By Jo Reger
*Cross-posted with permission from Mobilizing Ideas.
The Women’s Marches of 2017 and the anniversary marches of 2018 once again bring us to the question: Is the U.S. women’s movement new again, having gone through a decline, death and finally rebirth? Does this new mobilization mean the movement is new? This is not a new question. Throughout the history of the movement, pundits have continually recast feminism as “new,” as in another wave of activism (this time maybe the fourth or fifth wave but who is counting?) or as a movement born fresh and new, independent of its former self. Media observer Jennifer Pozner coined the term “False Feminist Death Syndrome,” in response to the constant reports of feminism’s death. In the same vein, feminist scholar Mary Hawkesworth noted feminism’s reoccurring obituary, observing it was meant to annihilate feminism’s challenge to the status quo. Hawkesworth and Pozner encourage us to question the question – in other words, under what circumstances is a long-lived movement seen as new?
Part of this question emerges from the view of feminism as coming in “waves,” that peak and decline. As I have argued, “waves” are problematic. Instead I offer the metaphor of “the family.” Families are made up of generations of relations, when older generations die out, newer generations are still there. Family names and histories continue despite in-fighting, controversies, backlash and disinheritance. People split off and come back together. Hard times bring support and prompt dissension. Families grow and shape the communities around them. But through it all, most families remain, in some sense, a unit with a traceable history. Turning to contemporary feminism, I argue that what we are seeing today is just that — the mobilization of multiple generations of feminists and activists inspired and shaped by a history of identities, issues and goals. With their adoption of a range of issues, (some with) pussy hats and signs declaring “My feminism is intersectional,” the 2017 Women’s Marches were anything but new and instead drew upon a history of a long-lived, multi-generational and complicated feminist movement.
One way to track this family history is through the issues brought to the march. Sparked by the presidency of Donald Trump, the range of issues in evidence at the marches were not something new. U.S. feminism has been multi-issue since the 1868 Seneca Falls convention where anti-slavery activists advocated for a women’s right to own property, a change in divorce laws and equality in education and employment with the most controversial being suffrage. While, at times, the movement and organizations have split over issues, they have also brought together a range of activists to focus on a specific issue such as the push for suffrage in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the 1980s work for the Equal Rights Amendment. In addition, some of the most pertinent issues in this moment of #MeToo have long been core issues. Sexual harassment, assault, and rape have been long addressed, in particular with exceptional work in the 1970s by radical feminists.
In addition to issues, when you don’t know the history of a movement, dissension between activists also looks new (or like the end of a movement). Take for instance the website for Forward Action Michigan (FAM). As the anniversary of the January 21, 2017 Women’s Marches drew near, local activists engaged in a very heated discussion about wearing pussy hats (knitted in pink with pussycat-like ears) to the anniversary rallies and marches. Popular as a symbol repudiating the denigrating term of “pussy,” the pussy hat was everywhere at the Women’s March in 2017. The FAM moderators shut down the thread after more than 250 comments, concluding that wearing the hats is disrespectful to transgender women and women of color. This level of discord is nothing new. Feminists have disagreed on goals, tactics, strategies and symbols since the inception of the movement.
Another “not new” issue is the struggle for feminist organizations to acknowledge white women’s privilege and to build truly inclusive organizations. Historically, women of color, poor women, lesbians and trans women have all been drummed out of, or left out of feminist organizing. In addition, simplified histories of the movement often miss the ways in which multiple groups of women, including women of color did organize. One result was the articulation by Black feminists of the concept of intersectionality. Arguing that no one social category, such as the “universal woman,” is always central to how we fare in the world, Black feminists instead proposed that all of our social identities interact in relation to others, forming a complex matrix of privilege and oppression. This concept has been reshaping feminism for the last three decades. The 2017 Women’s Marches were peppered with signs reading “I am an Intersectional Feminist” or “It’s Not Feminism If It’s Not Intersectional.” While intersectionality is not new to feminism, the articulation of an intersectional identity is still being worked out. At the 2017 Women’s Convention in Detroit, multiple speakers claimed an intersectional feminism, often defining it differently.
While there is much that is not new about U.S. feminism, two feminist scholars offer insights on the current direction of feminism. Alison Crossley, author of Finding Feminism: Millennial Activists and the Unfinished Gender Revolution, coins the term “Facebook Feminism” to illustrate how women’s movement activism has moved online. Heather Hurwitz, currently working her book, Women Occupy: Gender Conflict and Feminism in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, illustrates how feminism has moved into other movements, shaping identities, issues, goals and tactics. Even these current directions have old roots, from the mimeographed newsletter to website, from the spillover of feminism into the 1980s peace movement.
U.S. feminism, at its core, is essentially the same multi-issue, diverse and complex movement that continues to struggle with direction and inclusion but remains relevant in a world such as we have today.
Jo Reger is professor of sociology and director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Oakland University. Professor Reger is the current editor of Gender & Society and is a contributing editor of the Oxford Handbook of U.S. Women’s Social Movement Activism (2017), edited by Holly J. McCammon, Verta Taylor, Jo Reger, and Rachel L. Einwohner.