Despite its common use today, the word feminism is still met with confusion and disdain. Many men and women confuse feminist stereotypes with the movement’s goals, forming negative associations with the word. But what is a feminist? And how is feminism seen today? At its core, feminism is about equality for the sexes and the success of both women and men. Today, feminism is most prominently seen on various social media platforms. Social media has helped to fully bring feminism into mainstream culture, creating a shift in society’s perception of the movement. Recently, feminist ideas have been featured in successful advertisements for companies such as Dove, Verizon, and Always. This widespread acceptance of feminist ideals is largely attributable to the power of social media.
Feminism: A Little History
Traditionally, feminism is broken into waves based on time period and ideology. The First Wave, from approximately 1840-1920, developed around the desire for women’s suffrage and equal rights of citizenship. This goal developed from female involvement in the abolition movement, after which women recognized the rights they were being denied. While campaigning for suffrage, early feminists also made remarkable progress for women’s rights by promoting dress reform and birth control, as well as earning women the right to own property, get divorced, pursue higher education, maintain their own income and inheritance, and retain custody of their children following divorce. Following the legalization of women’s suffrage in America in 1920, the women’s movement retained its importance but became more understated. This changed around 1960 with the arrival of the Second Wave of feminism.
By 1960, the Civil Rights Movement was sweeping the United States with incredible force. As young people began to protest for racial equality, women, as in the early 1900s, realized the inequality of their own situation. Instead of suffrage, these Second Wave feminists sought access to traditionally male domains to which they had been denied. This pursuit did not intend to usurp men, but to break “down gender stereotypes, thus emphasizing that feminism was of importance to men as well as to women” (psa.ac.uk). Feminists emphasized their position by coining “the phrase ‘the personal is political’ as a means of highlighting the impact of sexism and patriarchy on every aspect of women’s lives” (psa.ac.uk). This made the movement more relevant, and in response women developed a vocabulary to address common injustices, including the terms date rape and domestic abuse. The feminists’ protests and lobbying, though sometimes radical, earned women greater reproductive rights, protection from workplace discrimination, and the right to equal pay, at least in theory. Despite the wide cultural changes that resulted from the Second Wave, the movement was flawed and harshly criticized. Women within the movement too often considered women to be a homogenous group and did not consider the facets included, such as black women, Latinas, women with disabilities, and lesbians and bisexuals, among others. These minority groups felt sidelined and began critiquing the movement from within, causing tension and divisive splits over feminist theories. By the end of the 1980s, the feminist movement was in a difficult position. Young women of the 1990s and early 2000s sought to address these issues in what is known as the Third Wave of feminism.
The Third Wave represented a monumental shift in the way women approached feminism and the way feminism was shared. This shift was largely influenced by the overall cultural shift toward individualism. By focusing on a woman’s personal struggles, the Third Wave “rejected the idea of a shared political priority list or even a set of issues one must espouse to be feminist” (feminist.com). This individualistic nature allowed for diverse interests to gain widespread attention, including the topics of queer theory, gender and sexuality spectrums, and sex positivity. Feminism’s individualism also made the movement portable- “you didn’t have to go to a meeting to be a feminist; you could bring feminism into any room you entered” (feminist.com). This portability allowed feminism to easily transition into the digital age.
Today, the Fourth Wave of feminism is “characterized by its diversity of purpose” and “…-its reliance on the Internet.” By 2008, “…the Internet had facilitated the creation of a global community of feminists…” in a way that was previously impossible. Without the Internet and social media, the progression of the newest wave of feminism would have been slowed, if possible at all.
At the dawn of social media, online forums were intended for causal connections. Over time, Facebook and Twitter, as well as other prominent social media platforms, have expanded beyond this original intent and have become staples of 21st century activism. Though many were surprised by this development, it is understandable given that the term ‘platform’ brings to mind the sharing of ideas and the promotion of a cause. Following this realization, many social movements took to social media, including feminism.
Today, 74 percent of adults in America use the internet and 76 percent of women online utilize social media. Feminists utilize social media’s person to person model to connect with like-minded women across geographic and socioeconomic boundaries. In an interview with The Observer, prominent feminist and global director of Equality Now, Yasmeen Hassan, stated, “…the internet is opening up channels between women in different countries, and women who might be isolated in their communities….” This open communication allows for improved representation of “often ignored voices” (now.org). Contemporary feminism seeks to move away from the white, middle-class demographic to include all races, sexual orientations and gender identities, and socioeconomic classes.
By diversifying the backgrounds of the women involved, feminists are also diversifying the messages being presented. Feminism no longer has a set agenda, but appeals to the individual struggles of all women and unites them through similar experience. In an article for the HuffingtonPost, Victoria Sadler summed up this idea, stating, “Prior to the era of social media, not only did the forums not exist for these ideas to be fully identified and discussed, but instead women were dictated to about what their issues were…Now with social media, women as a whole aren’t responding to articles in the media, they are creating the news for themselves by shining a light on the breadth of issues that they face.”
Sharing these personal experiences has become easier in the digital age. Prior to the internet, feminists spread ideas through print publications, protest rallies, and gatherings. For women without means to attend such events or in areas without access to feminist publications, information and female solidarity were lacking. Though not all women have access to the Internet today, the number who do is steadily increasing. Once connected to the Internet and social media, these women are able to share topics of interest through either public sharing or direct sharing to specific individuals. ‘Sharing’ is one of the most popular methods of promoting information because it has a viral effect, going from “person to person through connection.” This viral web of information is attention grabbing and is an effective way for feminists to quickly disseminate material to a widespread audience. Another popular method for organizing and spreading information is the hashtag. Hashtags are used on sites such as Twitter and Facebook to organize information under specific topics, thus allowing users to track trends and the usage of certain hashtags. Feminists assign hashtags to certain initiatives within the movement or issues they would like to highlight, allowing women around the world to easily follow posts associated with the movement. This makes it possible for women to remain up to date on feminist happenings, even when the movement is not covered by the mainstream news.
Use across Cultures:
Despite the interconnectedness promoted by social media use, feminists across the world utilize social media for a diverse range of purposes.
In Western countries, prominently the United States, feminists use social media to address issues that are subtly ingrained in our society. A main issue addressed by social media in the U.S. is violence and harassment against women. This issue has received prominent coverage within the last year, especially following the Elliot Rodger shootings in Isla Vista, California in May 2014. Rodger, driven by a misogynistic worldview and a desire for revenge against women, killed six people and wounded multiple others before taking his own life. The day after the shootings, May 24th, the hashtag #YesAllWomen surface online. Within twenty-four hours, the hashtag was being used 61,500 times per hour at the peak of its popularity. #YesAllWomen used the Isla Vista tragedy to illustrate that misogyny and violence against women continues to exist. Furthermore, the hashtag created a forum for open conversation about women’s experiences with harassment and male sexual entitlement. While feminist issues in the United States are more nuanced, they are often very black and white around the world.
In the Middle East, women are using social media to assert their rights in the face of continuing discrimination. Traditionally shying away from the pressure of public forums, women in the Middle East are flocking to social media to assert themselves. Women in Turkey are a prominent example. According to the Political Studies Association of the U.K., women make up 72 percent of social media users in Turkey. This online dominance was useful in July 2014, when Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Bülent Arınç, called for an end to women laughing in public. This statement was included in a speech that urged Turkish citizens to cease activities that were promoting a “moral regression” in Turkey. Immediately, women began posting photos of themselves smiling and laughing on social media in defiance of Arınç’s request. They accompanied the photos with the hashtags #kahkaha, #direnkahkaha, and #direnkadin, which translate to laughter, “Resist Laughter”, and “Resist Woman”, respectively. As a sign of solidarity with the women of Turkey, women around the world posted similar photos, including UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson. Though this issue may seem trivial, infringement of the basic right to laugh publicly is a simple example of the oppression women in certain cultures face.
Despite the good social media has done for the feminist movement, there are many critiques. A prominent criticism is that the online feminist community has become toxic. Like many social movements, there is misunderstanding and division between the movement’s supporters based on single issue interests, race, socioeconomic status, etc. Social media is making these divisions more defined and, in some cases, hostile. Critics state that online feminists quickly turn on one another for breaches of conduct, creating an atmosphere in which women are afraid to speak up out of fear of chastisement. This toxicity taints the whole movement, given that most of today’s feminist activism is being organized and promoted online.
Aside from the instances of bullying, other critics are concerned that minority groups are being underrepresented. As in the past, the majority of feminist attention is garnered by middle class, white women, despite the fact that minority issues comprise a significant portion of the feminist movement. This in turn leads to the problem of ‘privilege-checking’, in which people are reminded not to speak for others- especially people outside of the same demographic group. ‘Privilege-checking’ presents a problem because it has reached excessive heights, causing women to withhold their opinions instead of engaging in open dialogue and making honest progress.
These issues, along with others, have lead many online feminists to denounce the use of social media, stating that the feminist blogosphere is too much of an “insular, protective, brittle environment” for productive change to emerge (thenation.com).
After researching this topic, I have come to several conclusions. Firstly, despite its flaws, social media is an incredible asset to the feminist movement. The ability to share information and organize women across the world almost instantly is an invaluable tool, and one that should not be discredited. Though division exists within the movement and social media helps to exasperate those divisions, I believe that is more a fault of the social media system and less a flaw within the feminist movement. Online toxicity is not exclusive to feminism and never will be. To combat the negative atmosphere created by social media, it may be beneficial for feminists to seek a better balance between social media use and in-person efforts. By promoting in person relationships and gatherings, feminists can remove the impersonal nature of the Internet and humanize the movement. This would allow social media to remain a tool of the movement, instead of a representation of the movement in its entirety.
Secondly, I agree that the feminist movement is flawed and needs to become more inclusive. Divisions may always exist, but that does not meant that feminists cannot be understanding toward other points of view. This issue can be resolved and addressing it will ultimately make the movement stronger. Despite the flaws, I believe the contemporary feminist movement promotes relevant issues and continues to be an important part of society.
Feminism: A Photo History