Who says feminism is dead?

Posted on April 20, 2010



April 12, 2010

illustration: Robin Cowcherillustration: Robin Cowcher

In 1994, feminist Anne Summers penned an open letter to the next generation of women asking them why they feel so alienated from the women’s liberation movement. In it, she asks why young women do not fully appreciate the battles that have been fought on their behalf by older feminists. Summers writes; “Wouldn’t [a young woman] acknowledge this? Wouldn’t she feel something- gratitude? A debt? A responsibility to keep widening those choices for herself and her generation?”

Since then, a throng of feminists have remarked on the generation of young women who have thrived off the gains of feminism, while disowning the movement in the process.

On first blush it would appear that part of the answer to Summers’ query lies in her own rhetoric. After all, when established feminists begin talking down to young women and painting them as apathetic, indebted ingrates, then young women who do identify with feminist aims and principles begin to feel increasingly alienated and reluctant to engage with the movement.

In the past two decades a type of elitism has crept into the ranks of feminism, with numerous senior feminists tut-tutting young women’s motives, attitudes, dress and behaviour.

From where some young women now sit, the “old guard” has begun to look suspiciously like the patriarchal order it once opposed. And this intergenerational distrust has cut both ways.

On the one hand, old-guard feminists have questioned the political sincerity of young women who appropriate the feminist tenets of “choice” and “empowerment” to lend justification to their smutty “raunch culture” lifestyles. On the other side of the fence, many young women continue to resent being patronised and policed by older generation of feminists.

Several months ago, fellow gen Y feminist Gabe Kavanagh and I spoke at a conference about the generational schism within the Australian feminist movement.

Kavanagh argued that while feminism needs to be made more accessible to young women, many of “us” already do identify as feminists, but our work and politics are seldom recognised by more established feminists, and in many ways we are invisible to them.

According to Kavanagh, feminist ideals have remained somewhat consistent over time but our methods have changed considerably and this has produced a generational disconnect. Instead of protesting on the streets, as in the 1970s, today’s young feminists campaign online. Instead of storming Parliament House, we go for jobs there.

Most importantly, Kavanagh concluded by stating that if the Australian feminist movement is ever to expand then new channels of communication need to be established to promote and consolidate understanding and respect between the various generations of Australian feminists.

The response to this speech was overwhelming and there was unanimous agreement that a forum needed to be set up to promote this intergenerational dialogue.

Kavanagh, now 24, and Rosa Campbell, 23, at the weekend co-convened the biggest feminist conference to be held in Sydney in 15 years. The conference was booked out with more than 500 people from all over the country attending — with others lining up outside.

My mother and I were not the only mother-daughter duo in attendance and there were grandmothers who attended with their granddaughters. Participants age ranged from 12 to 84 and a significant number of pro-feminist men also attended and spoke at the conference.

And they say feminism is dead.

Throughout the two-day conference it became apparent that it is highly simplistic to assume that attitudes unpack neatly along generational (or gender) lines. We also realised that while feminism is a movement marked by diversity and complexity, it is the commitment to examining the contradictions and nuances of argument found within feminism that makes for such a robust movement.

Anne Summers also presented at the conference. Interviewing her afterwards, I realised that I’d had her all wrong. Summers is not interested in patronising young women in the slightest. She is one of our greatest advocates.

Summers also pointed out that “there are more male and female feminists today than at any other time in Australian history”. This fact flies in the face of every recent media article that claims that Australian feminism is in decline; the reality is just the opposite.

Summers reminded us that feminism is just as relevant today as at any other time in history (if not more so). We still have yet to achieve equal pay for equal work (with women receiving 84 cents in the dollar compared with male counterparts) and our reproductive rights have yet to be secured.

Similarly, the rights we have achieved continue to come under threat from the likes of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and other conservatives. Most of all Summers urged us to ignore the predictable, transparent media mockery directed at feminists, and to “just get on with things”.

So while there is work ahead, it seems that feminism is in a far better state of affairs than what many in the media would have us believe.

Nina Funnell is a media researcher at the University of New South Wales.



Yawn… A bunch of middle-class, naval gazing, privileged women putting together their own version of the dominant paradigm. How many Gen-Y non-university graduates attended? Nought perhaps?

Maddos – April 13, 2010, 10:38AM

All lies are exposed with time.

Therein lies your explanation.

Feminism is a lie as much as communism was a lie, as much a religious fundamentalism of the middle ages was a lie, as much a Nazism was a lie…

Most modern women recognise it for the lie that it is, and disown it for that reason.

That’s all there is to say really.

Adrian | Adelaide – April 13, 2010, 10:44AM

I am 28 and consider myself a feminist. I dont beleive you can be a feminist unless you know the back ground feminist history and understand how women today are still not treated equally. A lot of my friends laugh at me for my views and use the world feminist as though it is a dirty word. It is really sad that more girls of my generation and below do not see the importance of feminism. The rauch culture really is a kick in the face to the feminist movement.

Whirly | Nanny State – April 13, 2010, 10:50AM

If only Frederico could talk!

A Non – April 13, 2010, 10:47AM

The reason women still struggle in the workplace is often other women. As a woman I’ve found men usually far more supportive of my ideas and intelligence than women. Women often drag down other women who they see as a threat, rather than support them. I’ve always supported other women and encourage them to be their best (I also support men in being their best as well) but time and time again I’ve had insecure women undermine me. Strong confident women don’t do this. You can’t blame men for everything. Yes, there are men who are twits but women also need to stop undermining other women and some of the biggest hypocrits are the left leaning latte sipping older so-called feminists.

Grace – April 13, 2010, 10:57AM

Great article except for the cheap shot at Tony Abbott . Unfortunately your pink slip is showing and demeans your article to 50% of pro feminist readers

TomK | Port Melbourne – April 13, 2010, 10:57AM

The first two comments on this page exemplify precisely why some young women are so hesitant to identify as feminists. They are concerned about the unnecessary scorn and venom that will be directed at them, to the point that they have internalised the argument that ‘feminism is outdated’.

This was a great article, Nina, and one sorely needed.

Kate | Canberra – April 13, 2010, 10:59AM

I am often baffled how women who vote, earn their own money, own their own property, have bank accounts in their own name and are otherwise active in the public sphere claim not to be feminists. How can they do all those things and not be feminists?

Phasic – April 13, 2010, 11:25AM

Got to agree with it being a cheap shot at Tony Abbott. Surely if you work at a university you know to reference or back up your arguments. It seems like it was tacked on at the end in a ‘tick the box’ exercise.

Older feminists hate us – Tick
But we ARE doing good things – Tick
We should do something about equal pay – Tick
Feminism is dead, again – Tick
Quick, I’ve forgotten, who’s our enemy again? Tony Abbott and ‘other conservatives’, – Tick
Our reason for the above? – Nah, out of time/space

The Man – April 13, 2010, 11:23AM

“and our reproductive rights have yet to be secured”. What does that mean?

Curious | Melbourne – April 13, 2010, 11:10AM

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