in order to interview Obama supporters and I’m continuing it as a part of Feminist Advisory Board for Obama, a Facebook group and one of my blogs.

    Here’s the irony of my vision for Feminist Advisory Board for Obama: I’m not knocking on Obama’s door insisting that he appoint a panel of high-powered, highly visible feminists to his administration. Others are, such as WomenPAC, and more power to them! But my idea is to build the table, or the tent, or whatever metaphor works for you. I think of it as a web, spreading far and wide, horizontal and transparent, with gazillions of on-ramps. I am in competition with no one; I don’t raise money, I’m not a non-profit, I don’t make money from this work. I see myself as a bridge-builder, a cross-pollinator, a communicator, and I am developing real relationships with other women who want change. I’ll be blogging, podcasting, vlogging, and also developing a feminist video roundtable with interactivity. I’m also someone who has fairly radical ideas about patriarchy that I’d like to discuss with other feminists.

    Consider me your online sistah. That’s where you’ll find me…

  • Lecia

    It is too bad that most women feel uncomfortable calling themselves a feminist, or allowing their daughters to do the same. Many rights and freedoms enjoyed by women today were won by the feminist women of decades ago, women who loved breaking out of the mold to call themselves “feminists.” I am reminded of an AAUW blog post that talks about how certain people use the term feminist as if it were a dirty word – the other version of the “F Word” – http://blog-aauw.org/2008/05/28/the-f-word/.

    Labels aside, however, the other big issue we can take from this survey the fact that gender bias, in the media and elsewhere, has become a part of mainstream discussion. By realizing the discrimination women face can be eliminated, more and more women are joining together and fighting these issues, even if they don’t label themselves “feminists” as many of us might.

    As Gloria said, the internet is a great tool for women who have become great “life jugglers.” While women thrive in their workplace and care for their families, the internet is a way to connect and advocate for issues affecting women in ways that weren’t possible before. Just imagine what we could have accomplished by now if it would have been! Let’s hope our daughters and granddaughters don’t look back at this time at wish for what could have been – let’s make it happen now.

    Congratulations to The Daily Beast for presenting a new perspective on sexism in the 2008 elections!

  • I’ve said over and over again for the past ten years. Until feminists build a feminist anti-defamation and education league, we will continue to get trashed and exploited. Anti-feminism is the most socially acceptable form of misogyny, and it will continue to be that way until we feminists build a strong, focused anti-defamation league.

    Considering all the anti-feminist trashing in our culture, I think it is remarkable that 20% of women will privately admit to pollesters that they are feminists. Indeed, other polls have said that 30% of American women are feminists. I think we have the potential to build that anti-defamation movement, but we need to stop wasting our time wondering why “so few women call themselves feminists” and start building that movement. Now let’s get the Suze Orman’s of the world to start financing it. Hey, she has benefitted immensely from feminism so now is the time to give back.

  • After taking several women’s studies classes in college, I decided I would NEVER identify as a feminist because the movement is too white and not as inclusive as it should be. Instead, I am a womanist.

    We can’t ignore (or deny) that white feminists abandoned issues specific to women of color, and often abandoned women of color in order to promote their own causes. We still see that today. How many women of color are actively pursued by feminist web sites or feminsist organizations in order to present a more unified front?

    Also, let’s take a look at the amount of white feminists who originally wanted Hillary Clinton as the democratic frontrunner – just because she was a a female – and often associated Obama’s name with terrorism (because they didn’t want a Black man in the White House).

    White feminists didn’t do as much for ME as a Black female as Dr. King did for me as Black person.

  • Katie

    @Genia I also took women’s studies classes in college, and, to be fair, I saw the exact divisiveness you’re talking about. Many, many books, essays, blog posts I’ve read, have pointed out the exact same truths to me, and as someone who came in with virtually no background in women’s issues and no awareness of feminism as a movement, I too saw it as abandonment and a division. But I do think that feminism has grown since then, in a positive direction, and can continue to do so. This conference involves so many different kinds of men and women, from so many backgrounds, beliefs and experiences, and they are willing to come together to talk to each other, build relationships and share their views — to close that divisiveness. That’s why I’m involved.

    I majored in English and Cultural Studies; what I cared about in college and now are stories — sharing the human experience is one of the most basic instincts we have. I would not have learned everything I did about feminism — from multiple cultural perspectives — if I wasn’t given the opportunity to see it from another person’s eyes and gain a greater understanding. That’s one of the basic tenets of good communication.

    That’s what the Internet has become for so many, and that’s why it’s so fascinating. Being actively involved online with the “women’s movement,” in its modern incarnation and with all the different threads of interpretation, feminism’s issue, for me, is about communication and accessibility. Feminism in itself is not a bad word, but the word itself is not the most important thing; the way that different people view it and express their views to each other is what’s important. The way that we as people communicate with each other has changed. We’re forming our own identities — in control of our own messaging — online. Location is irrelevant, and what you say you are is everything. You tell your story and people instantly respond back, and you create constant dialogue and learn about… everyone.

    What I’m trying to say is that this is an opportunity. We can use this emphasis on two-way communication to share experiences exponentially more, to bridge gaps between people and to reach new understandings. Feminists, hell, ANYONE who cares about women’s issues — childcare, healthcare, body image, workplace discrimination, genital mutilation, slave trafficking, stereotyping, the list is soo long — need to do this. Instead of splitting ourselves apart into “mini-feminisms” or tiny ideological niches, we need to find where the priorities overlap and give each other enough mutual respect that we can focus on learning from each other’s experiences and helping each other. It does require unity, but unity does not require ignorance — it requires communication.

  • Katie, I completely agree with you! Any form of communication involves ‘framing’ in order for common understanding to take place. Sometimes I wonder how ‘feminism’ is framed in our society. As a young woman, I often find I can gain mutual understanding more quickly by using terms, such as ‘women’s leadership,’ and ‘women’s empowerment,’ as my first word choice, rather than ‘feminist.’

    For example, the campaign ‘The Girl Effect’ (http://www.youtube.com/user/girleffect ) has received significant recognition online, shown to over 230,000 individuals and has shown up on high-profile blogs, such as Guy Kawasaki’s Presentation Zen. Goldman Sachs also recently launched an initiative entitled 10,000 women, recognizing the power of investing in women. (http://www.10000women.org/) I wonder, though, how such initiatives may have been different if the term ‘feminism’ was mentioned in either. Any message must be crafted in terms of the listener, and I wonder how people would have listened differently. Gloria, wonderful article! Thank you very much.

  • Gloria Pan

    Thanks, everyone, for giving such thoughtful and heart-felt comments.

    MadamaAmbi – There so much opportunity and work to be done on so many levels. I’m with you in that I think the greatest potential is on the Net, directly between and among women.

    Kathleen – I’m not sure I agree with you about an Anti-Defamation League. It feels too angry, especially when we’re at a moment in time when we should be celebrating the shear numbers of women streaming into the public discourse, who, among many other things, are saying “No, that’s not what a woman is, that’s not what a feminist is.”

    Genia – when you think “feminist,” do you automatically think “white”? There are feminists of every color and stripe, and especially among younger women. Of course, the most influential feminist voices, by virtue of age and experience, tend to be white and they get the most limelight, but I don’t think they should be considered monolithic and certainly not representative of all feminists. In fact, with so few women willing to label themselves as feminists, we have a huge opportunity to redefine what it really means. I hope you join in that effort rather than turn your back on it.

  • I want to apologize. I made a mistake when I wrote “Guy Kawasaki’s Presentation Zen” blog. Presentation Zen is Garr Reynold’s blog. Again, I apologize profusely!

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