Gender & Society in the Classroom: Feminist Identities
Organized by: Danielle M. Giffort, University of Illinois at Chicago
At different times over the past two decades, the media has declared that feminism is dead, or at the very least, no longer necessary. Along with talk about the demise and irrelevance of feminism, many media sources and some scholars have suggested that we are living in a “post-feminist” generation where fewer people, especially younger women, identify as feminist or are involved in feminist struggles for equality. Despite all this talk about feminist identities, these claims are not often based on empirical research. Gender & Society has published several research articles on feminist identities that often challenge these popular assumptions. The articles summarized below deal with a variety of issues relating to feminist identities, including the ambiguity of the term “feminism” for many young women (Aronson 2003); the management of feminist identities and emotions in (non)movement spaces (Hercus 1999); the importance of social location (Harnois 2005) and the life course (Peltola et al. 2004) in shaping feminist identities; and the ways in which organizational factors shape feminist identities (Reger 2002) and activism (Giffort 2011). In addition to expanding knowledge about feminist identities, these articles also address broader sociological questions within subfields like aging and the life course, organizations, and social movement theory.
Hercus examines how participation in feminist activism shapes the management of feminist identity and emotions in movement and non-movement spaces. Using interviews with 45 Australian feminist activists, Hercus finds that participants engage in emotion work to defend their feminist identities in feminist-hostile spaces. By engaging in self-restraint, participants avoid conflict by keeping feminist views to themselves or selectively talking about feminism, while practicing self-assertion involves assertively and confidently expressing feminist views. Participants engage in these strategies to deal with other people’s (generally negative) emotional responses to feminism. Doing this emotion work is draining, as these women must manage both their own and others’ emotions. Hercus argues that these women restore their lost emotional energy when they return to movement spaces. Participating in movement events gives participants a supportive space in which they can express their anger. Hercus concludes that feminist identification and participation has both costs (responding to external opposition) and rewards (having an outlet for expression).
While examinations of collective identity formation in social movements usually focus on either the micro-level (e.g. individual characteristics) or the macro-level (e.g. social and political environment), Reger suggests that organizational dynamics, or the “meso-level,” also shapes collective identity construction. Reger examines two chapters of the National Organization for Women (NOW) – a liberal feminist organization – to explore how feminist identities are shaped by meso-level factors. Reger finds variations in the definitions and expressions of feminism at both chapters and argues that meso-level factors, such as membership diversity and organizational leadership, account for these changing and multiple feminist identities. This research, therefore, illustrates how feminist identities are not only shaped by individual characteristics or sociopolitical environment; organizational context also creates and shapes activist identities, sometimes in ways that lead to the construction of multiple feminist identities.
Based on in-depth interviews with 42 young women, Aronson examines how participants view their own opportunities and obstacles, how they perceive and experience gender discrimination, and how they identify themselves in relation to feminism. Participants demonstrate an awareness and appreciation of the increased opportunities for women created by the women’s movement. While most participants do not claim to have experienced blatant gender discrimination, many are concerned about it happening in the future. Participants adopt different approaches to feminist identification, leading Aronson to suggest that feminist identification should be categorized on a continuum rather than as a simple “yes” or “no” response. Racial and class background, as well as life experiences, shape where participants fall on this continuum. Overall, Aronson’s research challenges popular assumptions about young women’s relationship with feminism. Contrary to media-hyped claims, the young women in Aronson’s study support feminist goals and appreciate feminist gains.
Peltola, Milkie, and Presser examine the claim that younger generations of women are less likely to identify as feminist despite holding egalitarian gender attitudes. Peltola and colleagues compare feminist identities across three cohorts of women to explore whether or not feminist orientations and gender attitudes are shaped by the life course. They find that younger generations of women are just as likely as previous generations to identify as feminist, but that women still give different meanings to feminism depending on their generation. The authors explain these generational differences as the result of the unique social and cultural experiences of each cohort. Feminist identities, they argue, are shaped by when women came of age in relation to key moments in the feminist movement, such as the peak years of the second wave or the backlash years. Peltola and colleagues conclude that cohort effects shape how people understand and identify themselves.
Quantitative research on women’s feminist identities often assumes that feminist identities mean the same thing for all women, regardless of racial or ethnic background. Harnois challenges this assumption, arguing that quantitative sociological research on feminist identities must incorporate insights from multiracial feminist theorizing in order to explore how the importance of feminism in women’s lives, as well as the paths that lead women to embrace feminism, are shaped by race and ethnicity. Using data from the 1996 General Social Survey, Harnois finds that race and ethnicity shape how Black and white women understand and relate to feminism. For example, the factors that predict whether or not white women embrace feminism (e.g. education, religiosity, marital status) are not significant predictors for Black women. Harnois highlights how racial and ethnic differences shape women’s feminist identifications and encourages quantitative researchers to explore the intersections of race and gender in order to get accurate information about women’s feminisms.
Drawing on ethnographic data from a rock and roll camp for girls, Giffort examines why self-identified feminists “do” feminism without labeling it as such. Giffort finds that feminist activists at this organization carefully manage how feminism is talked about and practiced because of several competing organizational dilemmas: integrating the multiple feminist identities of volunteers; passing on feminist ideologies without alienating young girls; and appearing legitimate to parents and funders in an anti- and post-feminist environment. Participants respond to these dilemmas by practicing implicit feminism. Doing feminism implicitly allows feminist activists to address these organizational concerns, but for some, not being explicit about feminism can potentially create new barriers to feminist activism and identification. This research demonstrates how the organizational practices of self-identified feminist activists are shaped by internal movement factors (e.g. multiple feminist identities) and external movement factors (e.g. social and political reception of feminism).