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The 'F' Word: Do You Call Yourself A Feminist?

Stanford's Ms.@Forty Conference Asks Us To Consider the Future of Feminism

Well, it’s official; feminism is middle-aged. This year, the pill turns fifty-two, Ms. Magazine turns forty, and Roe v. Wade is a blushing thirty-nine. And how has she aged, this movement of ours? 

Some would argue not so well. Women still make up only 16% of Congress, 9% of senior executive positions in the Fortune 1000, 30% of the doctors and only 16% of partners in law firms across the land. Not exactly a resounding set of successful statistics. All of which is leading some to say feminism has failed.

Others would argue differently.

I went to a luncheon honoring Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine’s forty years of “reporting, rebelling and truth-telling” at the Sheraton Heights Country Club this past week. The event was the brainchild of its co-chairs, Liz Korman, Michele Kirsch, and Siobhan Korman whose daughters attend the tony all-girl Castilleja school here in Our Fair City. Their goal was to raise awareness and funds for the Feminist Majority, a non-profit whose programs include publication of Ms. Magazine.

Gloria was introduced by Carol Jenkins, founder of the Women’s Media Center who assured us, the seventy-seven year old icon told her, “the notion of retiring is as foreign to me as the idea of hunting.” The sell-out crowd cheered.

Funny, gracious, insightful, Gloria was her usual glorious self. “The work of feminism today as important as it has always been,” she said. “What Ms. (and feminism) stands for is a world that fits women not women fitting into the world.” She told us she remains “hungry for transformation.” Given the lengthy standing ovation, I have to believe she is not alone.

Afterwards, I attended a symposium at Stanford called “Ms.@Forty and the Future of Feminism.” An A-list panel of pioneering 20th century feminist journalists and a few of their much younger sisters opined on the state of women in the media. They each shared their own journeys to feminism, to journalism, and their visions for the future of both.

Suzanne Braun Levine, the first editor of Ms. Magazine said, “Not only has Ms. endured, but the spirit of Ms. has endured.” She was referring to the numerous times the magazine was nearly bankrupt, only to rise from the ashes to find a new audience and a new means of support.

Marcia Ann Gillespie, the magazine’s second editor-in-chief, came to Ms. with “suspicion.”  As a woman of color, she wondered “was there room for my sisters and me?” She went on to say, “I stayed at Ms. because of Gloria (Steinem). She understood we are wise as a group more than as individuals.” Gillespie said the notion that feminism was a white woman’s thing was “this movement’s achilles heel.” In the end, it was Ms.‘s ability to speak to the “fierce urgency of what it means to be female” that kept her there.

Ms. may still speak to a large segment of (dare I say, middle aged?) feminists, but innovative media platforms are expanding feminism to the next generation. Feministing editor, Miriam Zoila Perez, believes new media has created opportunities for 21st century feminists. “Online feminism has decentralized the movement,” she said. “Different people can speak to different kinds of feminism, which reflects the flexibility of the movement.”

Shelby Knox agreed. Her career as the next Gloria Steinem started when she was the subject of a 2005 documentary about her efforts as a young reproductive rights advocate in Lubbock, Texas. 

When asked about modern day protesting, she said the marches are still happening, they are just happening online. Take, as an example, the recent campaign to get LEGO to reconsider its sexist “girl” line of toys and how it markets them. The toys are pastel, less intricate, and bakery focused. The small figurines represent idealized versions of females: busty and blond. In just a few days, 48,000 women and men petitioned LEGO to change its marketing and to reevaluate the entire product line itself. LEGO says it will “take under consideration” the concerns of the petitioners.  A similar campaign against JC Penny’s outrageously inappropriate pajamas for little girls resulted in the company pulling the product from the shelf entirely.

“Has feminism succeeded?” the panelists were asked. Katherine Spillar, the current Executive Editor of Ms. and the Executive Vice President of the Feminist Majority, believes it has. She asked us to “Take Sarah Palin, for example. To be perceived as a modern woman, she had to claim to be a feminist.” When one of the most conservative women in the media today insists she is a feminist, then perhaps Katherine Spillar is right.

Marcia Ann Gillespie received a vigorous round of applause when she said, “feminism will succeed only when it speaks for everyday people.” 

The panelists were impressive and persuasive, but it was my seat mate, Dottie Gerrity from Naples, Florida, who most inspired me at the symposium. She’d flown across the country to be at there thanks to the urging of her granddaughter, Caitlin Gerrity, a senior at Stanford. 

Dottie told me she “raised four feminists; three boys and a girl.” As a mother, she took to heart the words of the poet/activist Adrienne Rich who said feminism will be sustained only if we raise our sons differently.

Dottie said, “I raised my sons to be feminists, which affected their wives and their daughters.” 

“And who knows how many other women and men,” I observed. 

Dottie demurred. “I was a just pebble in the pond,” she said. 

Yes, just the kind of pebble that makes change for everyday people.

Stanford’s symposium will be ongoing this winter quarter. Click here for more information on events and activities.

James January 30, 2012 at 04:41 PM
As a man "of color", I can't help but notice that "Feminism" is preoccupied with a White middle/upper class woman's issues. It carries its own embedded racism and classism. It identifies with the white male power structure and wants to join it, wed it, and share white picket fences with it. Who are all the main public voices of this "Feminism"? It's all white women. Feminists say they want equality with men. Do you or Gloria Steinem want to be equal to a Black man? A Mexican man? A working class man? I know the answer is a blushing "no". Feminists as a white, middle/upper class lobby group some questionable assumptions. For starters, there is the assumption that all men are more-or-less equal to each other. This is false. Compare the economic disparities between white women and black women. Or between white women and "Hispanic" men. Feminists only want to be equal with white males at the top of the privilege pile. Just look at the beginning of this article that uses only metrics of elite status to measure feminism's success. Feminists love to use the "I have a Black feminist friend" cliche. But the reality is that Feminism is a white woman's club. Woman's History is presented in a Eurocentric chronology. I can point to millions of working-class men who are economically exploited and racially discriminated against. Feminists also expect men to do all the toughest and nastiest jobs that makes society run. No feminists there.
Lisen Stromberg January 31, 2012 at 06:27 AM
James, You make some compelling points, but I would argue this is old news. It was this very notion of feminism as an elitist/privileged construct that Marcia Ann Gillespie and Miriam Perez (both women of color) found most challenging when they discussed their own feminism. As Marcia Ann said, "feminism will only succeed when it speaks for everyday people." By this she meant women (and men) of all colors and socio-economic status. She went on to say that the feminism she adheres to does. We can find a million ways to divide ourselves. The question is how can we find ways to unite? Thanks for reading and commenting. Lisen
Mark Weiss January 31, 2012 at 07:16 AM
I laughed when I saw Rooney Mara appear in the first scene of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" today, especially as I thought of her in the previous role as a Boston University co-ed in "The Social Network". As she is giving her run-down on her research, she says, to two older males, "the subject was a cunning linguist...but I thought we could have done more as a cunning linguist." (I am paraphrasing slightly). A man sitting in front of me turned to his girlfriend or date and said "What is 'cunning linguist'?". I am not making this up. So, you've come a long way, baby.
Mark Weiss January 31, 2012 at 10:53 PM
here is a citation to the scene I am not speaking about: http://www.awardsdaily.com/2011/09/david-fincher-unveils-eight-intense-minutes-of-the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo/

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