The Daily Beast recently polled  1,000 US voters about sexism in the 2008 elections. For me, the most striking poll result was that only 20 percent of women are willing to use the word “feminist” about themselves, and only 17 percent of all voters said they would welcome their daughters using that label. Yet, more than 60 percent of women believe there is a gender bias in the media, and two-thirds say they are treated unfairly in the work place. So, what gives? What accounts for this disparity? Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff on the Women’s Space blog reminds us  that “[t]he word ‘feminism’ has been co-opted by all sorts of groups and individuals and organizations that are anything but feminist, and it’s confusing, discouraging, and irritating.” Okay, true, but I believe the disconnect is mostly one of timing.
When I left my parents’ house to make my way in the world, all I saw was the garish sparkle of opportunities guaranteed by law. At the same time, I was more susceptible to the zeitgeist of popular culture—what’s cool and what’s not—and also tended to be more sensitive about how other people viewed me. I think I regarded myself as a feminist, but truth be told, depending on where I was, the company I was keeping and who was doing the asking, I could very well have scoffed at the idea of feminism. I just didn’t give it a lot of thought because I couldn’t see the need. I think I was typical. And for the generations of women who came of age after the Reagan era, the zeitgeist winds blew colder every year for feminism, making it that much easier for them to casually turn their backs.
It was only after working and taking on the crushing responsibility of my family that I began to notice the growing number of obstacles in the way of my ability to conduct my life—the gender politics in the workplace, the difficulty of finding childcare, working out healthcare for aging parents, protecting my impressionable daughter from unhealthy stereotypes in the media, to name a few. These obstacles were infrastructural and extremely difficult to deal with for many reasons, the most obvious to me being the fact that most of the people best positioned to do so were men.
With a few years of life experience under my belt, I could begin to appreciate the role the women’s movement continues to play in fighting for those changes. I started to make that connection, but many women never do. When they’re overloaded by the demands of work and family, taking that extra step to find out how feminism—a theory, a movement, whatever—is related to those issues is asking for too much.
But while women may have no time for feminism, we are living the issues and policies that shape our society and directly affect our lives. So what’s that like? Decades after the feminist revolution, still not so good, it turns out. Linda Basch, president of National Council for Research on Women, tells us , “One out of eight women in the United States lives in poverty. Women disproportionately receive subprime mortgages. Women also hold more minimum wage jobs (68 percent) than men. Half of the work force, of which women make up 48 percent, does not have not one single paid sick day.” Beyond our personal experiences, in this country, women as a whole still need to help ourselves.
If the purpose of the women’s movement is to improve lives for women, perhaps we could cut to the chase and spend less energy worrying about who’s willing to call themselves a feminist—about the “-ism” in feminism, as it were—and more on bringing about change, which is after all feminism’s original and paramount purpose. And for the first time in history, to rally women to participate in change, organizers don’t need to jump up and down to get a piece of their thinly-spread attention to write letters to the editor or to their congressional representative, or, harder yet, to physically demonstrate. Such methods are still important, but where they pull in tens of thousands, organizing over the Internet can turn out untold millions.
And what does “turning out” mean over the Internet? At its most basic and more powerful level, I believe it’s encouraging women to continue do exactly what they’re already doing—sending email, participating online forums, writing blogs, twittering—but doing so with intention, where there is an awareness that, with everything we write, every opinion we share, we are joining our voices and ratcheting up the pressure for change. As mismeta at the Adventures at Midlife blog points out , “I think it’s time to us women to start speaking up—in ways small and large, gentle and forthright, local and national—instead of hoping that our sheer numbers are going to speak for us.”