What picture pops into your mind when you read the word feminist? Is it a woman layered in petticoats with a big, swooping hat, picketing the white house for her right to vote? Is it Gloria Steinem in her aviator glasses, sleek, straight hair hanging down both sides of her pretty face?
These are the dominant images that so many people associate with feminist history, and for good reason. The first image—the suffragist—represents the so-called “first wave” of feminist history. These women, philosophising and organising from the late 1800s through the 1930s, were primarily focused on legal and institutional changes that would allow women to gain more power and autonomy.
The “second wave,” then, was most active in the 1960s and 1970s and was concerned with social and psychological liberation (think dishes, contraception, and objectification). This era is best explained by its most effective slogan: the personal is the political. (Disclaimer: This, of course, is only a modern western history I’m referring to. Feminism has taken all kinds of triumphant and fascinating forms in other parts of the world, at other times.)
But what about now? Is feminism, as Time magazine and other short-sighted publications like to claim, dead?
Well of course not. My vibrant community of feminist friends and I are, last time I checked, breathing. Our hearts are pumping new feminist blood. Our minds—the most educated in history—are formulating visions of what feminism can and will be in the twenty-first century.
We are sometimes called “third wave,” though perhaps it could even be argued we are the fourth, after our Gen X older sisters and mentors (women like Deborah Siegel, Daisy Hernandez, Jennifer Baumgardner, Amy Richards, Sarah Jones, etc.).
My vision of feminism is defined by three major components: educated choice, genuine equality, and radical authenticity. Ask my friend Jessica or my pal Daniel and you will get slightly different answers, but you can bet that we’ll all be talking in the same general language and in the same philosophical country.
Educated choice: Both men and women need to have access to choices and, even more, they need to have the tools necessary to make good choices. It is not enough to just say that women should have access to abortions, for example. They also need to know all of their options and feel like they have a full understanding of the health risks and quality of life issues that each entails; they also need to have the economic provisions to make whichever choice fits their lives and values best.
Genuine Equality: We all deserve the same opportunities, the same access. This is a pretty straight forward concept in theory, but in practice, it is hellishly complicated. Take something like U.S. college admissions. Sure anyone can apply to Harvard, but not everyone comes from a family that can pay for an SAT tutor or has the cultural capital to encourage college. Until the U.S., and other western industrialized countries, recognize the way that networks and subtle class/race/gender dynamics influence supposedly non-discriminatory institutions, our work will not be done.
Radical authenticity: This facet of feminism gets talked about far too little in my opinion. A visionary twenty-first century feminism should aim to support both men and women to be their most authentic selves in the world, shedding prescribed gender roles and really getting in touch with their authentic desires, passions, and ethics. Feminist workplaces, for example, would nurture both men and women having present relationships with their children and fulfilling work lives. Men should be empowered to express a complex range of emotions, just as women must learn how to handle conflict healthily and assertively and take care of themselves, not just everyone else.
The most exciting thing about feminism, is that it is ultimately about leading more fulfilling, ethical, joyful lives, characterised by more healthy and genuine relationships. Who could argue with that?