The Everywhere and Nowhere of the U.S. Women’s Movement

Reger_imageMedia pundits, such as Rush Limbaugh, constantly announce the death of feminism.  U.S. citizens have been told (for the last 200 years or so) that feminism has failed and the women’s movement is a thing of the past. As a social movement scholar, I set out to find if this was in fact true. Are people turning away from feminism? Is it really a thing of the past?  By examining three communities, I find that the answer is a firm “No.” Feminism continues in organizations, communities and networks throughout our country. In ethnographic case studies, I found feminist activists in a progressive college town on the East Coast, a more conservative college campus in the Midwest and a sprawling metropolitan area in the Northwest, illustrating that young people still adopt a feminist identity and engage in a variety of activism.

Based on these findings, I argue that contemporary feminism is both everywhere and nowhere. By this I mean that feminism today in the United States is a paradox – there is the legacy of past feminist activism that profoundly changed both societal structure and culture. In many ways, feminism has diffused into our cultural consciousness. We raise our girls to believe that they can do anything they want and the idea of women in positions of power is becoming more and more acceptable. Structurally, society has also changed. Occupations are not as sex-segregated as in the past, domestic violence shelters are incorporated into communities, and sexual assault laws exist. Despite the broad scope of these transformations, we often forget that feminism was the impetus for these changes. In this way, feminism is diffused into our culture and is everywhere but unrecognized, it is seen as nowhere.

The three communities illustrate this paradox. The Midwest feminists develop a “focused” identity in a hostile (nowhere) environment; whereas the East Coast feminists developed a “submerged” identity in an environment they called a “feminist bubble,” a place where feminism was so common (everywhere) it was virtually unrecognized. The Northwest feminists developed a “linked” identity that connected to other social movements in a very progressive metropolitan area that made feminism the foundation of other types of social justice work. In sum, each community had networks of feminists working in a variety of groups and cultural places but the difference in community acceptance and openness to the feminism shaped the identity and activism done.  In sum, I find it is time to call off feminism’s funeral and look for the diversity of community-based feminism all around us.

 By Jo Reger, Oakland University, on her book, Everywhere & Nowhere: Contemporary Feminism in the United States, reviewed in the October 2013 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review click here.

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