What I Learned Growing Up in the South as a Feminist, and the Problems With Today’s Feminist Movement

Recently, Buzzfeed published a post featuring photos of 14 young women holding up signs explaining why they don’t need feminism, and expressing a caricature of feminists as whining, man-hating harpies. A Facebook page with nearly 8,000 likes called “Women Against Feminism” features more of the same.

In the pop culture arena, female icons seem to be competing for who can back away from feminism the fastest. For newly minted pop queen Lana Del Rey, feminism “is just not an interesting concept.” Lady Gaga has pronounced herself “not a feminist.” When asked if she considered herself a feminist, Taylor Swift demurred that she just isn’t into “guys versus girls.”

Feminism is surely responsible for the fact that these women are able to voice their opinions publicly with such confidence, and live in a world where they don’t feel they “need” any movement to protect their rights. Yet they seem allergic to the word. What’s up with that?

Polls show that only one fifth of Americans identify with feminism, despite the fact that most believe in equality of the sexes. Young people in particular seem wary of feminism that can sometimes seem too self-absorbed, too eager to smack down dissenters. Media portrayals of feminism (including the celebratory attitude toward anti-feminist messages) reinforce the anxiety. And truthfully, some of the feminist campaigns that spring up on forums like Twitter, where she who shouts the loudest gets the most attention, don’t exactly help.

When I look back at my own youthful response to feminism, I see uneasiness and questions about which strains of the modern movement spoke to me.

I grew up in the South, where sexism can be so aggressive it smacks you upside the head (or in other places), so naturalized it’s like the sun coming up in the morning. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, when I was coming into adulthood, open expressions of feminist ideas could earn you hostility that was often downright scary.

But reading feminist authors like Marilyn French and Betty Friedan when I was an undergraduate at the University of Georgia gave me a sense that the resistance I felt to the discrimination I saw around me was something to be nurtured rather than overcome. I learned that being a feminist in the South was tough — it meant you had to be quick, Protean, subversive, and you damn well better have a sense of humor, or you would not survive. It also gave me strength and pride to identify with a movement that could correct wrongs and rewrite a social script that didn’t fit me.

Later, when I won a teaching fellowship at NYU to pursue my doctorate, I imagined a sisterhood of worldly, intelligent feminists who would understand me and recognize me as one of their own. They would empower and teach me, and welcome me into their ranks.

That is not precisely what I found. I sensed (perhaps defensively) that some of the women in my graduate courses, who had gone to upper-class institutions like Harvard and Vassar, looked disdainfully on my makeup and clothing and were offended at the kind of femininity I expressed as a southern woman. They seemed turned off by my earthy humor and lack of conformity to their codes of speech and behavior, which seemed strict and centered on sexual issues in a way that was sometimes naïve and rigid. These women seemed to wear their feminism like a starched school uniform. I was not certain I wanted to join this club, and not at all sure if I was welcome.

I found myself drawn to books and essays written by European feminists who seemed to have the wordliness, intellectual depth and sensuality I admired. The American feminists in my classes seemed more interested in simplistic slogans than philosophical complexity, more inclined to attack than to engage.

Once I started teaching, however, I began to notice among my young students a different strain of American feminism burgeoning. Their humor and intelligence intrigued me as did the hints of solidarity with women who didn’t necessarily look and think like them. They had a taking-it-to-the-streets activist mentality.

These young women wanted to talk to me about people like Emma Goldman, the feminist anarchist who called for the creation of a radically new social order, and labor feminists like Rose Schneiderman, who worked to improve wages and conditions for American women. I began to understand that feminism could be directed to transforming thinking about how we interact with the economy in a way that would lift both women and men. I got excited watching the development of a rebellious, empowered spirit among young women that might one day shake things up on the economic front.

And so it has: 21st-century feminism, enriched by women-of-color feminists, working-class feminists, and others outside the mainstream, has opened up a promising new chapter. The contribution of young feminists to the Occupy Movement, in particular, has been a testimony to their influence and growing prestige. But the class fault lines are still there, and they often erupt into deep animosity.

Part of this I blame on the Democratic Party, which often embraces a superficial “hooray for women!” attitude while kicking women, particularly those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder, under the bus. Too often, mainstream moderate women’s organizations seem to be class-blind and oblivious (or even hostile) to the need to confront economic structures that oppress both women and men.

It’s painful to see Emily’s List, the well-heeled group that raises money for Democratic women who support abortion rights, throw its weight behind candidates like Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island, a notorious Wall Street partisan who has busied herself shredding the pensions upon which working women depend while enriching her hedge fund friends. Or to see the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women team up with Wall Street interests to form a PAC to defeat Eliot Spitzer, one of the few national politicians with the knowledge and temperament to stand up to financial predators and protect the pensions of New York City.

Many women understandably find it hard to embrace Hillary Clinton, whose coziness to corporate interests and Big Finance seems at odds with her proclaimed feminism and populism. Is she keeping up the good fight for women, or is she merely a mouthpiece for power?The Clinton campaign is reaching out to women, particularly young women, but hobnobs with Wall Street titans whose activities have dampened the future of these very same people.

So how can we be feminists in a way that expresses solidarity with people struggling for better economic conditions, both male and female? I put this question to Kathleen Geier, who recently launched a forum called “The Curve” at the Nation to focus on economic issues within feminism.

In an email to me, Geier acknowledged that feminism has an image problem, and noted that part of the trouble is that the long and vital history of working-class and labor-identified feminism is still not widely known.

“In school, you probably heard about middle-class reformers like Susan B. Anthony, but not the Lowell mill women. Or you may not realize that an important public intellectual like Barbara Ehrenreich, who has done more than perhaps any other writer today to raise our awareness about the scandal that is low-wage work in America, came out of that second-wave socialist feminist tradition.

Why has barely anyone acknowledged Karen Lewis, the powerful president of the Chicago Teachers Union, an overwhelmingly female-dominated union and profession, as an important feminist? Somehow individualistically climbing the corporate ladder a la Sheryl Sandberg reads as feminist in our culture, but improving the economic status of thousands of female workers does not. That is bizarre. To me, the essence of feminism is not, ‘you go girl, you choose your choice.’ It’s about women taking collective action to advance women as a class.”

Geier acknowledges that the corporate side of feminism is real, but emphasizes it is only one aspect of feminism. As a corrective, she advocates focusing on economic issues like paid family leave, paid sick leave, workplace flexibility, a higher minimum wage, and universal childcare. She points out that feminists can get behind these issues, but “they don’t need to own it.” Such issues belong to everyone. Sounds like a good plan to me.

Geier is critical of the emphasis some feminist writers have placed on sexism in culture, and I think she is right to note that for middle-class readers, cultural issues tend to draw attention more than economic ones.

However, as a cultural theorist, I’m also mindful that economic issues are embedded in culture, and that cultural clashes often serve as a proxy for economic struggles. (Anyone who just watched the emotions unleashed as economic giant Germany won the World Cup can attest to that.) So when it comes to examining the economy and popular culture, I’m going to go for a postmodern “and/both” as opposed to “either/or.” Cultural productions tell us much about the psychological and sociological themes and structures that support and reflect the conditions in which economic realities exist. But I think the point is well taken that some feminist cultural critics do not pay sufficient attention (or even have knowledge of) the economic forces at work in the texts they study. I’d like to bring the study of economics and the study of culture together, to reveal how they influence and shape each other.

I also think that positive expressions of feminism in popular culture can go a long way toward challenging the stereotypes and mythology that plague the movement, and help with the branding issue for young people. Pop culture heroine Katniss Everdeen seems to be embodying feminist ideas as well as economic egalitarianism — which are, of course, intimately connected (or should be).

Some of the young women who are expressing antagonism toward feminism on social media — and in the popular arena — will likely change their attitude as they experience the realities of the workplace and the economic conditions they find themselves in later in life. Not all of them will come around, but when some of them do, let’s work to make sure they find feminism that is inclusive, intellectually robust, open to dissent, and deeply aware of economic realities.