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Betty Friedan to Beyoncé: Today’s generation embraces feminism on its own terms

Women and men across the country talk - often quite spiritedly - about their attitudes towards feminism. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

Student and professor sat across a desk from each other one October morning in a Georgetown University office. The subject was an essay assignment in Professor Elizabeth Velez’s Feminist Theory class, in which she tasked her 19 students with writing a five- to seven-page paper explaining and supporting their own personal theory of feminism.

Velez had invited all the students to visit during her regular office hours to go over their theses. This particular meeting did not go well.

“Feminism is not a political movement,” said Madeline Budman, a sophomore English major from Norfolk, bouncing her thesis off her professor.

Velez, a veteran of feminism’s Second Wave, was “dumbfounded.” “Of course it’s a political movement,” she recalled thinking. “I was never going to dismiss her point of view, but I was certainly going to push her to think it through more. Part of me feels very strongly: How can you see it otherwise?”

Budman left Velez’s office that day feeling “disheartened,” she said. “It was like, ‘Wow, my definition of feminism is wrong.’ She didn’t say that, but I felt like it was implied.”

And through that exchange, student and teacher had arrived at one of the central tension points confronting feminism’s modern age, and the one that may define it going forward: the growing tendency of younger generations of women to untether feminism from its political and activist foundation.

Young women (and, increasingly, men) are still coming to the movement in strong numbers, but this feminism looks different, in many ways, than that of earlier generations. This New Wave feminism is shaped less by a shared struggle against oppression than by a collective embrace of individual freedoms, concerned less with targeting narrowly defined enemies than with broadening feminism’s reach through inclusiveness, and held together not by a handful of national organizations and charismatic leaders but by the invisible bonds of the Internet and social media.

This feminism stresses personal freedom as much as it does equality and, when infused with the younger generation’s bent toward inclusion, has the capacity to make room for both Carly Fiorina and Beyoncé — even though older generations might permit neither.

Quiz: What type of feminist (0r anti-feminist) are you?

Feminism is still a vibrant part of today's culture:47 percent of the public (and 60 percent of women) identified themselves as feminists in a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of 1,610 American adults. That's up six percentage points from a Feminist Majority Foundation poll conducted 20 years ago.

But within the same poll data are signs of fundamental disconnects, both old ones and new ones.

The word itself — “feminist” — still is a sticking point for many, loaded with negative connotations, thanks at least in part to the efforts of influential right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, who popularized the pejorative term “feminazi” with his listeners. When half the Post-Kaiser polling sample was asked whether feminism has a good or bad reputation, 55 percent of the respondents chose “bad” — with little difference between women and men — while 32 percent chose “good.” But when the other half was asked the same question, except with “the women’s movement” substituted for “feminism,” the results were essentially reversed: with 54 percent choosing “good” and 35 percent saying “bad.”

In contrast, 94 percent embraced feminism’s bedrock principle: that men and women should be social, political and economic equals.

Clearly, people believe in feminist ideals — just not feminist labels.

Poll: What Americans think about feminism today

“I believe women should have equal rights to everything — in the workplace, equal pay,” said Ashley Huber, a 24-year-old college student from St. Petersburg, Fla., in a telephone interview after she answered the poll questions. “What I don’t want to be is the hard-core feminist: extreme and radical. . . . It’s not that I don’t believe in feminism at all. I’m just not one of those radical people who obsess over it.”

Broken down by age groups, the poll results illuminated differences in generational stances toward feminism. Millennial women (defined as ages 18 to 34) identified as feminist in numbers, 63 percent, that approached those of baby-boomer women, 68 percent of whom identified as feminists, and to a greater degree than the women in between: those aged 35 to 49. Fifty-one percent of that Generation X age group identified as feminists. When asked whether the word “empowering” accurately describes their view of feminism, 83 percent of women 35 or younger said yes, compared with 56 percent of women 65 or older.

Through a closer look at the poll data, as well as dozens of interviews, it is clear there is one central disconnect: Although millennial women, as a whole, view themselves largely as feminists — a logical notion, given their proximity to issues such as workplace equality and reproductive rights — their view of what it means to be a feminist is often far different than that of their mothers and grandmothers.

“To me, it’s about women being able to do what they want within legal boundaries and about being people not defined by what genitalia you have,” said Jamie McLaulin, 25, a fast-food worker in Hampton Roads who identifies herself as a feminist. My feminism “is more personal, because I’m not going to meetings or rallies or anything.”

If feminism is more personal than collective now, then each woman’s experience has its own meaning. And within Budman’s journey in a single essay assignment — a process that essentially carried Budman’s thesis from “feminism is not political” to the more nuanced “feminism is not ONLY political” — one can see larger truths: that there are more similarities than differences between the politicized feminism of the 1960s and ’70s and the more individualized version practiced by today’s generation.

“It’s kind of a cliche,” Budman said, comparing her brand of feminism to that of her professor’s, “but she grew up with the civil rights movement. We grew up with Facebook.”

Contrasts to the Second Wave

Ninety-six years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment gave American women the right to vote, marking the unofficial end of feminism's First Wave, and 53 years after the publication of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" ushered in the Second Wave, modern feminism has entered some new place.

Far from the largely monolithic feminism that came of age amid the upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s, it is splintered and amorphous. It fits varied interests and groups under one massive umbrella. Where women of the Second Wave found their entrée into feminism in a rousing speech, a book, a march, a copy of Ms. Magazine or a women’s group, now young women are frequently introduced to it through a Beyoncé video, a season of HBO’s “Girls” or a website such as Jezebel — all of them occupying wildly different plots on the vast, untamed feminist landscape.

While there was never much question as to who were the prominent faces of the Second Wave — Friedan and Gloria Steinem among them — the new feminism is largely leaderless and faceless. Asked to name a figure who represents feminism, for example, 58 percent of participants in last summer’s Post-Kaiser poll chose “no one” or offered no opinion. Only Hillary Clinton, named by 22 percent of the public, was cited by more than 3 percent of those taking the poll.

In conversations with people for whom feminism continues to resonate, it increasingly is taking place not in a political space but a cultural one, a sphere dominated by powerful young women — Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lawrence and others — who identify publicly as feminists. This version of feminism is, by definition, more inclusive than the versions that came before. It is more in tune with what academics call “intersectionality” — gender, race and sexuality coming together to inform a single identity — and less concerned with women’s-only spaces, in part because gender is increasingly viewed as something that is fluid, as opposed to binary.

“Being black and a female, I often find I’m asked to choose between being black and a woman. I can’t separate my race from my gender in my lived experience. They operate in tandem,” said Kishonna Gray, 32, an assistant professor of criminal justice and women’s and gender studies at Eastern Kentucky University and one of the country’s leading voices on intersectionality. “The feminist community is still so divided. It’s like there are different branches. We have queer studies, black feminist studies, traditional feminism. . . . We have isolated pockets of leadership; as far as grand leadership, we don’t have that anymore.”

Like much of American society, the feminist agenda has migrated to the Internet, making it at once less centered and communal, but more accessible and democratized.

“It’s not really one singular wave but multiple waves — because there are so many different lines of thought,” said writer Jessica Valenti, 36, who co-founded the popular website Feministing. “That doesn’t mean it’s not doing its job or that feminism isn’t working. It just means that we don’t necessarily need . . . a handful of organizations or one cohesive platform in order [to reach people]. At the end of the day, all of those waves are moving in the same direction.”

For a generation that came of age online, joining a Tumblr discussion or sharing an article link is as natural as joining a women’s circle or attending a rally were to the movement’s pioneers, who often question the effectiveness of this new “hashtag feminism.”

“I don’t know that our generation is any more or less political. I just think our view of what it means to mobilize has shifted dramatically,” said Tiffany Sun, of Rockville, Md., a senior government and gender studies student at Georgetown and one of Velez’s current students. “The Internet is the medium where people assemble now.”

Within the shifting media environment, modern feminism is blossoming most vividly, from the wealth of provocative feminist writing found online to the popularity of television shows such as “Girls,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent” that might have been unimaginable even 10 years ago.

Poll: What Americans think about feminism today

Who’s who now

The most influential feminist in America just might be Beyoncé, who, at the 2014 MTV Video Awards, famously performed in front of a giant banner reading “FEMINIST” — all while wearing a sequined leotard and fishnet stockings, and gyrating through a 16-minute set that included hits such as “Blow” and “Drunk in Love.”

Such a notion may have been anathema to earlier generations of feminists, but for younger women, Beyoncé’s projection of sexual confidence and self-reliance resonates. She also backs up her messaging with economics, filling her management company with female executives and staff, and touring with an all-female backing band.

From the red carpet to the couches of talk shows, female celebrities can be sure they will be asked some version of the ubiquitous question, “Are you a feminist?” — and increasingly, the answer is yes.

“If we look back at some of the popular movies from the past, in the late ’70s there was ‘Looking for Mr. Goodbar,’ which was about a single woman who ends up getting killed – because she’s out on the singles scene, which was considered very racy,” said Candace Bushnell, the writer behind “Sex and the City.” “And then in the ’80s, we had ‘Fatal Attraction,’ where the message was, if you’re a single woman and you have sex, you’re going to go crazy and boil a rabbit. So there were a lot of negative messages about single women. And I think that has really changed.”

The younger generation certainly sees itself as part of an active feminist movement. In the Post-Kaiser poll, 69 percent of women in the 18-to-34 age category said “yes” to the question of whether there is an active movement in the United States today. Forty-six percent of women 65 or older agreed.

Another large intergenerational gap in the poll came in regard to the true-false question of whether feminism “accurately reflects” the view of most women. Overall, 53 percent of women chose “true,” but a trend line was clear: Younger women chose “true” in much larger numbers than older women — including 64 percent of women in the youngest category, compared with 44 percent of women in the oldest.

This divide may reflect the long-standing criticism of feminism as being overly focused on the needs of white, upper-class women. It is a perception that has endured, suggested the poll, in which 77 percent of respondents agreed that feminism has helped white women, while 64 percent said the same for black women, and 55 percent for Hispanic women. About half said feminism has helped poor women, while about 7 in 10 said it has helped middle-class women.

The notion of a divide within feminism is nothing new. Over the years, some have complained that it was a zero-sum game that sought to diminish men, or that women were too often guilty of “eating their own” by being hypercritical of one another.

But as feminist author Rebecca Traister said, “It’s a social movement trying to create opportunities for 51 percent of the population — that means you are going to be inevitably riven by discord.”

Criticism from elders

“The personal is political,” went one popular slogan for Second Wave feminism, and some younger feminists have revived the slogan to reflect their belief that pursuing individual freedoms is very much a political exercise and to defend themselves against criticism from older feminists that they aren’t political enough.

“I think the critique that our generation is very individualistic is misguided,” said Alyssa Peterson, 23, an associate editor for the Center for American Progress and a former student of Velez’s at Georgetown. “The conversation surrounding feminism in pop culture and about femininity as a construct is very political. We’re negotiating the political landscape in different ways, because previous generations already achieved so much. Our battles are against more subtle forms of discrimination. It’s odd to me that ‘the personal is political,’ as feminists have been saying for years, but somehow [feminism within] pop culture is a separate thing.”

Where that leaves the political facet of feminism is open to interpretation. It is not as if today’s generation has abandoned it completely. Awareness over sexual assault, for example, has given rise to a period of intense activism on college campuses — to the point where there has been an equally intense backlash against it.

And it’s not as if full equality has been achieved: not when women make up 20 percent of members of Congress and 5 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; and not with women earning 78 cents for every dollar earned by men.

“It’s a long and everlasting battle,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), 48. “We have not achieved full equality. We certainly don’t have political parity. We haven’t achieved the level of success in corporate America that our talents would dictate. . . . We really should have 51 percent [representation] of women in Congress.”

Despite those realities, the Post-Kaiser poll reflected feminism’s lack of political will or any visible momentum at the grass-roots level. Asked to choose their “top priorities for improving women’s lives,” 84 percent of respondents selected “reducing domestic violence and sexual assault,” making it the top choice, and 75 percent selected “equal pay for equal work.” Thirty-two percent chose “getting more women elected,” making it the lowest-rated of the 11 available choices.

“It’s hard to talk women into actually getting [into politics] — because politics is so unappealing sometimes and made so unattractive,” said Mary Jean Collins, 75, a prominent Second Wave feminist who was president of the Chicago chapter of NOW in the 1970s and a national vice president in the 1980s. “But I think to [make progress], it really requires that we get more women into political office.”

Collins isn’t interested in kicking the younger generation of feminists. In the cacophony of voices and media today, she sees signs of progress. She acknowledges the effectiveness of hashtag feminism in connecting like-minded women. She notices college students organizing around the topic of sexual assault. “I see young women trying to make a difference for their generation, and I applaud them,” she said.

But it is only when she describes the past that Collins becomes animated. “We actually thought we were making a revolution,” she said. “We said we were making a revolution. We wrote books as though we were doing that, or poems, or songs. We made it explicit.”

Left unsaid was the contrast between then and now. Whatever feminism is today, even those who identify as feminists would probably say it is not a revolution.

Bridging the gap

In Velez’s Georgetown classroom, where some 50 years of life experience separates teacher and students, the disconnect between the new view of feminism and that of Second Wave is something to be dissected, debated and — in many cases — bridged.

Velez, 70, is a product of the 1960s and '70s and a self-described Second-Waver — the brand of feminist who fought the political battles of that era and endured the type of discrimination that would be unfathomable to her students today. A native of Alabama, where her introduction to social causes was through the civil rights movement, Velez arrived at Georgetown, a Jesuit university in Northwest Washington, in 1981 as a graduate student in the English department. She has been teaching the Feminist Theory course for the women's studies department for 30 years.

But Velez has noticed something changing in the past few years, a shift in attitude that has forced her to revamp her syllabus and rethink the way she steers the classroom discussion. Largely unburdened by the type of outright discrimination Velez and her peers faced at the same ages, her students often see feminism as equating to personal freedoms — such as sexual expression, gender identity and the choice to have both a career and a family.

At a recent session of her Feminist Theory class — in a room at Healy Hall adorned with paintings of the Founding Fathers and a Bible verse from Isaiah, “Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn” — 16 students (15 women and one man) discussed readings by Virginia Woolf, a discussion that at times veered into pornography, video-game culture and the current Hollywood film industry.

Poll: What Americans think about feminism today

The last 15 minutes of the 2½-hour class, though, were devoted to Fiorina, the lightning-rod former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard now running a middling race for the Republican presidential nomination. Of particular interest to Velez’s class was Fiorina’s identifying herself as a feminist, trumpeting her own triumphs in the business world and espousing a view that all women have the internal strength to fight their way to the top.

“A feminist,” Fiorina once wrote, “is a woman who lives the life she chooses.”

However, Fiorina also opposes abortion rights — an essential plank in the feminist platform since the movement’s earliest days — and has spoken out in favor of defunding Planned Parenthood.

The question Velez put to her class: Could Fiorina legitimately claim to be a feminist while fighting against abortion rights? The majority opinion seemed to be no. It is one thing to be opposed to abortion, students argued, but yet another thing to actively seek to ban it.

But there was another, smaller faction in the class that wasn’t ready to exclude a powerful woman and role model who wanted to identify herself as a feminist.

“We have this weird and often damaging tendency to [divide people], where you’re either one thing or you’re not,” said sophomore Grace Smith, a government and women’s and gender studies double-major from Troy, N.Y. “ ‘You’re either a man or a woman.’ ‘You’re either a feminist or you’re not.’ And I think there is a gray area, and I think being a feminist takes all different forms, and at the core of it is being inclusive and not excluding.”

Velez mostly keeps her own views to herself in class, in the interest of sparking the students’ own discoveries. But here, she spoke up.

“One of the things I am struck by is your desire to be inclusive,” she said, addressing the class collectively. “Y’all are saying: ‘We don’t want to exclude somebody. We want feminism to be broader and inclusive.’ [But] the thing I want you to focus on for a minute is [that feminism] is not about breaking through barriers in your own life. It’s not about being successful as a CEO. Those are personal goals we might have. [But] the word has to mean something. It’s got to have some boundaries. Because otherwise it’s just this feel-good kind of word that [means], ‘Hey, we’re all feminists; we’re all in this together.’ ”

Velez had touched a nerve, and one student quickly fired back. “I feel like the personal is also a part of feminism,” said junior Victoria Riley, a women’s and gender studies major from Hyattsville, Md. “Being assertive and all the things [Fiorina] mentioned, even though they’re not everything, they’re still important to recognize, as well. And not just say, ‘That’s not feminism, this is feminism.’ ”

“You make a very good point,” Velez said. But at the very end of class, as the shadows out the window grew long across the Dahlgren Quadrangle, she left her students with this thought. “Let me just say this: There are a lot of people I don’t want on board,” Velez said. “If we were talking about race instead of gender, and someone said, ‘Listen, I really am a supporter of civil rights — but I don’t support voting rights’ — I’m sorry, I don’t want you in that particular group.”

In her office days later in the New North building, Velez acknowledged that her activist roots inform her teaching. “There’s no question, as a professor, I have a point of view in this class,” she said. “It’s not as if I’m neutral politically on feminism. At the same time, the students in my class are coming from other places. And I accept that and respect that — but I have to push them. That’s what the academic process is all about.”

The essay assignment — describing one’s personal theory of feminism — was the first major writing assignment of the class, and one of the first to visit Velez’s office to discuss it was Budman, the sophomore from Norfolk. A self-described feminist who serves on the board of H*yas for Choice, an abortion-rights campus organization, Budman nonetheless rejects what she sees as the rigidity of Second Wave feminism.

“Part of the reason people are having trouble connecting to feminism is because everything you do in your life has to be a big feminist stance,” she said in an interview. “And I don’t think that’s the case. . . . I think I speak more for people who don’t identify as a feminist — even though I do.”

In Budman’s recollection of her initial meeting with Velez, she argued, “Women can define feminism for themselves.” Velez’s response: “Well, then what is it?”

“It made me really think hard about what I was saying,” Budman recalled. “I basically deleted everything I had.”

A Jew who is considering a career as a rabbi, Budman had a breakthrough when she hit upon the idea of using the story of Lilith as a narrative device. According to Jewish folklore, Lilith was created from the same earth as Adam, and simultaneously, but rejected the subservient role God ascribed to her — making her, in a sense, the original feminist. In this folklore, Lilith was cast out of Eden as a demon, and Eve was created to replace her.

Budman decided to call her brand of feminism “Lilithian Feminism” — one predicated upon an unflagging dedication to equality, inclusion and personal choice.

Another breakthrough came when she decided to tweak the old feminist credo, “The personal is political,” by arguing the converse.

“The idea,” she said later, “was that the personal was also personal. Yes, it’s political, and we need those political gains to further the movement, and nothing can happen without political change. But also, nothing can happen without personal change.”

In a subsequent office visit, Budman presented Velez with her new thesis — essentially saying, feminism is not only political — and her outline. Velez listened closely and said, according to Budman: "This is much more nuanced. You're getting there. Good job."

On her third visit, Budman handed in her paper. Its title: “Before Eve, There Was Lilith: A New Take on Feminism and the Original Woman.”

“Before feminists can work to empower other women, they must work to empower themselves through their own choices,” she wrote. (Budman shared a copy of her paper with The Washington Post with the condition that any excerpts be cleared with her in advance.) “… While it’s also important to attend rallies for [abortion rights] and sue companies for workplace discrimination, a woman’s strongest impact is living her life and expressing her womanhood on her own terms.”

Looking back, both teacher and student agreed the academic process worked. The student presented an initial argument that lacked nuance and historical awareness, and the teacher pressed her to think deeper and more critically. And in the end, both teacher and student gained awareness about the other’s viewpoint.

Velez’s students received their essay grades on the first Monday in November. Budman’s received an A.

“A lot of thought went into this, for both of us,” Velez said. “The essay she turned in was well-written and thoughtful, and she went through a difficult intellectual process to get there. For me, Maddy is on a journey. I think she’s still thinking about it. And I’m still thinking about it. I certainly listen to my students and learn from them. And I think that’s crucial. Their ideas continue to evolve, as all of ours do.

The great gift of feminism, Velez said, “is it’s always in some kind of evolution.”

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

Photo illustration by The Voorhes. Illustrations by Olimpia Zagnoli.