Feminism Today

“We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.” – Roxane Gay
Feminism Online

In today’s media-infused world, there are very few conversations happening that do not happen online. Even if a discussion doesn’t originate on the internet, it always ends up there eventually, to be debated on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Reddit, and beyond. Traditional tone-setting venues like magazines and newspapers still prompt and drive many conversations, but now every word is open to critique that can be viewed (and added to) by anyone with an internet connection. This ease of access can be both good and bad; on one hand, the internet has served as an equalizer that lets anyone from anywhere join in. On the other hand, the relative anonymity of the internet can lead to “trolls” and harassment. Women—particularly vocal feminists—tend to be the target of more harassment than the average user. And yet, for many, the internet has helped introduce the very ideas of feminism. Laura Bates, the founder of a project called “Everyday Sexism” discusses this dichotomy at length in her TED talk on creating a platform that helped people realize how pervasive sexism is across the world while simultaneously receiving aggressively sexist pushback. The internet, then, has helped raise consciousness in a way the second wave liberation feminist never could have. Today, the conservation seems focused on defining the terms of what it means to be a feminist today; many of the conversations we have today have to do with making feminism work for more people.

We Should All Be Feminists: Hope for the Future?

Consider, for example, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s viral TED talk from 2013, where she boldly proclaimed: “We should all be feminists.” Though the title is declarative and provocative, given the stigma that still sometimes comes with the word feminist, her message throughout the talk is the picture of measured rationality. Adichie is funny and warm; she’s a natural storyteller—a novelist by trade—and her tone both tongue-in-cheek and deeply genuine. Throughout the talk, she uses her own lived experiences to describe how she came to accept the title of “feminist,” which was first levied at her as an insult. She tells her story with generosity towards men, and most of the side characters in her stories about coming to feminism are her male friends or brothers.

In this speech about feminism, she devotes a significant portion of her attention to the ways that expectations of masculinity shape the male ego into something fragile and dangerous.  Women, she then argues, spend time “shrinking themselves,” in order to get out of the way of men, catering to these egos. With equal doses of anger and hope, Adichie imagines a world (and in her case, a Nigeria), that is built around mutual respect and ambition, where shame, silence, and meekness are not the primary expectations of women. She does not argue that men and women, boys and girls must be the same, but she suggests that we exaggerate these differences by imposing highly gendered expectations. She proclaims that she will not spend any more time apologizing for her femininity, and she implores men to give gender more intentional thought.

Adichie’s video was shared widely; the YouTube edition of the video has over 4.5 million views. A version of the speech was turned into a longform essay published as its own book, We Should All Be Feminists, which became a New York Times bestseller. At just 64 pages, it’s a quick read and an oft-gifted book, its bright cover often sitting at the front of bookstores. The declaration, “we should all be feminists,” is now often printed on t-shirts, tote bags, and posters.

PHOTOS VIA ADICHIE

PHOTO VIA ZETEO

Beyoncé & Feminism

In 2014, Beyoncé released her song “***Flawless,” which featured sections from Adichie’s talk. In the middle of her music video, Adichie’s voice enters, saying:

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man.’ Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage I am expected to make my life choices. Always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now, marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors. Not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing. But for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.”

She ends this section with Adichie’s voice, saying “Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” When Beyoncé appeared at the VMAs that same year, she performed in front of the word feminist in all caps, lit up in bright white lights. Some criticized that this was simply “feminism lite,” not a serious enough treatment of the issue, and some detractors claimed that Beyoncé’s performance was too sexy to be feminist. Others have dismissed that claim as both racist and sexist, arguing that feminism is about choice and freedom, rather than holding people to external standards. Writer Roxane Gay described this as “grading her feminism”; she argued that we spend too much time dissecting what it means when a woman claims feminism openly. Regardless of the never-ending discourse, this performance did much of what Adichie calls for: it normalizes a word and idea that has not always been popular or mainstream.

Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist

In 2014, Roxane Gay published another book on feminism that became a bestselling sensation. The book is full of cultural criticism of all kinds—from essays on competitive scrabble to the Sweet Valley High book series, it’s wide-reaching, funny, and frank. But included alongside the pop-culture based elements is a focus on feminism. As Gay details, feminism has often been given a bad rap; “When feminism falls short of our expectations,” she explains, “we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.” But Gay believes this is the wrong approach. Instead of imposing some rigid idea of what feminism is or isn’t, and instead of arguing that every proclaimed feminist speaks for the whole movement, Gay suggests it might be simpler than we assume.

Gay coins the term “bad feminist,” which is a way of saying that we can claim the movement and the term without worrying that we are not measuring up. “I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human,” she says, “I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.” In helping expand the definition, Gay explains that for her, “feminism is a choice, and if a woman does not want to be a feminist, that is her right, but it is still my responsibility to fight for her rights. I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves.” She acknowledges that because feminists are also human, there will always be moments of failure and contradiction. But, she freshly declares, “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me

Another significant book of essays that has helped define the recent wave of conversation around feminism is Rebecca Solnit’s 2014 Men Explain Things to Me. The titular essay, which discusses just what it sounds it would, coined the term “mansplaining.” The word is now used frequently to describe the ways women are belittled by men who speak to them. Solnit asserts that this is something all women are familiar with: “Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.” Like Adichie and Gay, Solnit uses her words to examine the ways that women’s voices are silenced in so many ways; today’s feminism seeks to remove impediments to women raising their voices.

PHOTO (RIGHT) VIA HAYMARKET BOOKS

Twitter, Feminism, & Hashtag Activism

One way women have raised their voices involves the use of social media. By using hashtags, users can participate in a conversation that reaches beyond their everyday friend-group. In recent years, several hashtags inviting women to share vulnerable experiences and find solidarity with one another have emerged. Hashtags like #YesAllWomen, #EverydaySexism, #WhyIStayed, #WhyILeft, and most recently #MeToo were ways for women to show solidarity and share their experiences of being marginalized or assaulted. Others, like #ImWithHer and #IAmANastyWoman were related to the 2016 presidential election. Some hashtags intend to raise awareness of certain tragedies, such as #BringBackOurGirls, which was created in response to the kidnapping of 276 girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram. Other times, a hashtag hopes to shift the conversation: #AskHerMore was an attempt to encourage reporters to ask actresses about more than simply what they were wearing on the red carpet.

With the recent #MeToo hashtag and the subsequent #TimesUp movement, it is not hard to see that we are amidst a national reckoning on issues of sexual harassment and assault. #MeToo, originally created by Tarana Burke, saw a resurgence after Alyssa Milano tweeted “Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” She added, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Milano tweeted this in October of 2017, just as several actresses were speaking out against Harvey Weinstein. The hashtag exploded, and women from all over shared stories, or, where they didn’t feel comfortable sharing full stories, simply added “MeToo.” Though the issue has now been covered extensively, the stories continue to come, suggesting that we are in a moment where women finally feel safe enough to speak up. The movement grew so significant that TIME declared the “Silence Breakers,” or the women who bravely came forward about issues of sexual assault, their 2017 Person of the Year.

2017 Women’s March

PHOTOS VIA REUTERS

Perhaps the most visible example of modern feminist language and artifacts involves the Women’s March of 2017. Though it was initially imagined as a women’s march on Washington, writer Leslie Jamison wrote about her experiences at the march and called it the “March on Everywhere,” given that there were 650 marches in the United States alone, with 137 globally. Women—and men—marched on all seven continents.  Like the 1913 suffrage parade, the march’s timing had to do with the inauguration of a president; unlike the 1913 parade, this march was a reaction to the many sexist and otherwise derogatory statements made by the president-to-be.

Language subversion was central to both the women’s march and the most recent phase of the women’s movement. The pink “pussy hats” were likely the biggest symbol of the march, often handmaid by their wearers. These hats were, of course, a reaction to tapes released featuring Donald Trump bragging about grabbing women by their genitalia. In reaction, many women carried signs or wore shirts that said, “pussy grabs back.” In bright pink, reclaiming a word used derogatorily, these women were subverting language like feminists have done in movements from suffrage to riot grrrl.

PHOTO VIA THE ATLANTIC

PHOTO VIA MY SISTER

PHOTO VIA THE FADER

PHOTO VIA ARTIFACT

PHOTO VIA OTHERWILD

 

In one debate, then-nominee Trump referred to Clinton as “such a nasty woman,” and immediately “Nasty Woman” became a phrase to co-op as well. A quick search on Etsy for “Nasty Woman” memorabilia produces over 10,000 results. Feminist clothing and accessories are becoming increasingly popular. Though some versions of feminist clothing seem to be about proclaiming non-verbal support, many feminist organizations sell these items as a way of raising funds. My Sister, for example, sells t-shirts to raise money to help stop human trafficking. The popular “The Future is Female” t-shirt company Otherwild donates a quarter of their profits to Planned Parenthood. Green Box Shop produces a t-shirt that became popular when worn by musician Frank Ocean which asks: “”Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when you could just be quiet?” Their slogan offers a good reminder: “don’t let your activism stop at a t-shirt!” 

Sometimes activist memorabilia shows up in decidedly un-ephemeral ways. At an appointment confirmation hearing for Jeff Sessions, Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced while voicing her dissent. “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech,” Mitch McConnell said, and with words that made history, albeit not how he’d planned: “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Immediately, that last bit was turned into a rallying cry; this time, beyond just t-shirts, stickers, or other small bits of ephemera, the phrase became a common tattoo. One woman-owned tattoo shop in Minneapolis uses this as a fundraiser. If a button could be a mini-billboard, perhaps a tattoo is a more extreme, and definitely less ephemeral way of showing support. Clearly, we are at a moment where many women are raising their voices physically, on the internet, on t-shirts, and even on their bodies.

PHOTO VIA CNN

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About the Project

This exhibit was funded by a generous grant from the University of St. Thomas and with the help of the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and Fales Library at NYU. You can read more about our process and project here.

This exhibit was complied by Rachel Busse and Kerry Kraemer.

© Poetics of Protest | 2018

Website design by Rachel Busse