This is the first in a series of interviews I'll be posting with thought leaders on a variety of hot topics. I invite your comments and suggestions on areas of interest to you.
The Challenge: Common ground among women across generations seems lost. Has the women's movement stalled?
Deborah Siegel, PhD is the author of Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild, co-editor of Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo, co-founder of The Scholar & Feminist Online, and a blogger at Girl with Pen (http://www.girlwithpen.blogspot.com/). She has written about women, sex, feminism, contemporary families, and popular culture for a range of venues. She is currently a Fellow at the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership.
Why did you write a book called Sisterhood, Interrupted?
I wanted to better understand why older women and younger women weren't always talking to each other—or at least weren't talking in the same language—when it came to the question of what so-called modern, liberated women these days are supposed to want. I saw a number of clashpoints out there—the alleged "opt-out revolution," Girls Gone Wild, and now, of course, the election. What it comes down to is that women of different ages often have different understandings of what it means, in this country, to be powerful, or empowered. We often have different ideas of what power is and how to achieve it, of what sexism looks like and how to fight it, and what the word "feminism" itself even means anymore.
Did you find in your research that Generation Y and X women identified with the term Feminism?
A lot of younger women will say "I'm not a feminist, but…" and then go on to finish that sentence with a statement of strong feminist belief or values. What comes after the "but" is important, but I also believe that feminism is a word worth reclaiming. Words give us common ground. Without such a word it becomes difficult to unite in common cause. Words not only express, but shape the way we think. They have the power not just to name, but to change.
Why did Feminism become such a dirty word?
In part, we can blame it on the media, which gave us the oh-so-sexy image of the bra burning man hater—an image many of a younger generation absorbed. But I also think that social movements constantly need to reinvent themselves. Until recently, feminism hasn't always done such a great job.
I personally feel, and have others comment recently, that that women's progress is stalled, even moving backward. Do you agree?
There's been an illusion of progress that is unsubstantiated by the numbers. Women are still earning much less than men, only 16% of Congress is female, the number of women on corporate boards and in state legislatures has gone down marginally…and so on. And yet when you consider that women are over half the population, graduate from college and some graduate programs in rates that match and sometimes exceed men, and make most of the household purchasing decisions when it comes to consumer goods, there's a disconnect here. Women collectively have such power. But are we using it? Among other things, I think what's happened is that women are less likely to see our challenges in a larger political context than we were in the past. Tragically, we've lost the sense that so many of our remaining problems are shared.
Is it time to make the personal political, again?
Definitely. And I think younger women are starting to do this again. I've been traveling to college campuses with an intergenerational group of feminist authors this year, and it astounds me how much activism is going on at campuses these days. Younger women are searching for ways to make feminism their own, and even among the young people I talk to who support Obama, I find that the sexist response to Hillary has lit a fire. Women in leadership are still few and far between, and it's a real wake-up call. It'll be interesting to see how her example plays out for women who aspire to leadership positions across the board.
- How do you relate to the word "feminism"? What does it mean to you?
- Do you see yourself as part of any movement for the continued advancement and empowerment of women?
- Does sisterhood have a future?
- Take this quiz.
- Read Sisterhood, Interrupted for a historical overview of the fights and frenzies around feminism in America over the past 40 years, and where the movement is today.