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Young Women and "Feminism"

The following WMST-L discussion from January 2005 explores the alleged
reluctance of young women in high school to be associated with "feminism"
(are they reluctant? and, if so, why?).  The discussion, which has been
divided into three parts because of its length, arose from one dealing
with how to make women's literature of the past thirty years relevant to
today's young women. For that discussion, see the file
Making 'Contemporary' Women's Literature Relevant.  For additional WMST-L
files now available on the Web, see the WMST-L File Collection.

Date: Mon, 17 Jan 2005 19:26:51 -0500
From: Daphne Patai <daphne.patai AT SPANPORT.UMASS.EDU>
Subject: Re: contemporary women's lit class
I'm very curious as to why young women don't want to be associated with
feminism.  Do any of you who teach high school and have had this experience
have any ideas why?  What do the students say?

Date: Mon, 17 Jan 2005 16:30:17 -0800
From: "Renfro, Elizabeth" <ERenfro AT CSUCHICO.EDU>
Subject: Re: contemporary women's lit class
I find Lisa Hogeland's article "Fear of Feminism" provides some useful
analysis of this. Her points (e.g., fear of putting themselves out of
the running for men, fear of what they have to recognize about the
world and themselves) certainly reflect what I see in 1st-year-college
women (who are not so very far removed from high school).

> I'm very curious as to why young women don't want to be associated with
> feminism.  Do any of you who teach high school and have had this experience
> have any ideas why?  What do the students say?
Date: Mon, 17 Jan 2005 19:42:44 -0500
From: Kathy Miriam <kmim AT EARTHLINK.NET>
Subject: fear of feminism (was Re: Re: contemporary women's lit class)
I find it very helpful to do an exercise, the first day of a feminism class,
where the students generate a list of stereotypes of feminists/feminism.  We
then analyze the stereotypes: it becomes obvious that stereotypes/myths of
feminism reveal that feminism is scary because it challenges norms of
femininity and challenges the idea that women ought to be defined through
men.  We explore the idea of why this is scary- and continue the discussion
in the first couple of weeks when discussing the meaning of sexism (reading
Frye and Beauvoir in particular).

Kathy Miriam
kmim  AT
Date: Mon, 17 Jan 2005 20:57:12 EST
From: Pam Paulick <Sonoplp AT AOL.COM>
Subject: Re: contemporary women's lit class

I don't have the answer for you and am not a high school teacher, but
thought you might be interested in reading a current book on the subject:   The F
Word: Feminism in Jeopardy by Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, Seal  Press, 2004, ISBN
1-58005-114-6.  I heard her interviewed on radio in  November and she has some
very interesting observations!

Pam Paulick
Date: Mon, 17 Jan 2005 23:10:37 -0300
From: Coord_Rima <rima AT CITYNET.NET.AR>
Subject: Re: contemporary women's lit class
Hola/ hi All! Thanks Elizabeth for this reference. I've found the article on
the net and the link is:


Gabriela De Cicco
Coordinadora de RIMA - Red Informativa de Mujeres de Argentina
Moderadora de ¦enLACes¦ lista-e en espa±ol de AWID
(Asociaci=n para los Derechos de la Mujer y el Desarrollo), Canadß

El 1/17/05 9:30 PM, "Renfro, Elizabeth" <ERenfro  AT  CSUCHICO.EDU> escribi=:

> I find Lisa Hogeland's article "Fear of Feminism" provides some useful
> analysis of this. Her points (e.g., fear of putting themselves out of the
> running for men, fear of what they have to recognize about the world and
> themselves) certainly reflect what I see in 1st-year-college women (who are
> not so very far removed from high school).
Date: Mon, 17 Jan 2005 21:42:35 -0600
From: Hannah Miyamoto <hsmiyamoto AT MSN.COM>
Subject: Re: fear of feminism (was Re: Re: contemporary women's lit
Re: Fear of feminism--"Fear of failure?"

    Although I loathe psychoanalytical explanations for behavior, I have not
yet located a source that mentions yet another "fear" that repels females
from feminism: Let's call it "fear of failure."  One of the myth/principles
of American society is "equal opportunity"--something, we are constantly
told today, is largely, albeit incompletely, a reality.  "Discrimination"
(on sex, race, ethnicity, religion, class, age, etc.) is something that
happened in a hoary, black-and-white photo past--horrible monsters, like the
dragons of myth, that all "good and honorable men" (to turn the phrase) have
slain or banished forever.  That the dragons may live on as shadows and
apparitions, concealed in the grain of social expectations and internalized
prejudice, is rarely given a fair hearing in the media or popular discourse.

   Explaining why wealthy and over-privileged persons accept this
explanation is simple--a combination of crass self-interest and
guilt-avoidance will do.  Why would anyone poor and disadvantaged accept
this view?  A common explanation is that underprivileged people adopt the
values of the class to which they aspire to join--presumably then, a ghetto
dweller wants to wear Ralph Lauren (an Anglicization of the class-aspiring
designer's Jewish name) because he wants to summer in the Hamptons.  But
what about the person who adopts the views of the privileged and simply
wants to become wealthier and more privileged?

   Frankly, based on my own experience as a highly-disadvantaged person of
color, I think that many people realize that they must struggle hard to rise
economically, and knowing this, they reject all indications that their
labors are futile and their aspirations are sure to be frustrated.  Because
people "fear to fail", they reject all suggestions that they will fail.

    The myth/principle of "equal opportunity" suggests that the low will be
exalted (Luke 8:14); on the other hand, structural and even post-structural
explanations for social inequality suggests that the low will remain low and
even be ground underfoot (Gen 3:15).  Feminism, like other insurgent
doctrines, is inevitably disadvantaged by the "fear of failure" principle.
Moreover, the popularity of the "superwoman" version of feminism--the "you
can have it all" feminism that does not seriously challenge femininity or
heterosexuality--is quite logical.

    I recall a poll taken years ago in which a majority of young woman
agreed that if they tried hard enough, they could succeed on their own.  The
date was 1913!--seven years before women were guaranteed the right to vote!
I think I read about it in an article by Nancy Cott.  Why would so many
young American women have believed that equality had been achieved and the
need for a "Woman movement" had passed in 1913?  Well, how many women and
girls of 1913 with any ambition and desire for challenge in life than
matrimony would have wanted to believe otherwise?  They too had a "fear of
failure."  The "fear of failure" also explains why American women largely
ceased to organize as women after 1920, just after the "Woman movement"
marked successes that in retrospect now seem as insufficient as they were

Hannah Miyamoto
hsmiyamoto  AT
Date: Tue, 18 Jan 2005 14:37:41 +0000
From: Louise Livesey <ls_livesey AT YAHOO.CO.UK>
Subject: Re: contemporary women's lit class
I am not sure about generally in the US (being UK based) but know
there are similarities.  There is much talk of young women having
given up on feminist or not wanting to be associated with the term.
What may be true of the term isn't true of the idea(l)s of feminism.
There is a lot of writing around this by third wave feminists.

Louise Livesey
Date: Tue, 18 Jan 2005 10:01:17 -0500
From: Gill Wright Miller <millerg AT>
Subject: Re: contemporary women's lit class
This doesn't seem at all startling to me.  Language and terminology come in
and out of vogue constantly, in part to refresh their impact, in part to
reflect shifts in meaning or context, in part to satisfy the analysts' need
to be making a "new" statement, etc.  Practices in naming do not necessarily
signal a detachment from general concepts or sentiments.  We are not alarmed
at shifting terms for other "identity" labels -- especially those that
reflect attempts to  name ourselves rather than have others name us.

In my classes I practice letting *my* labels for what I was working toward
in the 1970s slip so that my students can claim and name themselves.  I
acknowledge that I am still seeking social justice across gaps, borderlands,
and boundaries.  So are they.  If they don't identify with or like the label
"feminist," so what?

Gill Wright Miller
Denison University
millerg  AT
Date: Tue, 18 Jan 2005 08:49:19 -0500
From: "O'brien, Caitlin" <caitlin.m.o'brien AT UCONN.EDU>
Subject: Re: contemporary women's lit class
Having just graduated college, and having spent the past two summers
during my undergrad year facilitating programs to incoming freshmen I
saw a lot of this myself. Even from my peers, and friends of mine, there
is a hesitation to identify as a feminist even when all of their guiding
principles align with those of feminism. I have come to notice it comes
from a number of areas. They feel as if identifying with the word will
brand or stigmatize them as someone hard to handle, combative, or the
age old "man hater". One of my close friends also expressed that the
field she was entering would not be receptive to such a label. She
wanted to enter the business field and felt that labeling herself as a
feminist would be career suicide. I think we have a long way to go to
help people to understand there is no one kind of feminist, that we are
as diverse as any other group, and that what we enjoy today comes from
the hard work of the feminists that came before us. Those have been my

Caitlin M. O'Brien
caitlin.m.o'brien  AT
Women's Center
University of Connecticut
417 Whitney Road
Storrs, CT 06269

"the world breaks everyone, and afterwards, some are stronger at the
broken places."
Date: Tue, 18 Jan 2005 16:34:20 -0500
From: Shannon Mills <millss AT NEARNORTH.EDU.ON.CA>
Subject: Re: fear of feminism (was Re: Re: contemporary women's lit
I agree with all of the observations that have been made about teen girls'
unwillingness to be identified as "feminists".

I think many young women feel that the battle is over; we have achieved
voting rights, labour rights, reproductive rights. Most teen girls believe
that equality has been achieved and there is no longer a need to critically
examine the societal roles that are created for us.

If it didn't find it so disappointing, I might actually find it amusing -
my young female students, squeezed into their low-rider pants (with the
word "HOTTIE" splayed across their backsides) and their too-tight,
too-short, too-revealing baby t's...arguing with me that they have long
been emancipated from the restrictive roles forced upon them by the Powers
That Be.

 Shannon Mills
millss  AT
Date: Wed, 19 Jan 2005 15:48:46 -0500
From: Shelley Reid <esreid AT COX.NET>
Subject: fear of feminism (was contemporary women's lit class)
Another angle on young people resisting the label/idea of feminism:
many of my students resist *anything* that denies that individuals have
the ultimate power to control their own destinies.  I see this
resistance not only in relation to "the F-word" but in their arguments
about everything from drunk driving to racism.  They prefer to argue
for total individual responsibility and change that happens "one bad
apple at a time," than to consider solutions or responses that involve
policies, campaigns, mass education, or other group-based action.  This
resistance is particularly true of but not limited to white
middle-class traditional-age college students.  It's a mainstream
culture response (pop culture, American culture, 2004-5 culture), an
adolescent response, sometimes a survival response, and perhaps even a
cognitive/developmental response.  There may be a darker side --
deliberately sweeping problems under the rug or denying responsibility
-- but I see that more malevolent kind of mindset happening more on
Capitol Hill than in my students' lives.

Feminisms of all sorts share a fundamental conception that the
individual's destiny is complicated (if not always *limited*) by
his/her group-status, whether that's a biological or a
culturally-constructed group.  I find that because of mainstream media
demonization, feminism raises more individualist hackles than many
other group-based ideologies, but I've begun to see this particular
resistance as akin to larger cultural patterns of thinking.  My
students may state "there's no need for feminism because we're all
equal now," but in a lot of cases I think that they haven't really
thought that specific idea through, but are instead using that
familiar, widely available statement as one way to help maintain the
larger, reassuring mythology of individual control.


E Shelley Reid
Assistant Professor
Director of Composition
English Department
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

ereid1  AT
esreid  AT
Date: Thu, 20 Jan 2005 11:36:46 +1100
From: Bronwyn Winter <bronwyn.winter AT ARTS.USYD.EDU.AU>
Subject: Re: fear of feminism (was contemporary women's lit class)
Shelley Reid wrote:

> SNIP <I find that because of mainstream media
> demonization, feminism raises more individualist hackles than many
> other group-based ideologies>

certainly, feminism is more demonised because it challenges That Which
Must Not Be Named:  male domination.  but women's rejection of feminism
is not only, or not primarily, due to media demonisation of feminists.
 male domination operates within intimacy, within 'love' and friendship:
 questioning it means questioning what their intimate
relationships/friendship networks are based on.  it is also difficult to
relate to feminism because most other oppressed groups (.....working
class, african american, 'gay' [as long as it includes men]....) have a
discrete oppositional culture.  the only 'women's culture' that exists
in its own space to which they have access most of the time is the
male-supremacist version:  the culture of 'girlfriends', of
wivesandmothers, of beings whose prime role in life is to be attractive
to and sexually available to men.

questioning this means disconnecting from a culture that not only
involves men but is constructed by, with and for them - and this is seen
as unacceptable, because women's self-image is bound up with male
diktats and male approval.  this is not to say that whiteness (for
example) has not been internalised as self-hatred within racialised
groups, and middle class values have not been internalised as at once
aspirational values and deeply distrusted values by the working class,
but this does not pervade one's own intimacy/personal relationships in
the same way.  and positive counter-values and counter-images in these
cases are also those involving, and approved by, men.

i.e. there is no concept of a value system where what men want, think,
do and approve of is not constantly the yardstick.  even among lesbians,
the reference is often gay male culture (or straight culture) and we are
much harder on each other in all sorts of ways than we are on our

so yes, the peer group pressure and media demonisation contribute, but
my take on it is that these pressures and demonisations come about
precisely because feminism challenges men's place as the primary
reference point, by taking women as the centre and reference point - so
suddenly men aren't in control.  so of course there will be a whole
arsenal in place to keep men in control:  starting with women's
internalised self-hatred, reference to men's values (including those
portrayed as 'women's values') as *the* values, & most importantly (for
the success or otherwise of our teaching), distrust of other women.

imagine a bunch of WS classes where men come in and start teaching
feminism.  i bet those young women would listen up much more easily.
 like in france when sociologist pierre bourdieu, ripping off a whole
lot of radical feminist and lesbian writing, wrote his book about male
domination, suddenly the concept (well, bourdieu's fairly male-centred
take on it at least) was cool.  same thing when lacan ripped off
beauvoir's concept of 'the Other' and did something considerably less
revolutionary with it in feminist terms.  this is depressing, as with
very few exceptions, when men 'do' feminism there are some rather
suspect, er, 'paradigm shifts', but even now, everything men say and do
- including about women, including about feminism - is still considered
more important than what women say and do.


Dr Bronwyn Winter
Senior Lecturer & Undergraduate Coordinator
Dept of French Studies
Brennan Building A18
University of Sydney  NSW 2006

ph: (61-2) 9351 5643
fax: (61-2) 9351 4757
email: bronwyn.winter  AT

Date: Tue, 18 Jan 2005 15:12:01 -0500
Subject: associating with feminism in High School
Dear List/ Daphne-

I see teenagers who resist the alignment with feminism on a regular
basis. I think this comes in part with the inherently sexual issues
that are present in feminism. It is very difficult for many teens to
engage in such frank discussions/acknowledgements of sexuality at
their age.

I think teenagers are a very conservative group. Most I see go out of
their way not to be different and not to be/ appear politicized to any

I also think there is a "backlash" now among young girls who have been
raised by feminists. Although I see my own daughter and others reap
the benefits of my beliefs or of the "struggle," she and some of my
students see feminism as sexism, as an aliention from boys and as an
implication of their sexual orientation. At this age, it appears to me
that boys benefit more socially having been raised by feminists than
do girls.

Date: Tue, 18 Jan 2005 16:08:49 -0800
From: Wendy Burton <Wendy.Burton AT UCFV.CA>
Subject: Re: associating with feminism in High School
This may not be particularly comforting, but the attitudes you see as a
backlash now are the attitudes that confronted me and my comrades in the
early 1970s, when we were all young girls/women. Many women I knew then
and continue to encounter believe that to be feminist means I "hate
men," believe women should "separate" from men, believe coming out as a
feminist meant coming out as a lesbian, and having a feminist analysis
meant not being allowed to wear "pretty clothes and makeup."

These attitudes then - and now - were fostered by mainstream media,
writers, common images in movies, bad fiction, and - poor curriculum.
The backlash you see among some young women can be met with the same
patient, systematic education and consciousness raising as we've always
used because it's the same sort of resistance.

As a feminist mother, I've raised two boys , one's 34 and the other is
12, and both would tell you that it was/is not easy to be raised in a
feminist household but they both are feminist-identified folk and they -
now - wouldn't have had it any other way. As a feminist educator, I'm on
my second generation of students (I've been teaching for 26 years), and
most of them return to tell me they wouldn't have had it any other way.

I frequently go into high schools to talk with girls and boys about
violence in relationships, and indeed there are many in the audience who
just don't want to hear it, but they are not the majority.

Dr. Wendy E. Burton, Professor
Adult Education
University College of the Fraser Valley
45635 Yale Road
Chilliwack, British Columbia  V2P 6T4  CANADA
wendy.burton  AT
Date: Tue, 18 Jan 2005 17:53:46 -0800
From: Tamara Agha-Jaffar <tamara_aghajaffar AT YAHOO.COM>
Subject: Re: associating with feminism in High School
Hi Everyone,

A few years ago, I initiated a partnership program with our community
college and one of the high schools in our local school district.  I
taught women's studies to a class of 18 seniors for two consecutive
years.  This is a low income school district, and the overwhelming
majority of students were females of color.  Many of them initially
had no idea about women's studies and/or feminism.  But it didn't take
them long to embrace feminism and identify as feminists.  I think
their "lack of resistance" can be attributed to race and class.  I
have found that I meet the greatest resistance towards feminist ideals
and analysis from relatively young, white female college students.
They are the one who have a tendency to roll their eyes whenever I
discuss the intersection of racism and classism with sexism.  They
continue to maintain that we live in a meritocracy, that racism is a
thing of the past, and that anyone who works hard enough can succeed,
etc. etc.  My experiences with the young females of color at the high
school is that they are among the least resistant to feminist ideals.
I think that some of the resistance others have spoken about has much
to do with race and class.  all best.  tamara

Dr. Tamara Agha-Jaffar, Professor of English
Kansas City Kansas Community College
7250 State Ave.
Kansas City, KS 66112
taghajaf  AT
tamara_aghajaffar  AT
Date: Tue, 18 Jan 2005 21:32:08 -0500
From: J Biddle <jbiddle2 AT COX.NET>
Subject: Re: associating with feminism in High School

I wonder if students today view racism, class distinctions, "race", "sexism"
in ways that are entirely different than those of us who are "older"
understand "things".

It seems to me that "younger people", such as HS students, or college
students, confer different meanings onto the concepts of "race", racism,
"class", "sexism", and other ideas, to include "feminism", than those of us
who are "older".

They live in a different world than we do, than we did. Their experiences
are very different than ours were.

Perhaps we need to find out what their understanding of such things is, in
order to teach them about those things, and more important, for us to learn
something else about those things that we may be missing......


Joan I. Biddle Ph.D.
LTC, USAR (ret)
jbiddle2  AT   joan.biddle  AT
Co-President, Sociological Practice Association
Date: Wed, 19 Jan 2005 09:25:18 -0600
From: Ellen Moody <Ellen2 AT JIMANDELLEN.ORG>
Subject: Invented Bogeywomen and Reified Oppositions
Perhaps this is so obvious as not to need saying
aloud and everyone is assuming it.  Still I cannot
help but respond to what I've read in numbers of
the various postings, that some of the terrible
type people girls and woman don't want to be
identified with don't exist.  The man-hating feminist
lesbian is a bogeyman type.  The dreaded
non-make-up wearing woman may not be
eschewing cosmetics out of any ideology
at all.  Similarly, the opposition of third-wave and
second wave feminism comes from inventing
non-existent monoliths -- much in the way Bernard Lewis
and writers of his ilk (yes ilk) write of the "East" versus
the "West."

These simplifications are dangerous because
people find it easy to remember them and many
do "think" using them.  Real women, actual
people are lost.  I'd start with telling real stories
of real people to show how unreal -- and pernicious
-- are these stereotypes.  They are everywhere
in the media today:  much used by the present
US administration in other areas.  So "feminism"
is not alone in being assaulted this way.  We should
remember that too.

Ellen Moody
Date: Wed, 19 Jan 2005 09:43:12 -0800
From: Wendy Burton <Wendy.Burton AT UCFV.CA>
Subject: Re: Invented Bogeywomen and Reified Oppositions
Good thoughts, Ellen.

I often start my work in highschools with "what are common perceptions
of teenagers" which gets the crowd going, often to great laughter, about
common perceptions (misperceptions) of teenagers, and then it's a
natural seque into what are some common perceptions of feminists,
anti-poverty activists, anti-racism activists, etc. etc. and THEN we can
get going on where these ideas come from anyway.

I am presently the "mentor" (not my word, but there you are) of a local
high school's Gay-Straight Alliance Club, and in this community the very
presence of that club is a miracle. This group of valiant young people
are constantly de-constructing the messages all around them, and then
educating their school ers about what makes a toxic environment, and
what can be done to make things better. They created a great "I'm One"
button campaign that raised awareness and a whole bunch of money, as it
became the hot fashion item, much to the consternation of the
homo-phobes in the crowd.

Dr. Wendy E. Burton
Adult Education
University College of the Fraser Valley
45635 Yale Road
Chilliwack, British Columbia  V2P 6T4  CANADA
wendy.burton  AT

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