Is feminism relevant?

Question: Is feminism relevant?

Answer: Let's start with the basics: If feminism were not relevant, people probably wouldn't keep asking if feminism were relevant. People aren't in the habit of talking about things that are completely irrelevant to them. So in some sense, feminism is obviously relevant. There are also some senses in which feminism is probably not relevant. Let's look at this concept of relevance a little more closely.

Women worldI'm assuming, for the sake of argument, that you're a decent person and that, if you're not a woman yourself, you at least have a certain amount of respect for women's lives. So you hopefully agree with me that the fact that women only earn 77 cents on the dollar relative to men is a problem, that the fact that women are still subject to domestic violence and sexual assault is a problem, that the fact that women are taught to hate their lives and their voices and their bodies is a problem, and that the gender double standard, in general, is a bad thing. We all agree, in other words, that the most obvious problems that feminists want to solve are real problems that need to be somehow solved. Or at least I hope we do. If you don't agree that these are real problems that need to be solved, I don't want to hear about it. Most of you, I'm sure, do.

So if you agree that there are real problems of gender oppression in our culture, but you're asking whether feminism is relevant, then what you seem to be asking is whether the feminist movement, as we have come to know it, can solve these problems.

My answer to that question would be probably not. The feminist movement as we have come to know it is in fact going through a metamorphosis, adapting to the times. The older traditions of feminism, despite their accomplishments, are the products of a previous generation. Like all traditions, they change over time. Among the criticisms that have been made of establishment feminism:

  • It tends to undervalue the lives and contributions of young women, low-income women, LGBTQ women, and women of color ;

  • It is often rooted in Western terminology, and is difficult to adapt to non-Western cultures ;

  • It is often rooted in an "us against the world" identity politics that younger feminists tend to reject; and

  • It has arguably become more of an academic and philosophical tradition than a social justice tradition.

There are many new feminists who do speak to the struggles that all women face today. There are also some older feminists who have adapted their positions to address these challenges. The feminism of these feminists is certainly not irrelevant.

But our cultural understanding of feminism tends to be rooted in the women's liberation movement of the sixties and seventies, which by definition addresses yesterday's challenges using yesterday's leaders and yesterday's methodologies.

So I would say that the feminism of today's productive activists is very relevant, while the feminism of 35 or 40 years ago is less so.

If you're committed to fighting gender oppression but don't find feminism as you've experienced it to be relevant to your life, then you may be a third-wave feminist.

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