I have a lot of friends who don't want to be called a feminist. It makes them sound unattractive. It makes them sound like they don't shave their armpits. For the record, I once had a very attractive friend who identified as a feminist and didn't shave her armpits. So the armpits are not really the end of the world.
But "feminist" is a word that conjures up images of all sorts of uncool behavior -- getting offended by little things like when someone slips up and calls God "he," refusing to even try sexy high heels and flipping out when referred to as a "girl," rather than a "woman." For many young people, feminists don't have their priorities straight. They talk about stuff no one cares about anymore. They beat on the same tired issues. Unequal pay. Not enough women acting in fill-in-the-blank position of authority. They may hate men. They definitely don't attribute enough importance to a good pedicure.
I used to call myself a feminist. In college. It was an act of defiance. I was going to show everyone. Show them ... something. It was pretty clear to me that feminism meant caring about gender relations, being aware of inequality, and being free to be whatever kind of woman I wanted. Feminism hadn't turned women into ugly, unfashionable man-haters or sluts. It had allowed women to be left alone for a minute, to figure out what we wanted to be.
But I had to explain all that whenever I used the word. And it got old really fast. I had to keep saying, "By my definition, you're a feminist too, whether or not you think you are." I asked the guys who wanted to debate it with me, "Do you support gender oppression?" And they said, "Uh ... No?" And I said, triumphantly, "HA! See! You're a feminist!" And they said, "So, like, do you shave your armpits?"
The thing about feminism is that it has a lot of baggage now. People who are afraid of women have given it a lot of that baggage. The scary people who like to blame feminism for things like "the downfall of society," and put it in sentences that begin with "Because of liberalism, feminism, and homosexuality..." And people who aren't that ridiculous about it, but are a little threatened by women occupying a broader range of roles, have piled on a few suitcases and totes.
Some of these people like to suggest that because of feminism, girls try to act more like guys, and so they have a lot of sex, but because they're still girls, the sex makes them feel terrible about themselves. So feminism hurts girls by misleading them about their sexuality. I have to pause here for a tiny tangent: there is nothing inherent about sex that makes girls feel bad about themselves. Plenty of girls have plenty of sex without feeling badly at all. And often, it seems that when girls feel bad about sex, it's because they are receiving powerfully conflicting information about it. "Go for it!" And "No! Stop! You'll ruin your reputation!" Which makes it pretty evident that the problem isn't feminism, it's transition. Which occurs naturally when the world doesn't offer up just one way of understanding and solving a major social problem, but many. Which kinda just sounds like, well, life.
And feminism has the historical baggage of a movement that is now old. The things that feminism had to accomplish, the things that galvanized it, are dramatic and distant. They seem a little absurd. Women not working outside the home? There are about four of those left. The women who want to can't even afford to stay home. Women not going to college? At least 60 percent of all current college students are women. Now everyone's getting concerned about boys. They're being left behind! They aren't being encouraged enough!
The truth is, a lot of the issues (systemic gender inequality, denial of reproductive rights, sexual violence, domestic abuse) that made feminism a necessity still exist. But they don't feel the same. And we don't approach them the same way. We say, if you want to change the world, then do it! We say, women change the world all the time. You can too. Get your law degree. Run for office. Make it happen. Those things are real, and they're possible. I think there's a general sense that the ball is already rolling. There's an unspoken understanding that even if women aren't equally represented in the government, or among corporate CEOs, it's really only a matter of time.
I'm an impatient person. I want big change to happen all at once. I can't believe that everywhere I look, people still don't have basic rights. I think that 50 years from now, we'll look back and be stunned to think about how primitively certain social issues were conceived and handled. And by skinny jeans. Those were a terrible idea.
But I don't run around calling myself a feminist very loudly anymore. I'm a young woman, and too many of my peers, whether incorrectly or not, translate the word through a sticky web of connotations. They also mostly take it for granted that I care about gender issues, opportunities for everyone, and eradicating oppression wherever it may crop up. All that is just part of being a conscientious human being. And as for the people who don't care about those things, they aren't anti-feminists or misogynists, they're simply uneducated or malicious (or both).
Some days, I put on makeup. Other days, I don't. Not even lip gloss. I shave my armpits, but there was a summer when I didn't shave my legs (the guys I met then gave me very positive feedback about it, much to my surprise!). I'm ambitious and educated, and I have two degrees, but a big part of my dream includes one day staying home with my kids. I blog about body image. I cook dinner for my fiancé a lot. He works 12 hours a day, so the idea of equally distributing household chores doesn't make sense. Also, I like to cook.
Ambition doesn't have to mean one thing. Neither do high heels. And I'm thankful for feminism's critical role in flinging open the door on endless complexity and possibility. Those things should never be kept in the closet. I'm thankful that, as a young woman, I have a lot of options, not only in terms of what I can do with my life, but how I can think about what I do. I have a lot of different ways to be proud of myself for my accomplishments.
So it isn't that women shouldn't be able to call themselves feminists and get pedicures and get offended by whatever offends them. Women should be able to fit the stereotype or not at their discretion. And it isn't that my generation doesn't need feminism anymore. It's that we more acutely need people who will care less about the definition of a particular word, and more about the experiences that people are having. Less about body hair, and more about opportunity. Less about women being one thing or another, and more about everyone sharing the same set of responsibilities towards caring for a world we all participate in and are affected by.
Which is not to say that it's OK for everyone to go around calling God "he." Because, really, people, that just doesn't make sense.