Feminism, Sexuality, and Politics: Essays

By Estelle B. Freedman | Go to book overview

5 | No Turning Back |
Resilience of Feminism

A central theme in my feminist studies course is that feminism is a process, not an in-
herited dogma; only continual reinvention has allowed it to flourish. I also stress this
point in
No Turning Back, the book based on my course, which documents the histori-
cal momentum of women's activism throughout the world. In class and in speaking
publicly about the book, I have found that one of the hardest points to communicate is
the theme of paradox. In addition to exploring a key tension in feminism between uni-
versalistic and particularistic politics, I try to show how the staples of modern Western
history
democracy and capitalismsimultaneously disadvantaged women and
enabled feminist political critiques to form.

SOON AFTER THE revival of the women's movement in the late 1960s, American journalists began proclaiming the death of feminism. In 1976, Harper's magazine declared a “Requiem for the Women's Movement”; in 1980, the New York Times assured readers that the “Radical Days of Feminism Are Gone”; in 1990, Newsweek trumpeted “The Failure of Feminism.” Unconvinced by two decades of obituaries, in 1998 Time magazine asked readers to respond online to the question “Is Feminism Dead?” So ubiquitous is this story that a feminist journalist recently labeled it “False Feminist Death Syndrome.”1 Perhaps these writers notice feminism only during periods of mass public protest and overlook its quieter but more pervasive forms. Or perhaps they are engaging in a form of wishful thinking, for given the power of the media, declaring the death of feminism could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Surveying the interdisciplinary scholarship on women's movements suggests to me that, contrary to the views of contemporary pundits, feminism has never been more widespread or more politically influential than at this point in history. In some countries, feminist concerns have moved from the margins of alternative culture to infiltrate mainstream politics, whether measured by women's increased office holding or the importance of controversies over subjects such as veiling, abortion, and lesbian and gay rights. In contrast to issuing premature obituaries for feminism, the news media now regularly

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