One of the most useful nuggets of compressed wisdom that I absorbed from the humanities portion of my university education was an off-hand remark by a teaching assistant, Paul Leopold, that “each generation rejects its parents and rediscovers its grandparents.” Implicit was that the rediscovery is often unintentional and even unwitting. It’s just that there is very little scope for real novelty, so those who are both eager to be new will turn away from what is familiar, and can then hardly help — particularly if they think they are avoiding influence by remaining ignorant of the past — but recapitulate an earlier generation.
It has commonly been observed that many women who came of age in the late 1980s and 1990s, heirs to all the accomplishments of 1970s feminism, who take for granted that they are free to shape their own careers and relationships, reject the word “feminism”. They associate the word with sins of their mothers (even if not their own literal mothers), and identify with various sorts of vaguely defined “post-feminist” ideologies, if they are the sort of people inclined to care about ideologies rather than just living their lives. A recent survey of American women found that among women aged 30-44, only 32% identify themselves as feminists, barely more than in the oldest (pre-baby Boom) age group. Among women aged 45-64 feminism has 41% support; interestingly (and confirming Leopold’s dictum) support seems to have revived among the youngest women.
My impression, from occasional glances at journalism on the issue, is that women wish to separate themselves from the “feminist” label, which they associate with negative attitudes toward family, men, and sex, and a generally rigid view of life, and denial of femininity. This is supported by research finding that current undergraduates were most likely to associate a random feminist with the following adjectives: man-hating, lesbian, unhygienic, angry, behaves like a man, unattractive.
I was reminded by all this by a remark in the chapter on women’s issues in Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain in the early 1970s:
For most of the 1950s and 1960s, feminism was widely supposed to have disappeared… On the left, it was often seen as divisive, distracting, and self-indulgent… Even articulate outspoken young women like Shirlie Williams, the daughter of the pioneering women’s rights campaigner Vera Britain, rejected the “feminist” label, which was thought to belong to the lost age of the suffragists. “it was,” she said, “a matter of generations.”
And the young Sheila Rowbotham, who… later became one of Britain’s best-known feminist writers, thought that feminists were “shadowy figures in long, old-fashioned clothes, who were somehow connected with headmistresses, who said you shouldn’t wear high heels and makeup. It was all very prim and stiff, and mainly concerned with keeping you away from boys.”
So, right before what now appear as the glory days of militant feminism, a post-feminist malaise had already set in, rejecting the word “feminist” and what was perceived as the joyless feminism of an earlier generation. I suppose it’s cause for hope.