Young Women and Feminism

by Christina Scharff

Feminism entered my life when I went to university. It was then and there that I realised quite a few things were still amiss and that I started calling myself a feminist. One Christmas, I went home and attended a party with my old school friends. As it happens, we started a discussion about gender issues and I was really struck by their hostility towards statements such as ‘Gender inequality still exists’ and ‘I think feminism is a good thing’. At university, I encountered similar attitudes. While most seemed to agree that men and women were equal, my classmates starting acting a little funny when it came to the word feminism. In particular, I was intrigued by the reaction of other women who seemed to have quite a negative, if not hostile, attitude towards the ‘f-word’.

Scharff_blogimageThese experiences stayed with me. Indeed, I decided to do a PhD on young women’s engagements with feminism, which, several years later, came out as the book ‘Repudiating Feminism: Young Women in a Neoliberal World’. The book is based on forty interviews with young German and British women (aged 18-35) from all walks of life in terms of racial background, class background and sexual orientation. In the interviews, I tried to find out how young women think, talk and feel about feminism. I asked questions such as: Have you ever heard of feminism and, if so, what do you associate with it? And: Would you call yourself a feminist? Sadly – at least from my perspective – most of the women who took part in the research rejected the label feminist and, indeed, were often reluctant to be associated with the women’s movement.

So how can we explain this? I should clarify that the women I spoke to knew about on-going gender inequalities. In that sense, they were not ‘duped’, but actually quite aware. However, they often stated that these wider inequalities did not have an effect on their personal lives. Despite the gender pay gap, they would make sure not to earn less than men. In this context, the research participants often used a language of personal empowerment. They rejected joining wider social or political movements, such as feminism, and instead opted to fend for themselves.

It would be inaccurate, however, to suggest that the women’s relationship with feminism was entirely negative. Many said they were grateful for the changes the women’s movement had brought about. And others said that they were okay with feminism, as long as it was not extreme or of the ‘man-hating’ variant. Indeed, the majority of the women I interviewed associated feminists with man-haters, lesbians or unfeminine women and, for this reason, did not want to call themselves a feminist. I found this very interesting for two reasons:

1. First, what’s so bad about being an unfeminine woman or a lesbian? Heterosexual conventions strongly came to the fore here. Although some research participants were lesbian or bisexual, and although many emphasised that they were not anti-gay, the majority did not want to call themselves feminist because they feared that they would be seen as unfeminine, lesbian or man-hating.

2. These stereotypes have ‘stuck’ to feminism for a long time. In the early 20th century, feminists were called spinsters and speculation about their sexual preferences was rife. However, these stereotypes are stereotypes and, as the book lays out clearly, they seem to stem from the dominance of heterosexual conventions in contemporary western societies.

Lastly, I wanted to find out whether women’s different backgrounds – in terms of class, race or sexuality – affect their relationship with feminism. Some research participants thought that feminism was a movement that only spoke for white middle-class women, while others felt that feminism had opened itself up and now tried to include the voices of women from diverse backgrounds. There were different viewpoints and there was no straightforward link between a woman’s background and her thoughts and feelings towards feminism. Interestingly, though, many research participants drew strong distinctions between women who lived in the west and who were allegedly empowered, and women who lived in ‘other’ parts of the world and who were seen as passive victims of oppression. This way of thinking is problematic for a range of reasons: for example, it is similar to arguments that were widespread in the colonial era when colonialism was justified as a necessary intervention in order to ‘save’ women in other parts of the world from oppression.

As you can tell, young women’s engagements with feminism are complex. While many may not identify with feminism, they do not have an entirely negative attitude towards it and are, in fact, aware of gender inequalities. But what seems to get in the way are individualistic attitudes, the stereotypes that are attached to feminism, and the way feminism cuts across differences amongst women.

Christina Scharff is lecturer in Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London. Her book, Repudiating Feminism: Young women in a neoliberal world, is reviewed in the April 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review, click here.

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