What comes to your mind, how do you feel when you see the word “feminism” in print? What sensation arises when you hear it spoken? Is it pride, a sense of purpose, hope? Or do you feel defensive, angry, annoyed, or bored? Perhaps you don’t really know how you feel, or you take a step back and try to sort out your conflicted views on this weighty, controversial concept.
Nowhere has the schism in feminism become more apparent than in the wake of the #MeToo movement over the last year. The public and private responses to this outcry have revealed that there exists a clear distinction between traditional and modern feminists. The former group is one that supports the feminist ideology of old: equal pay for equal work, women’s suffrage, and social equality. The latter has pushed for better career advancement for women, a rejection of traditional gender roles, and elevating visibility of women in politics and media. Where both groups agree is that no woman should be a victim of sexual harassment or abuse, but definition of what constitutes sexual harassment/abuse, and how it should be addressed is the issue that exposes the fundamental differences in traditional and modern feminists, and oftentimes turns them against each other.
Perhaps it would be best here to remind ourselves of the definition of feminism. According to the dictionary, feminism is defined as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” This definition, general in its very nature, can be construed and stretched in several ways and directions, and what constitutes an adequate degree of feminism can largely depend upon the feminist audience, their age, history and agenda.
At what point have women achieved equality to men? Who measures this degree of equality and whether it has reached a satisfactory amount? Is this left up to individual women to decide for themselves or is this a standard upon which all women should agree?
#MeToo brought these questions to the forefront because it highlighted the difference of opinion that women have in how feminists should handle sexual misconduct. In a 2018 article in The Guardian, Maria Donegan said,
“In the media and private life, conversations about consent, hostile environments and power began, and there was a growing acknowledgement that a man’s unwanted sexual overtures were a symptom of broader social and political forces…Some feminists urged caution; others wanted the reckoning to go further. But the most common complaint about #MeToo came from those who felt that the whole movement had very quickly become silly. They argued that by grouping together such a wide spectrum of sexual misbehavior, #MeToo had lost a sense of nuance. They called on women to toughen up. By this logic, women could solve the problem of sexual harassment and assault with good humor, patience and a high tolerance for pain. This disagreement was quickly characterized in the media as generational. Older feminists were painted as complicit, outdated or too scared of overstepping. Younger women were either righteously passionate, naively idealistic, or out for blood.”
These ostensible generational divides seem to suggest that older women treat feminism as a personal, multi-dimensional issue with a longer wick, whereas younger women see feminism as a call for solidarity, automatic belief and quick-action. This is where my confusion over the extent of feminism comes in, because, I am not a suffragette or a second-wave feminist from the 1960s, and I’m just outside the age-range of the modern, millennial feminist. More importantly, I’m also a mid-line conservative, so I’ve never considered myself a feminist because although I do care about gender equality, I don’t know if it’s possible to be a female conservative AND be a feminist.
According to March 2018 article in USA Today, Kellyanne Conway, the first woman to run a successful presidential campaign, said at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference that she doesn’t consider herself a feminist “in the classic sense” because she said the movement is considered anti-male and pro-abortion. However, she continued, “there’s an individual feminism that you make your own choices…that’s really to me what conservative feminism, if you will, is all about.”
So perhaps the issue isn’t generational. Perhaps the breaks start deeper than this—in how women see the world around them, regardless of their age. And if the point of modern feminism is to unite women across the country, across the globe, why does the vitriol begin as soon as conservative women, or older traditional feminists, dare to disagree with the current movement? Why are those of us wrong or mis-informed if we see sexual misconduct as an individual, private issue instead of a sweeping criticism against the entire “male-dominated system?”
At 21, I was the victim of abduction and sexual assault on my college campus. I remember being shocked and a little angry when I found out that the FBI only got involved in my case because it involved a car-jacking, which was a felony in the state of Florida in 1999, whereas rape was a misdemeanor and fell under the jurisdiction of local law enforcement. I didn’t rally and march against the “system” though, because the university provided free counseling for me for a year and worked with me to bring a team to the university to talk to the student body about safety on campus and rape awareness. I did not feel that the system “failed” me. I felt as though I’d been attacked by a sick individual, and many caring women and men did what they could to find the perpetrator and take a closer look at how they could protect and empower their female students. I felt strongly that although I was victimized by a man, allowing his poor choice to color my opinion of mankind and make me eternally angry about how I’d been objectified, would just give him power over me that I didn’t want him to have. I chose instead to turn to God for strength, to family and friends for support, and to be hopeful that one day I’d be able to put it behind me and galvanize women to trust in their own strength and ability to rebound from any tragedy.
Admittedly, there are times when no amount of toughening-up and brushing off assault will do. When women are subjected to violent and aggressive forms of harassment and assault, men and women are reminded that a problem still exists in the world when a woman feels as though she must resort to marches and hearings to be believed. In these cases, is it truly a patriarchal system that has failed her, or has the conflicting message of feminism caused her to doubt the validity of her own voice?
Adrienne Gross is a writer based in North Carolina. She is a lover of travel, fitness, wine, good conversation and quality time with her friends and husband and three young children. You can find her blog at presentlysite.blog or on Twitter at @adrienne_gross.