Is feminism going out of fashion? This crisis in the feminism movement couldn’t really come at a worse time for American women. There’s the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, how the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately put women out of work, problems like workplace sexual harassment and unequal pay that aren’t going away and may be getting worse, and a Me-Too backlash in full swing that’s unleashed a torrent of shocking misogyny. So how did we get here, when a mere six years ago Me Too’s cultural moment seemed to promise a new era? And is it possible to channel all these setbacks to reignite our passion for women’s rights with a more meaningful feminist framework for our times?
Is feminism going out of fashion? In June 2022, The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg wrote a piece entitled The Future Isn’t Female Anymore about growing
“agreement that mainstream feminism had grown stale and somewhat embarrassing, that it failed to speak to the realities of many women’s lives, and that it lacked a vision of a better world.”
- Michelle Goldberg, New York Times
This crisis in the feminism movement couldn’t really come at a worse time for American women.
There’s the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, how the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately put women out of work, problems like workplace sexual harassment and unequal pay that aren’t going away and may be getting worse, and a Me Too backlash in full swing that’s unleashed a torrent of shocking misogyny. Weirdest of all, there doesn’t seem to be an organized political movement–or even a coherent, relatable popular feminist rhetoric–to fight back. So how did we get here, when a mere six years ago Me Too’s cultural moment seemed to promise a new era? And is it possible to channel all these setbacks to reignite our passion for women’s rights with a more meaningful feminist framework for our times?
Chapter 1: Why People Are Turning on Feminism
In some ways, it’s impossible to deny recent years have seen progress in making feminism more mainstream. Far more women describe themselves as feminists than a couple decades ago, and post-Me Too, there’s at least more public scrutiny on men in power. At the same time, though, we’re in the midst of a growing, scary backlash to Me Too ideals, and more generally, many people (especially young ones) admit they find the available feminist rhetoric too performative, outrage-based, and often just “cringe.” Goldberg reported on a recent poll that found that not only young Republicans but also a surprising number of young Democrats agreed with the statement that:
“Feminism has done more harm than good.”
Arguably, it’s the mainstreaming of feminism that’s led to some of today’s problems. As feminism came into vogue and became exploitable in capitalist venues in the 2010s, we conflated consumerism with empowerment. Girlboss feminism highlighted the examples of high-power individuals, co-opting the “girl power” idea in service of only personal advancement without systemic change–and as many of those prominent girlbosses proved disappointing, this tarnished the public view of female empowerment in general. Meanwhile, it seemed like we’d all been too busy posturing on social media to pay attention to how our rights were in the process of being eroded and the concrete problems facing most women weren’t being addressed.
As The Drift Magazine wrote,
“for a long time now, we’ve had the sense that feminism is in trouble. In the years before the pandemic, its most prominent battles….were about figureheads. These days, symbols no longer seem adequate, or even all that meaningful.”
As actual conditions for working women and mothers across America fail to improve and get worse, Drift writes that we’re witnessing a “profound malaise… and what has felt like a course-reversal over the past two years.” There’s an overriding sense of hopelessness – women in heteronormative partnerships may still be complaining about impossible burdens falling on them – but they’re giving up hope that this picture will truly change.
Today’s feminism crisis underscores that the movement of feminism can’t be fully mainstream, palatable to everyone, or easily marketable. It must be radical in some ways–and it must be concrete about goals that substantially benefit the lives of most women.
Chapter 2: How ‘Feminist’ Goes In and Out of Fashion
For most of feminism’s early history, it was not trendy, but radical and confrontational. The women who organized for suffrage in the early 1900s were often represented as undesirable and bitterly anti-male. And half a century later, the women who fought for policies like the Equal Pay Act, Title IX, and the Equal Rights Amendment were routinely branded as angry, man-hating lesbians. According to Gloria Steinem, her groundbreaking feminist magazine, Ms., founded in 1971, had a very hard time convincing companies and ad agencies that feminist readers were worth marketing to. Glamorous feminist figures like Steinem or Germaine Greer did enjoy a moment of rising cool in the late 60s and 70s. But this in turn led to an anti-feminist backlash in the 80s, before the 1990s saw feminism come back–in a more mainstream way than ever, with the rise of ‘girl power’. The Girl Power concept actually started out as an alternative, anti-capitalist niche–it was coined by riot grrrl band Bikini Kill in 1991 who saw consumer culture as a big part of the problem sidelining and silencing girls. But when “girl power” was co-opted by arguably the most mainstream band of the 90s: The Spice Girls, it became consumer culture. The Spice Girls’ image of Girl Power celebrated positive things like friendship, individual empowerment, love, and peace–and their fans (girls and women) started to be valued as consumers to an unprecedented degree. But the Girl Power feminism of the 90s wasn’t the kind of political, mission-driven feminism of the past. It was broader and vaguer: Any powerful woman was a positive symbol, regardless of her politics, her relationships with other women, or her beliefs about feminism. Strong women became marketing tools–and the era’s TV icons were what Afua Hirsch calls the ‘superhuman women’ starring in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and the X-Files.
Then, feminism was out again: Girl Power 90s gave way to the “postfeminist” 2000s, and feminism was portrayed as something outdated, whose goals had been achieved–despite evidence to the contrary. Female celebrities began distancing themselves from the label.
and it became common for women to say that they were humanists rather than feminists,
backing away from the confrontational aspects of what it would take for women to get an equal playing field. Female-driven movies and television boasted about starring empowered women, but tended to ultimately center heterosexual marriage and traditional gender roles. Until the 2010s: as 70s and 90s style started to come back into fashion, feminism also returned, this time as a new apolitical feminist brand with even more marketing power: the GirlBoss.
Girlboss feminism, just like Girl Power before it, was not a political movement. Unlike being a true feminist, being a GirlBoss is about self progression–particularly financial–at the expense of other people.
Girl Bosses and Girl Power put a feminist veneer over the apolitical, or sometimes anti-feminist, actions of wealthy, powerful, capitalist women. Conflating their self-serving ideals with feminism meant that the movement’s original mission–to elevate all women–was lost. Many women were no longer united in a fight–but clawing their way to the top, over other women. All of that needed to change. And in 2017, change did come with the Me Too movement. After Alyssa Milano popularised Tarana Burke’s hashtag in response to allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein, it opened an unprecedented dialogue around sexual violence in Hollywood and beyond. Not only did the campaign energize women to come together through sharing stories, but more importantly, it also advocated for specific solutions to specific consequences of sexism and patriarchy. After two decades of Girl Power and Girl Bosses, the #MeToo movement showed that mainstream feminism could be political – it could go beyond blandly saying women are great, and start demanding concrete changes and accountability.
But although #MeToo was a departure from the empty mainstream feminism of the previous decades, that doesn’t mean it was a long-term success. Few men were actually toppled from their positions of power or saw lasting consequences. And as a result of all the hype, in some ways women began to be treated worse, with Women were more affected by COVID-19 job losses than men, with Hispanic women being hit the hardest openly ridiculed and disrespected by our political leaders, and much-needed policies to support working mothers through family leave and subsidized child care have failed to go anywhere in Congress. Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, 26 states have either totally banned, severely limited, or are in the process of attempting to ban abortion, and most of the lawmakers pursuing those bans have been clear that they don’t intend to make exceptions for rape or incest. Elisa Gonzalez wrote for Drift,
“My mother’s life is hard, much harder than it needs to be, and when I take stock of feminism’s current offerings, I see little that would actually ease it.”
Meanwhile, with the feeling of powerlessness for women who’d invested in this movement and not seen results, came a tidal wave of burnout.
Chapter 3: Real feminism Needs To Be Tangible
As mainstream feminist rhetoric has failed to offer up real solutions to any of women’s problems today, young Americans across the political spectrum have lost faith in it. Countless feminist publications like The Hairpin, Bitch Media, and Feministing failed to stay afloat, some even before the pandemic. And in the absence of a compelling feminist movement, there’s ever more space for an increasingly loud and bold right-wing backlash to gain power. The “pro-life” campaigners leading the wave of abortion bans sweeping our country typically vote against policies that can improve the lives of mothers and their babies, and a 2019 poll found that pro-lifers are more likely to be hostile to women’s rights. And in the aftermath of the vitriol directed at Amber Heard in her highly publicized defamation trial with Johnny Depp, women who accuse men of assault are becoming targets, or they’re increasingly afraid to come
forward at all. So how is the feminist movement going to regroup, adapt and redefine to meet this challenging moment?
Promisingly, while we’re not yet seeing a coherent, hopeful feminist movement, we are seeing evidence of a hunger for something new, different and bold. Women are returning to feminist media coverage on publications like Jezebel, The 19th, and blogs and newsletters. In the aftermath of the Dobbs Decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, reporting on women-centric political events is seeing a sharp rise in traffic.
Popular celebrities are also embracing more overtly political expressions of feminism.
What’s clear in these trends is that women are seeking something more concrete than the vaguely pro-female lifestyle brands of the 2010s or the performative, social-media-centric “outrage feminism” of the Me-Too moment. It’s not enough to voice kneejerk anger; we need instead to make solid, organized commitments to change. Now’s the time to also become truly intersectional-in terms of age, race, sexuality, and economic status. And we are seeing some signs of this coming together in action. In Kansas, women crossed party lines to join together in the vote to preserve abortion rights. The campaigners included all women (not just democrats, not just the young, not just women in the abortion demographic), and it worked; 90-year-old Republicans voted to maintain the right. Reuters and Bloomberg called it a blueprint for abortion rights, but maybe it’s a blueprint for feminism - stop shouting into the void and start fighting together for clear, actionable goals. As Goldberg writes, “It is perhaps inevitable that a movement that was the height of fashion in the last decade would start to seem passé in this one. That’s how style works…” But she also quotes writer Susan Faludi as saying:
“There’s something cringeworthy about feminism even needing to be hip… the central question of feminism… is: Are women materially and politically disadvantaged and how to correct that? If that question is judged to be unhip, we’re in trouble.”
If the mainstream feminism of the past decades is dying, that’s because it’s time for a new one. One that’s a little less worried about being cool and popular – and a lot more concerned with getting things done.