Lean In to the Third Wave of Women's Rights Activism

By 1stFive Archives
Cover image for  article: Lean In to the Third Wave of Women's Rights Activism

Originally published March 2013

With the publicity surrounding the release of Sheryl Sandberg's new book and organization focused on encouraging women to Lean In to their careers, and the expansion to eight cities of the Women in Media Mentoring Initiative (www.wimmi.net), which I founded in 2011, it's appropriate and relevant to share this chapter from my best-selling book Hooked Up: A New Generation's Surprising Take on Sex, Politics and Saving the World.

From Hooked Up: A New Generation's Surprising Take on Sex, Politics and Saving the World , by Jack Myers
Available at Amazon, BN.com and all online booksellers

Third Wave of Women's Rights Activism

The infamous 1968 advertising campaign - "You've come a long way, baby"- may have been launched to convince more women to start smoking, but its catchy tagline still resonates today. From voting to political participation, career trajectories to academic participation, women have broken––or at least cracked––that metaphorical glass ceiling in more than one societal sphere. Women couldn't attend the same colleges as men until 1831. Women's enrollment on college campuses first overtook men's in the 1980s, and the imbalance continues to increase 30 years later.

Women's rights, especially reproductive rights, suddenly were thrust into the spotlight during the 2012 Presidential campaign, as several states considered and passed laws giving the states rights over women's bodies and their role in society. For some politicians and those who vote for them, women may have come too far!

The Nineteenth Amendment floated around the House of Representatives and the Senate from the time of its proposal in 1878 until its ratification in 1920. Almost a hundred years ago, women still couldn't hold political office or even vote.

In contrast, 54 percent of voters were women by the year 2010. Women also held 17 percent of the seats in Congress, 24 percent of state legislature seats, and six of the 50 governorships.

Until 1972, no woman had ever been CEO of a Fortune 500 company. By 2011, 15 women had joined these exclusive ranks. While still a disproportionate figure, it reflects progress, and the percentage will inevitably increase as larger numbers of females gain corporate power and influence. Women's increasing participation in the workforce ( projected to grow to 70 percent by 2018), rising representation in politics and high college graduation rates seem to point toward continuing progress toward egalitarianism and gender equality.

Waves of Progress

These societal changes occurred in waves, beginning with the courageous actions of those 19th-century revolutionaries, the suffragettes. The second wave of the women's movement came around the mid-20th century, bringing groundbreaking political, journalistic and academic treatises.

But today, influences that shape young adults' perceptions of issues such as women's rights, gender roles and sexism come from multiple directions, including the pervasiveness of the Internet, the pressures of the media, and the influences of family and peers. Perhaps this is why the views of Internet Pioneers seem to be a curious combination of liberation and ambivalence.

Not so long ago, sexism was institutionalized into almost every facet of life. Women––and the way both men and women perceive their place in society and their rights––have indeed "come a long way, baby." Just how far can best be understood in context of where the journey began.

A Brief Timeline of Sexism

"Home is woman's world, as well as her empire. Man lives more in society. The busy marts of trade, the bustling exchange, the activity of artisan life are his spheres….What is the sphere of women? Home. The social circle. What is her mission? To mould character, to fashion herself and others after the model character of Christ."

Daniel Wise, 1851

The Young Lady's Counsellor

With this paragraph, Wise neatly relegated women to a life of domesticity. He summarized the feelings of many of his contemporaries: a woman's job involves taking care of the home, safeguarding morality––and staying far, far away from the man's world of business, economics and politics. A woman's life was at home, with a focus on bearing and rearing children. Without reliable sources of contraception, most women had little choice: they were born to be mothers.

Known as the "cult of true womanhood," this paradigm dominated popular thought for generations with its claim on women's inherent:

  • Sexual purity
  • Religious piety
  • Submissive demeanor
  • Inferior intellect
  • Reproductive imperative

As blatantly sexist and archaic as they seem now for most people, these ideas about the role of women were deeply ingrained in society––in the minds of both men and women. However, a few brave suffragettes in the mid-1800s held revolutionary views.

In 2012, Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke's views toward women's rights should have been considered far from revolutionary. Yet media commentator Rush Limbaugh and others sought to brand her with a "Scarlet Letter" for her views on contraception. Limbaugh, Republican primary presidential candidates, and several governors and state legislators renewed the public discourse on the "cult of true womanhood" and the role of women in American society.

America has served as a role model for leaders of women's rights movements in countries where women are being denied basic rights. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed fear that politically charged debates over these issues could set back not only America's leadership position but also the fundamental rights gained by women throughout the 20th century. Among Internet Pioneers, both male and female, these rights are unquestioned.

Women's Movement: The First Wave

In 1866, Elizabeth Cady Stanton ran for Congress; she received 24 votes out of the twelve thousand votes cast. Two years later, Stanton and Susan B. Anthony began publishing The Revolution, a pro-suffrage, pro-union and anti-slavery newspaper. They founded the National Women's Suffrage Foundation the next year and introduced voting rights legislation that would eventually become the Nineteenth Amendment.

The goals of the early women's movement focused on legislation and issues including:

  • Voting rights
  • Education rights
  • Property and property law reform
  • Improved conditions for the few women who worked outside the home
  • Improved public morality, through offshoots such as the anti-alcohol temperance movement

In the early 1900s, only one-fifth of women worked outside the home, and most left or lost their jobs if they married. However, as the driving forces of the economy migrated away from rural farms and toward urban industrialization, massive societal shifts began to occur. These shifts gradually led to a sea change in attitudes toward women's rights.

Women's Movement: The Second Wave

The publication of two influential books––Simone de Beauvoir's 1949 The Second Sex and Betty Friedan's 1963 The Feminine Mystique–– heralded a major transformation in the women's rights movement.

The goals of feminism's "second wave" shifted from individual rights to broader political aims. Many interpreted the shift as a push toward higher education and increased workforce participation. The percentage of women obtaining college degrees rose from 40 percent in the 1970s to 57 percent in 2006.

With regard to increased workforce participation:

  • In 1980, half of all women worked in paid occupations outside the home.
  • In 2009, the percentage jumped to 59 percent.
  • By early 2012, more than 60 percent of women worked outside the home, and the number continues to grow.

An unexpected outcome is that while participation in higher education and the workforce has increased liberation, it has also increased feelings of ambivalence about issues of women's rights fed by the belief that activism is no longer required to gain advances. Other factors contributing to this ambivalent attitude include being bombarded with conflicting information about gender roles, women's rights and sexism. These factors are discussed later in the chapter.

Women's Movement: The Third Wave

Most studies since the 1970s show growing public support––from both men and women–– for greater gender equality in the home and the workplace. Research also shows decreased belief that women's ideal role is that of wife and mother and increased support for efforts to improve women's rights and status.

However, many studies also show a decrease in support of feminism. The studies also reflect an increase in both women and men who associate the term "feminism" with negative connotations. Is this simply semantics, or does the issue go deeper?

A 2011 University of Maryland study explored changing ideas about women's rights and roles over four decades. The researchers found that attitudes toward gender roles shifted consistently toward egalitarianism––or becoming more liberal––from 1974 until 1994. At this time, attitudes appeared to stagnate––or even reverse––toward conservatism and traditional gender roles across most demographic groups.

The study listed potential causes for these shifting attitudes, including:

  • Backlash against feminism
  • Idealization of motherhood
  • Media focus on the decline of feminism

A 1997 study showed that while 63 percent of both male and female college students approved of feminist ideological goals, none of the females identified themselves as feminists. Similarly, a 2000 study of 276 college students found that while most agreed with feminist ideals, only 29 percent of the women self-identified as feminist.

The Feminist Paradox

Scholars and activists interpret these results––sometimes known as the "feminist paradox"––differently. Some, like journalist Susan Faludi, feel that this "anti-feminism but pro-women's movement" trend among college students in the early part of the 21st century is a backlash against––and attempt to repudiate––women's victories over the past century. Others see the feminist paradox as a reaction to an unreceptive political and social climate that has weakened and dispersed the ideals of the women's movement.

New York University professor Judith Stacey sees these post-feminist attitudes as a "a new form of gender consciousness . . . that includes the incorporation, revision, and de-politicization of many of the central goals of second-wave feminism."

A 2004 study by women's rights researcher Pia Petola explored feminist identity across three generations. The study shows that the college-aged adults of 2004 didn't feel that collective action––or a movement––was needed to decrease sexism and improve women's rights. Most people in this age group agreed with the principles espoused by the women's rights movement, yet they didn't view themselves as activists. These attitudes are similar to the "active but not activists" perspectives of Internet Pioneers.

Internet Pioneers Accept Feminism

College students of 2011-2015 are likely to reject the findings of a 2008 Sociological Journal report by Shannon Houvouras and J. Scott Carter on college students' attitudes toward feminism and women's rights. This study found that although most students agreed with the goals of the women's movement––such as gender equality, equal pay and representation in politics––44 percent of participants described feminists as having negative personal characteristics, e.g., militant, aggressive, whiny, crazy, or man-hating. The use of such derogatory or stereotypical terms indicated hostility toward feminism and, by extension, the women's movement.

Although they are only a couple of years younger than the study sample, Internet Pioneers reject such hostile classifications and tend to be inclusive and accepting in their attitudes. The differences between older Millennials and Internet Natives reflect this shift in core attitudes. Internet Pioneers are more openly accepting than their older cohorts of feminist principles, but they'd probably agree with the study's conclusion that feminism is more about integrating feminist principles into everyday life than activism.

Sexism and Sexualization

Internet Pioneers tend to be sexualized and integrated with members of the other sex at an early age––in large part due to Internet exposure. According to the American Psychological Association, an overdose of media exposure––from the Internet to television––has created a culture of sexualization in which both men and women perceive females as sexual objects.

A 2003 study by Jacqueline Lambiase, journalism professor at Texas Christian University, focused on how celebrity fan sites––often geared toward young women––present female celebrities. Her research showed websites present women in a highly sexualized manner compared with male celebrities. For young women seeking strong, powerful female role models, this barrage of sexualized imagery sent a potent message that sexualization equals success.

Internet Pioneers, on the other hand, are more likely to view the opposite sex without bias or inappropriate sexual connotations. Female sexuality is accepted as a norm. In the same context, female Internet Pioneers are more likely to accept male behavior and lifestyles they consider to be immature.

Lady Gaga Hits the Right Sexual Notes

No one embodies this sexual equality quite like Lady Gaga. Ubiquitous on the Internet––a Google search for her name brings up 314 million results––the artist is often upheld by the media ––from the "Guardian" to "Ms Magazine"–– as an example of "lady power" or a poster child for post-feminism.

However, when the star was asked if she was a feminist, she replied with an unequivocal: " I'm not a feminist––I love men. I celebrate American male culture, and beer, and bars and muscle cars..."

Lady Gaga embraces both the feminist ideal of the empowered female along with the traditional image of the stick-thin, skimpily dressed sexpot. Characterizing the evolving state of gender-related attitudes among today's students, the star strongly defends women's rights and emancipation. At the same time, she presents herself in an unconventionally––and highly––sexualized manner.

The star turns traditional ideas about femininity upside down––while embracing them at the same time. As a 2010 New York Times article puts it, this "tension in Gaga's self-presentation, far from being idiosyncratic or self-contradictory, epitomizes the situation of a certain class of comfortably affluent young women today."

Equality Gained––But At What Cost?

Internet Pioneers have grown up in the wake of feminism's second wave. Their feminist grandmothers struggled and achieved greater equality and rights. More women than ever attend college, work in high-paying careers and participate in politics. These opportunities didn't exist a hundred years ago, and they were far less available to women only 50 years ago. Tempering these gains is the increased pressure on women to be physically attractive and participate in the current "hookup" culture, where sexual encounters without relationships seem to be the new norm.

Third Wave of Women's Rights Activism

Young women graduating from college and entering the workforce are better prepared than any previous generation to balance the disconnect between the self-empowerment necessary to succeed and the ongoing trend toward sexual objectification. They are following the Lady Gaga route; i.e., not viewing these trends and behaviors as sexual objectification, but rather embracing them as expressions of self-confidence and personal choice.

Today's college-age women are the third wave of women's rights activism. They live in a post-feminist world, stuck between a rock––feminism's second wave with its focus on equality through careers, education and achievement outside the home––and a hard place––today's pressure to have it all. The goal is to achieve everything: career, modern lifestyle, family life, while still looking and behaving in a way that's seen as traditionally sexy and feminine .

Author Wendy Wasserstein highlighted this irony when she said: "No matter how successful I become as a playwright, my mother would be thrilled to hear me tell her that I'd just lost 20 pounds, gotten married and become a lawyer."

Looking Ahead

Internet Pioneers are bombarded by conflicting information about gender roles, women's rights and sexism from a range of sources. Carolyn Sumner, a former professor at Southern Methodist University, believes, "As far as we've come, as a nation and as a sex, we still have so far to go."

Over years, women such as Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Nickelodeon's Geraldine Laybourne, Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and many others have shattered the glass ceiling, but it takes just minutes on the Internet or watching television to see that women are still sexualized and that women's rights are still politicized.

Sumner believes, "The stereotypes that are perpetuated through more subtle avenues such as beer commercials and sports are more powerful weapons than overt sexism. Soft sexism is the new enemy."

A report in the June 2011 Psychology of Women Quarterly concluded that men don't realize the effects of such innate sexism; but this is changing as females challenge men when they express inappropriate sexist comments or actions. This is reinforced by the uprising of women against Limbaugh and those who supported his outbursts against Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke.

Although "soft sexism" still exists and women's rights are still debated, Internet Pioneers comprise the first generation that is entering and graduating from college recognizing sexism as inappropriate behavior. The Internet and television have provided much information about sexism and its implications for both men and women. With female college enrollment approaching 60 percent, women are a powerful force for assuring both equal rights and imposing a zero tolerance for sexist behavior. These attitudes will extend into the workforce, into marketing campaigns and into post-graduation relationships.

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