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Where are all the millennial feminists?

By Hannah Weinberger, Special to CNN
updated 10:38 AM EST, Sat November 10, 2012
Feminist leader Betty Friedan speaks at a National Organization for Women gathering circa 1970. Feminist leader Betty Friedan speaks at a National Organization for Women gathering circa 1970.
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Famous feminists from generations past
Famous feminists from generations past
Famous feminists from generations past
Famous feminists from generations past
Famous feminists from generations past
Famous feminists from generations past
Famous feminists from generations past
Famous feminists from generations past
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Progress in gender equality has led some millennials to dismiss the feminist movement
  • Feminists argue that though there have been gains, young women should still fight for more
  • Some in the 18-29 age group say the feminist movement is divisive and not inclusive of them
  • Feminists say progressive young women are reluctant to label what they do as feminism

Editor's note: Hannah Weinberger is a college student and former CNN intern.

(CNN) -- Country singer and millennial Taylor Swift recently told the Daily Beast she doesn't consider herself a feminist, explaining to the interviewer who posed the question: "I don't really think about things as guys versus girls." But many feminists would argue that Swift, 22, is missing the point, that feminism isn't a battle between the sexes.

I can't say I blame Swift if she hasn't quite pinned down the definition of the word. I do identify as a feminist -- after all, I trust in my abilities, combat stereotypes and believe in equal rights. But I've also been unsure at times what exactly it means to be a feminist and whether the modern movement is the best vehicle for gender equality.

Women have been divided over feminism, its definition and practice, since the first suffragettes demanded space in politics. Even today, asking a roomful of millennial women, roughly those 18-29, whether they identify as feminist will elicit a range of responses: yes, no and someplace in between.

"If you went up to a millennial and asked if they believe in equal rights for all, they would look at you like you're crazy, because that's a silly question," said Lauren Rikleen, executive-in-residence at Boston College. "But if you ask if they're feminist, there's this backing away and an emotional reaction."

That reaction is at odds with the attitudes of women who came of age in the '70s, '80s and even '90s, said Dr. Paola Bacchetta, an associate professor of gender and women's studies at University of California at Berkeley.

Read more: Women gain wider access to power

After the first wave of women's rights activists campaigned for the vote and the second wave fought for reproductive rights and parity in the workplace, it seemed a given that many progressive young women had no qualms calling themselves feminists, even if they didn't participate in the movement. But progress has given some young women grounds to dismiss feminism's necessity, Bacchetta said: "We have a long way to go, and the idea that things are OK, that people aren't thinking about it because they feel like their lives are OK, is also a part of the problem."

After an election season that spurred debate over women's rights so heated that some said a war was being waged on women (a fight that may have given President Barack Obama and other Democrats a bump in the polls) it bears exploring what feminism means to millennial women.

What is feminism?

Merriam-Webster's: Feminism (noun) 1: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes 2: organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests

Millennials grew up being told they could do anything they wanted, with laws on the books to support that, especially in corporate America. But considering that female graduates make $8,000 less than their male counterparts within one year of graduating from college, some feminist activists argue that millennial women may want to reassess how equal they are.

"They get a rude awakening when they're in a workplace or when they see what the actual statistics are for women," said Bacchetta.

Lack of information about feminism's history, both in the classroom and the news media, may explain millennials' dissatisfaction with the term. Plus, constant revisions to feminist rhetoric make it difficult to keep up with its definition.

"There's not one feminism, but many feminisms," said Bacchetta, who has been active in the women's movement since the 1970s.

There have always been ideological divisions in feminism, she said, because goals are constantly changing: At one time or another, feminists have sought to build gender equality within the existing social system, deconstruct the system entirely or address injustices not only against women but other minority groups.

What worries older feminists like Bacchetta is that even young women who know what the word means and are aware of inequality among the sexes don't challenge the system.

Empowered, not entitled

"Feminism is supposed to be about choice, but it never played out that way," said Sharon Rosenblatt, 24, a document remediation officer in Maryland.

The way Rosenblatt sees it, feminism is a movement that takes away more than it gives.

"Women think we all need to look out for each other, and that ends up shooting us in the foot because then we're thought of as incapable," Rosenblatt said. "If a woman stood up for herself as a person (instead of) demanding rights based on gender, I think that'd be a much stronger platform."

Conversely, some millennial women don't think there's anything left to fix -- and that feminism demands sacrificing feminine qualities. When young women choose motherhood over corporate life, for instance, they may not feel welcome in the women's movement.

Modern feminists want to become men rather than celebrate their femininity, said advertising account executive Emily Drost, 26, of Colorado. "We can do just about anything," she said, "and not only that -- we can do it with a smile on our face and a graceful wave."

Others appreciate feminism but simply don't identify with elements of the movement.

"Extremists are what turn me off from immediately labeling myself as a feminist," said Amelia Vereb, 25, a media relations manager. "What they preach and what I'm actually experiencing, or noticing ... don't always align." She explained that she hasn't actually experienced discrimination in the workplace, though feminists would insist she has. "Considering how terrifying the job market was when I graduated, I feel like I've been able to achieve the type of success that I had hoped for at this point in my life."

In some cases, millennial women said it's silly for men and women to be equal in the workplace when they're biologically dissimilar.

"Why should an employer hire a woman and then pay her for work she isn't doing? A baby isn't a medical emergency," said Rosenblatt, who believes both maternity and paternity leave are unnecessary financial burdens on employers.

Drost put things more bluntly when discussing feminist tactics.

"If you have enough time to label yourself a feminist or complain about the injustice you receive as a female, then you aren't working hard enough at your job, whether it be homemaker or corporate employee," she said. "Maybe the injustice you perceive is justified."

The fem-pire strikes back

Millennials who identify as feminists (yes, they exist ) said that those who don't may be misinformed.

"There is a basic lack of understanding of what the feminist movement is amongst many women today," said Julie Zeilinger, 19, author of "A Little F'd Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word" and founder of feminist youth community The Fbomb.

Feminists today work to preserve women's rights and "to make legal victories lived realities rather than just words on paper," Zeilinger said.

Citing the wage gap, a culture that minimizes rape and sexual harassment, the low value placed on domestic work, gender disparities in executive positions and recent legal battles over women's contraception, millennial feminists say there are still plenty of bones to pick in the realm of inequality.

Young feminists have protested sexual assault and harassment through anti-rape coalitions and "Slut Walks," marches meant to contest victim blaming and the idea that women who are raped "had it coming" based on how they dress. They try to deconstruct misconceptions about feminism via blogs like The Fbomb, Jezebel and Feministing. They engage with each other and with older feminists at conferences and on college campuses . They also speak up when they see instances of misogyny.

"Feminism is any form of action in support of the conviction that women deserve the same respect and opportunity that men do," said Jim Dennison, a college student in North Carolina. With equal respect, Dennison said, women will hopefully get opportunities they deserve.

Some nonfeminists said the movement devalues traditionally feminine qualities, but one young woman argued that you can be feminine and feminist at the same time.

"My classmates are often surprised to hear me say I'm a feminist, because I wear heels and bows," said Andi Enns, 21, a college student in Missouri. "I hope their minds will be changed about feminism by knowing someone who breaks the stereotype."

Stripping away labels

It's no wonder some millennials don't have a clear understanding of feminism. The movement may be in flux, but the end goal of gender equality hasn't wavered, say feminist leaders.

"I see Gen Y women more emboldened by feminism, even if they don't always use that language," said Amy Richards, co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation. "They understand disparities, even if they don't understand how to fight against them."

So, how do you get millennials who believe in gender equality but don't self-identify as feminists to support the movement?

Erin Matson, Action Vice President for the National Organization for Women, understands that feminism can be a dirty word, but doesn't think the movement needs to rebrand itself to persuade women of its inclusivity.

"I'm not interested in playing language police and if someone says to me, 'I'm really pissed about what they're doing to birth control right now in Congress, but I don't know if I'd call myself a feminist,' I don't really care," Matson said. "I'm going to work with them first on making sure Congress backs off of birth control."

"Some people seem to think, 'I don't need feminism, I'm strong and independent and assert my rights and importance just by being myself,' " Zeilinger said. "I hope that someday, because of changes in the movement, in themselves, or both, these people realize that what they're doing is feminism."

Are you a millennial, or a woman of any generation, who doesn't consider herself a feminist? Please share your take in the comments section below. Like CNN Living on Facebook.

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