Feminist Identities

Gender & Society in the Classroom: Feminist Identities

Organized by: Danielle M. Giffort, University of Illinois – Chicago
Updated by: Erielle Jones, University of Illinois – 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.

Kolehmainen, Marjo. 2022. “Postfeminist Versions of Equality? An Analysis of Relationship and Sex Counseling Practices in Finland.” Gender & Society, 36(1): 63–87.
Relationship and sex counseling are pivotal components of the “therapeutization of society,” which has been identified and widely examined as a key transformation of 21st-century modern Western societies. The particular understandings of gender and sexuality that circulate in those practices contribute to the wider everyday conceptions of intimate life and are thus important to investigate from a feminist perspective. Combining insights from studies on therapeutic cultures, research on intimate relationships, scholarship on postfeminism, and affect theory, this article taps into the often ambivalent ways in which gender equality and sexual rights are articulated in relationship and sex counseling practices. My data are derived from an ethnographic investigation of relationship enhancement events in Finland. Equality was widely supported at these events, but there was no consensus regarding what desirable equality actually looked like. My analysis identifies several contradictory patterns in the data. First, there are statements to the effect that equality has “gone too far.” Second, many experts express tokenized critiques yet remain invested in depoliticizing views. Third, there are acts of resistance that embrace diversity and expand everyday understandings of gender and sexuality. I argue that these patterns constitute a postfeminist sensibility, thus complicating the belief that Nordic countries are exceptionally supportive of equality.

Saguy; Abigail C. & Juliet A. Williams. 2022. “A Little Word That Means A Lot: A Reassessment of Singular They in a New Era of Gender Politics.” Gender & Society, 36(1): 5–31.
Singular they has emerged as a key term in contemporary gender politics, reflecting growing usage of they/them as nonbinary personal pronouns. Drawing on interviews with 54 progressive gender activists, we consider how singular they can be used to resist and redo aspects of the prevailing gender structure. We identify three distinct usages of singular they: (1) as a nonbinary personal pronoun, (2) as a universal gender-neutral pronoun, and (3) as an indefinite pronoun when a person’s self-identified gender is unknown. While previous research on singular they as a gender-inclusive language practice has focused primarily on its usage as a nonbinary personal pronoun, our findings point to the relevance for gender politics of all three usages. Our analysis offers new insight into how nonbinary they challenges dominant gender norms and practices beyond incorporating additional gender categories. Given our findings, we propose further investigation of how using gender-neutral pronouns for everyone in specific contexts can advance progressive activists’ goals. Finally, we argue that the longstanding usage of singular they as an indefinite pronoun has new importance today in affirming gender as a self-determined identity.

Kamran, Sidra. 2021. “A Patchwork of Femininities: Working-Class Women’s Fluctuating Gender Performances in a Pakistani Market.” Gender & Society 35 (6): 971–94.
Scholars have studied multiple femininities across different spaces by attributing variation to cultural/spatial contexts. They have studied multiple femininities in the same space by attributing variation to class/race positions. However, we do not yet know how women from the same cultural, class, and race locations may enact multiple femininities in the same context. Drawing on observations and interviews in a women-only bazaar in Pakistan, I show that multiple femininities can exist within the same space and be enacted by the same individual. Working-class women workers in Meena Bazaar switched between performances of “pariah femininity” and “hegemonic femininity,” patching together contradictory femininities to secure different types of capital at the organizational and personal levels. Pariah femininities enabled access to economic capital but typically decreased women’s symbolic capital, whereas hegemonic femininities generated symbolic capital but could block or enable access to economic capital. The concept of a patchwork performance of femininity explains how and why working-class women simultaneously embody idealized and stigmatized forms of femininity. Furthermore, it captures how managerial regimes and personal struggles for class distinction interact to produce contradictory gender performances. By examining gender performances in the context of social stratification, I explain the structural underpinnings of working-class women’s gendered struggles for respectability and work.

Kleinman, Sherryl, Martha Copp, and Kalah B. Wilson. 2021. “We’ve Come a Long Way, Guys! Rhetorics of Resistance to the Feminist Critique of Sexist Language.” Gender & Society 35 (1): 61-84.
We provide a qualitative analysis of resistance to calls for gender-neutral language. We analyzed more than 900 comments responding to two essays—one on AlterNet and another on Vox posted to the Vox editor’s Facebook page—that critiqued a pervasive male-based generic, “you guys.” Five rhetorics of resistance are discussed: appeals to origins, appeals to linguistic authority, appeals to aesthetics, appeals to intentionality and inclusivity, and appeals to women and feminist authorities. These rhetorics justified “you guys” as a nonsexist term, thereby allowing commenters to continue using it without compromising their moral identities as liberals or feminists. In addition to resisting an analysis that linked their use of “you guys” to social harms, commenters positioned the authors who called for true generics as unreasonable, divisive, and authoritarian. We conclude with suggestions for how feminists can challenge the status quo and promote social change.

Laube, Heather. 2021. “Outsiders Within Transforming the Academy: The Unique Positionality of Feminist Sociologists.” Gender & Society 35 (3): 476-500.
Several initiatives recognize the importance of transforming institutions, not just changing individuals, to diversify STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields. Universities and colleges are distinctive gendered work organizations because workers (faculty) are highly educated and have authority in hiring, evaluation, and policy (shared governance). This article explores whether feminist sociologists are particularly well suited to guide institutional change to diversify the academy. Drawing on data from in-depth interviews with 24 feminist academic sociologists at the rank of associate or full professor, I analyze how their feminist and sociological identities intersect with institutional locations to create opportunities to transform the academy. Outsiders within, feminist sociologists revise and use the master’s tools to produce knowledge that improves recognition of, and ability to reduce, structural inequalities. Proficiency with these tools confers insider legitimacy and access to a “seat at the table” where disciplinary expertise and political commitments contribute to institutional change. Inevitably, these professors confront resistance, and in response develop strategies to advance their goals. Insights from feminist sociologists suggest that to transform universities to reflect the diversity of institutions and lived reality of contemporary faculty, it may be more useful to identify a set of commitments and principles that inform policies and practices, rather than specifying actions to support culture change.

Giffort, Danielle M. 2011. “Show or Tell? Feminist Dilemmas and Implicit Feminism at Girls’ Rock Camp.” Gender & Society 25 (5): 569-588.
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).

Harnois, Catherine E. 2005. “Different Paths to Different Feminisms? Bridging Multiracial Feminist Theory and Quantitative Sociological Gender Research.” Gender & Society 19 (6): 809-828.
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.

Peltola, Pia, Melissa A. Milkie, and Stanley Presser. 2004. “The ‘Feminist’ Mystique: Feminist Identity in Three Generations of Women.” Gender & Society 18 (1): 122-144.
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. 

Aronson, Pamela. 2003. “Feminist or ‘Postfeminists’?: Young Women’s Attitudes Toward Feminism and Gender Relations.” Gender & Society 17 (6): 903-922.
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.

Reger, Jo. 2002. “Organizational Dynamics and Construction of Multiple Feminist Identities in the National Organization for Women.” Gender & Society 16 (5): 710-727.
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.

Hercus, Cheryl. 1999. “Identity, Emotion, and Feminist Collective Action.” Gender & Society 13 (1): 34-55.
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).