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

Young women turning away from feminism has become a media meme. What's up with that?

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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.