Daughters of the Revolution: Today's Young Women Have Profited from Feminism, but Will They Defend It?

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"I would not call myself a feminist," says Natalie, a University of Michigan junior. "I'm experiencing a lot of the advantages that feminists worked to achieve, and I'm thankful.... But I don't know that women are still that much uneven from men, especially in the workplace." Told that on average a woman today makes only 76 cents to a man's dollar, Natalie is shocked. "I don't understand how that could be fair or even possible," she says.

Young women in the United States today do not seem to be opposed to feminism, as the Feminist Majority Foundation (FM) has defined it on the back of its business cards ("the policy, practice or advocacy of political, economic and social equality for women"), so much as they are put off by a bra-burning, hairy-legged image of the feminism of their mothers' generation. The daughters have reaped many benefits from the feminist revolution of the 1960s and '70s, the "Second Wave" of the U.S. women's movement. (The "First Wave" is associated with the women's suffrage movement.) Young women today have greater access to reproductive health services, greater opportunities in the workplace and more lifestyle choices, including the freedom to gleefully take up lipstick and miniskirts without conceding anything to the patriarchy. This is a generation that feels equally entitled to stay single, marry or cohabit, and with same-sex, opposite-sex or varying partners. Perhaps as a result, a do-it-yourself ethos permeates many young women's lives, and they have tended to shy away from group affiliations of all types.

That individualism is, in part, a healthy thing. But it also has a dark side: The reluctance to work together as a constituency--or to fully engage in electoral politics--may lessen this generation's ability to resist attacks on the freedoms it now enjoys. The American right has been working hard to overturn reproductive choice, roll back recent gains on gay rights and push "abstinence-only" policies on everything from sex education to funding for international health programs. And the Bush administration, for the most part, has signed on to this agenda. The president has also moved against overtime-pay and family-leave laws, steps that could strongly affect young women juggling work and family responsibilities. After years of helping ourselves to a full buffet of life choices, we may one day find the spread sadly diminished--and on the table a sign telling us to get back into the kitchen.

Feminist activists say the current political moment is pivotal, a crossroads for young women and for feminism. Battling conservatives and fighting accusations of their own movement's stagnation and irrelevance, the organizations started by Second Wave feminists hope to draw young women into the movement and its leadership. The FM and the National Organization for Women have launched campus campaigns, held conferences for young women and pushed to improve women's health services on campus. Alarmed by news that only 44 percent of women under 31 voted in the last election, compared with 66 percent of women 31 and older, they've also launched voter-education and--registration drives.

And a number of young feminists have emerged. They are planning a massive abortion-rights march to take place in Washington next year, and their campus performances of The Vagina Monologues have raised money for Afghan women. Says Whitney Cabey, a recent Spelman College graduate and new FM campus organizer, "Calling myself a feminist is basically like calling myself my own name."

But there are more young women who, like Natalie, are ambivalent about joining in.

PART OF THE CHALLENGE MAY BE FEMINISM'S OWN SUCcesses. To many young women today, their lives have little to do with the oppressions faced by their mothers' generation. Compared with young women in 1975, today's 25-to-34-year-olds are, on average, better educated and more likely to be employed. They are also more likely to delay marriage and childbearing, decisions associated with greater family stability and higher incomes. …