Listening to 21st-Century Feminism

As an institutional leader who is trying to discern what women students need and to promote conversations about feminism on your campus, what should you do? Raymonda Burgman provides some guidance.

June 29, 2016

What does the concept of feminism mean to you? Even more important right now, what does it mean for students to say they are or are not feminists?

At HERS, we conduct two summer institutes that offer us an opportunity to reflect on the previous year and the one ahead with different groups of women from all across the country and the many sectors of American higher education. This year, as we look to engage women from different generations and backgrounds, we anticipate much conversation about feminism.

Over the past 50 years, college and university leaders addressed systemic inequities on their campuses by providing resources for women's and gender studies programs, centers and co-curricular activities when concerned faculty members, administrators, students and graduates stepped forward to say there was a need. Negotiating the creation and development of enriching academic experiences and spaces happened because many people collaborated and compromised. Some observers consider the large presence and completion rates of women students to be the direct result of such efforts.

The women leaders who attend the HERS Institutes range in age from late 20s to early 60s. Most are committed in different ways to building and sustaining women’s communities on their campuses. Like many others who have worked to improve the status of women in higher education, they have been surprised by some women students’ reactions to their efforts to organize with feminist principles as a foundation.

In the United States, if we aren’t certain about what feminism means to us and others, will campus communities begin to see an erosion of all the gains we have seen for women students? What role can campus leaders play to ensure that students are talking about feminism?

A 21st-Century Definition of Feminism

Classically defined, feminism is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. At the core of that definition is the assertion that such equality does not exist. The means of achieving equality occurred in several waves through the 20th century. First-wave feminism, spanning almost seven decades in the United States, focused primarily on inequality in women’s suffrage, championing the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

The second wave focused on inequality for women and men in social and economic spheres. The iconic photo of Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pittman Hughes, co-founders of Ms. magazine, their fists raised in defiance of patriarchy, captures the spirit of second-wave feminism, which concluded in the 1980s.

In the early 1990s, Rebecca Walker and other women defined a third wave of feminism, which sought to include rather than exclude. It was a call to bring all people together, questioning societal mores around gender norms, notions of beauty and sexuality constructs across race and class, and other forms of oppression.

Today, we find evolving on our campuses a new group, a fourth wave. This group listened to their grandmothers’ stories and is ideologically connected to second-wave feminism, recognizing its successes and unfinished business. Yet it also resonates with the third wave in wanting to address issues of gender in a much wider way. Many fourth wavers, perhaps men and women from diverse backgrounds in their late teens, 20s and early 30s, have experienced educational environments where women are successful leaders achieving stated campus goals. Although the higher education institutions that sprang to life in the 1800s were not developed with women students in mind, today women surpass men in degree attainment, according to “The Conditions of Education 2015,” a report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Fourth wavers challenge all isms and refuse to adopt an oppressive viewpoint that elevates one group above another in an effort to explain personal worth and value. When they arrive on a campus, they see women leading and managing in key roles and influencing strategic decisions as evidence that they are succeeding -- which prompts them to see no need for fighting isms. At the same time, they also recognize a chilly climate or toxic culture for women students, faculty members and administrators when they see it, and as campus leaders they fight the existing hegemony.

Developing Community in Ambiguously Defined Spaces

Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk and essay, We Should All Be Feminists, explores the tensions associated with a self-actualized identity, empowering some and restricting others. Adichie explains how a label may limit or fracture connections -- exclude or alienate people with similar beliefs. As Adichie takes us through her life journey, she calls for some of us to reclaim the feminist identity, to not separate ourselves.

For example, if you are a woman who is a physicist, parent, oldest daughter, avid cyclist and Stephen King novel reader, you need not select an identity because you are all of them. Instead, you can embrace intersectionality. Furthermore, power structures are associated with the richly layered tapestry of who we are. Rarely is the way we treat others or discrimination based upon a single identity. We find it difficult to disaggregate what we see or perceive as true.

To permit space for more voices, Adichie’s defined “feminist” broadly. She says a feminist is a man or woman who says, “Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it. We must do better.” This stance fits well with the beliefs of the new feminism evolving on campus.

Yet not every woman can see herself in this definition; indeed, many reject the label. As second- and third-wave feminists continue to pursue the same campaign, warning and protecting younger women like our students may alienate the next generation. They may view the concern as condescending. Fourth wavers reject the label “feminism” because they believe in a broader social-justice agenda.

Fourth-wave feminists are not alone in rejecting the feminist label. Another group, antifeminists, has been around since first-wave feminism. Antifeminist groups have been smaller than feminist communities and rarely get the same attention that feminists receive. But previous generations didn’t have social media to support their campaign.

The Tumblr and Facebook pages for Women Against Feminism characterize feminists as bullies, conspiracy theorists, contentious and toxic. On the Tumblr page, you will notice many handwritten notes opening with “I don’t need feminism because …” Each image offers a diverse point of view, just as one might expect from feminists. The overwhelming message is: How can feminists advance a more just society if they support injustice?

Ironically, fourth wavers may agree that this notion of feminism is wrong and aligned with narcissism, a them-us or you-me binary. Feminism that propagates belittling and derision of others does not support community. Antifeminists are the feminist counterbalance. They are asking great questions, and while they may never agree to some feminist tenets, their voice is important as we discuss equality in a 21st-century context.

As an institutional leader trying to discern what women students need or to promote conversations about feminism on your campus, what can you do? Start by taking into consideration what fourth wavers and antifeminists have in common. They are student leaders seeking to develop community about a collective belief, but do they share one or two intergroup beliefs that may serve as a basis for conversation? Too often, we look for dissimilarities and neglect that people come together when their goals and objectives are parallel. Thriving communities appear utopic because they have a clearly defined identity that its members understand. Both groups are challenging categorizing and examining preconceptions.

To start those conversations, you should keep in mind the following:

  • Stereotypes are dangerous when building communities. Does telling you something negative about someone who is different make you feel better? Any sentence starting with "women always" or "men always" doesn’t seem to fit with the goals of either group. Think about how often you say that someone "doesn’t fit the mold." Molds are facsimiles and stereotypes that combine observations from many people but do not represent any one person. Our students ask us about exceptions to theories and concepts. They challenge what we intended for them to learn when they ask what the point was. Feminists and antifeminists are questioning cultural norms, generalizations and essentialism. Neither group appears to espouse placing people in boxes, offering no room for creating communities where people are valued for why they are, not who they are. Appreciative inquiry serves as a better model for moving away from stereotypes and celebrating the gifts people bring.
  • Students look to us for models of collaboration. They also want to know how to be vulnerable and open to new ideas. Leaders, regardless of role, negotiate power and authority to build and grow higher education programs, colleges and universities that are better, more just, more attuned to students' needs. We are well intentioned when addressing gender issues, but each of us is a product of our background and experiences. We hold biases, and identifying as a feminist or antifeminist should not be what stops us from moving forward. Instead, are we able to question our unconscious thoughts and feeling about others? Are we able to bring students together, starting with "I see, hear and respect you"? If we are willing to discuss opportunities for success by sharing the stumbling blocks we have, we may exceed our goals.
  • Consider the history of gender equity. Our past is inescapable in that it makes us who we are. We can choose not to share or write down our history, but it’s still there. The stories are incomplete, and seldom do we tell the same ones as the people sitting next to us. Somehow we convince ourselves we have the full picture. New students join us on campuses where they may know very little about the people whose names are on the buildings. We walk in these buildings every day knowing what we see and perhaps not acknowledging what we don’t see. Hearing is not listening, and seeing is not comprehension. Might we pause, ask students to thoroughly ponder the labels and communities we adopt or reject and the ones that adopt or reject us? Feminist and antifeminist history may grow from seeking a new truth by noting how their movements marginalized women who lacked privilege, power or authority -- in other words, those who are not white, highly educated, or upper middle class.

A campus is a place, constantly evolving, adding new members who bring diversity of background, thought and experience. As college and university leaders surveying our communities, we may believe each woman arrives on the campus by doing the same things. Yet people have many identities that are rarely known to us as soon as we look at them. Even if someone tells us their story and what she believes, a single label or word may not define her or help you understand her identity politics -- only an open conversation lacking judgment can.

The world is intricate. As we listen to or learn about the stories of women we encounter on campuses, we’ll realize they may have the same gender identity with entirely different beliefs. There is mutual gain from joining a community, getting to know people with different backgrounds and perspectives, and becoming better prepared for what may come next.

Ultimately, 21st-century feminism or any change movement is, first and foremost, about building community, otherwise, what connects all members will dissolve after even the smallest challenge. To advance student leadership development and create sustainable programs and policies, we must know ourselves and not fear having these challenging conversations with our students. And we must listen and show respect, irrespective of whether they agree with us or not.


Raymonda Burgman is director of HERS Institutes.


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