Why aren’t more young women feminists?

Earlier this week I saw a piece on the BBC news website asking why more young women do not identify with feminism or as feminists. According to a 2018 YouGov poll, 34% of women in the UK identify as feminists, up from 27% in 2013; 56% of women in the same poll said there was still a need for feminism while 25% said there was no need. The poll results give a breakdown by age but does not break the male and female results down by age, only the total, but the greatest percentage of those considering themselves to be feminists was in the 18-24 age group (46%) and it was around a quarter for all other age ranges (25-49, 50-64 and 65+). The study did, however, find that much higher proportions of people believed in ideas traditionally associated with feminism, such as that men and women should be equal (around 80%). The researcher found that the association of feminism with stereotypes of lesbianism and lack of or opposition to femininity were a major factor in putting off young women from identifying as feminists.

What the article does not explore is what feminism actually is and how it has developed in the last couple of generations. There is a difference between generic, small-f ‘feminism’ which is identified with equality and rights and the like, and ideological, capital-F Feminism. It is possible to be a generic feminist without being an ideological Feminist but it is possible that many women associate the term with the ideological variety. These days there are two major strands of ideological Feminism: the type which styles itself intersectional feminism, which is concerned with how different types of oppression such as is associated with race, poverty and disability affect women above and beyond the difficulties women face in society, and mostly regards womanhood as stemming from gender identity as well as biology, and so-called Radical Feminism, which identifies women as a globally-oppressed, biologically-defined “sex class”. A major debate in feminism at present is the status of transgender people, particularly male to female transgender people; intersectional feminists support changes in the law to make the legal transition easier and often reject the notion that female biology is necessary to be a woman; radical feminists usually regard it as essential and regard trans women as men. Sometimes, they are vituperative and obsessive about this conviction. They refer to intersectional feminists as ‘liberal’ feminists when really this is an older form of feminism concerned with such things as economic equality and political representation. In their usage it is intended as a barb, along with terms like “fun feminism” and “choosy-choice feminism”. (Some American conservatives use the term “radical feminist” to mean a radical of any sort who is also a feminist of any sort; I have seen articles denouncing Betty Friedan as a radical feminist, when in fact she was an early liberal feminist who had been a Marxist in her youth.)

It is possible that many women, young or old, do not particularly identify with either of these ideologies or find them relevant to their lives. I suspect many have a simpler and more conservative view of gender and of what makes a woman (or a man) than either of them posit: they might not accept that mere identity is enough but would accept someone who was post-operative and no longer had male reproductive organs as a woman, for example. Radical feminists have often treated the customs of femininity as oppressive in themselves (such as in Sheila Jeffreys’ book Gender Hurts, which among other things detail the harms and inconveniences of the female beauty regime); many (though not all) regard these practices as a form of self-expression and most are not required to go to the same extremes detailed in books like Gender Hurts. Having a wider range of ways to express one’s personality in one’s clothing is not a good example of oppression, even if the available clothing changes every few months and entire types of clothes are periodically unavailable. People who have a strong identity with their sex and the gender associated with it are unlikely to identify with an ideology which is strongly associated with rejection of or indifference to it.

That the poll reveals that more people believe in the principle of gender equality than in feminism as such demonstrates that ideas that would have marked someone out as a feminist a generation or two ago would not mark them out at all now. In many parts of the Western world, the battle of ideas has been won; indeed, gender equality has come to be seen as a Western value. The law is generally on the side of women and there are strong anti-discrimination laws in most western countries, even if they have been watered down or are expensive to pursue (e.g. with punitive fees for employment tribunals, as were introduced under the Coalition government although later struck down in court). In the past, there were “low-hanging fruit”, obvious legislative changes that a broad women’s movement campaigned for, but today ensuring that women are not discriminated against is the work of specialists such as lawyers. There are many feminist activists who do valuable work in challenging rape myths or inequality in healthcare, but while these things affect many, if not most, women at some point in their lives, they do not restrict most women’s whole lives.

Finally, to motivate a large group of people to form a mass movement or associate with it, their situation has to be actually bad, not merely less good than it should or could be. Ideological feminists talk of oppression, but they use it in a technical sense to describe a situation which would be better described as general disadvantage; the word oppression connotes suffering. Activists will deal with the women who are suffering, but very many are not: they are well cared-for as children, they receive a rounded education, they are told they can do what they want with their lives if they work for it, they have the freedom to choose their partners or not to have one. Of course, this better describes middle-class women in a Western society but this is a large cohort which cannot really be described as oppressed or suffering. Feminists may look for psychological explanations or stereotypes for why few young women will call themselves feminists nowadays, but the real reason may be because they do not see a need for a generalised feminist movement. Life for them is just not that bad.

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