Our ears rang with feminism’s definition when Beyoncé dropped her “Flawless” track in 2014. There it was—right in our faces and in simple terms. “Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes,” echoed the voice of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There was no disputing this tried-and-true definition amidst the grooves of an empowering, up-tempo anthem.
Whether you spend your days on campus discussing the gender wage gap with anybody who’ll listen, or you are still grappling with how that label applies to you, it’s important to know where the feminist movement originated from, misconceptions associated with feminism, and what it means to be a modern feminist.
A brief lesson in feminism
It is common to speak of the feminist movement in terms of three phases. The first wave of feminism is characterized by events during the late 19th century to the early 20th century. During this period, women fought for basic rights, such as the right to vote and the right to own property. Second wave feminism began in the 1960s and continued into the 1990s. Social equality was the focus here, with the fight for sexual and reproductive rights at the forefront of the movement. The mid-1990s and on marks the period known as third wave feminism, in which combatting sexual objectification and gender-based harassment is the top priority.
According to Dr. Diane Balser, co-director of undergraduate studies for women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Boston University, feminism is “an organized social movement that challenges the subordination of women.” Despite feeling there has never been one solid, agreed-upon definition or ideology behind feminism, she believes fighting sexism is what has united all supporters of the cause throughout the years.
“Sexism toward females is the underlying basis of feminism. People add all sorts of other issues and they have different philosophies, but to me sexism has to be at the core,” explains Balser.
Racism, classism and other oppressions can also overlap with feminism. Nevertheless, working to eliminate gender discrimination and inequality is what’s at the center of the movement. Today, the rise of sexual violence on college campuses has been a prevalent issue that Dr. Balser says she sees concerning students. This, coupled with the desire to see equal treatment between women and men, is helping prompt college feminists to join the ranks of feminists of the past.
Feminism, as defined by collegiettes
Feminism is often given a bad rep, having associations with bra-burning, unshaven legs and man-bashing stereotypes. But the college feminist of today is far from a man-hater ready to throw her Victoria’s Secret underthings into a bursting flame. Instead, many collegiettes adhere to the textbook definition of feminism, supporting the equality of both men and women—not a woman’s superiority over a man.
“To me, feminism means gender equality,” says Megan Sweet, a junior at Michigan State University. “It means both women and men having equal opportunities and mutual respect for one another.”
For many collegiettes, feminism’s definition is as simple as that, with gender equality being of the utmost importance. But to some college feminists, there’s more to the movement. For Sara Heath, a senior at Assumption College, there is way too much focus on one gender versus the other. She believes the movement is really about showcasing a woman’s value.
“Being a feminist means showing people that the most important thing about me is what is in my head and my heart,” said Sara. “All I want as a woman is to be valued for my passion and my intellect.”
Challenges with identifying as a feminist
Feminism’s negative stereotypes have made it difficult for some collegiettes to identify with the movement. They admit they’ve been hesitant in the past to proudly speak up as feminists even if they believed they were supporters of the cause. Dani Kluss, a freshman at California Lutheran University, recalls an incident in which she was reluctant to raise her hand in class when a presenter asked who was a feminist.
“Many people think that feminists are men-hating, men-shaming, slut-shaming and bossy,” Kluss says of the stereotype.
After a deep breath, she said she shot her hand into the air, only to find that only one other student joined her in identifying as a feminist. Feminism can be often perceived as an angry movement, which keeps many students from speaking out in favor of its cause. Without an accurate understanding of the movement, many college students may believe identifying as a feminist means saying they believe women are better than men. Out of this fear of placing one gender over the other, many collegiettes have rejected openly presenting themselves as feminists.
“I wasn’t a feminist at all going into freshman year, because I associated it with so many negative stereotypes I had learned growing up,” says Annie Blanks, a senior at Sewanee. “But now that I'm a senior, have taken women's studies courses, made friends from all around the country and have experienced the world through traveling and study abroad, feminism has become a central part of my identity.”
It is difficult for many to look past the aggressive stigmas associated with feminism. In reality, though, it’s a positive movement that is inclusive to improving the lives of all, explains Julie Zeilinger, author of A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism is Not a Dirty Word.
“It doesn’t seek to angrily attack certain groups, but rather attempts to create the type of world we all would ideally like to live in,” says Zeilinger.
Simply learning feminism’s true definition can be a game changer when deciding whether or not to identify as a feminist. Rachel Petty, a sophomore at James Madison University, quickly changed her mind about feminism once she realized feminists are not sexist.
“Once I learned the real definition a few years ago, I now always identify as a feminist,” said Rachel. “Feminism means women getting the same rights as men, not hating men.”
Why collegiettes embrace feminism
While some shy away from the thought of being a feminist, many collegiettes believe sharing their voices is the only way to solicit change (after all, if a 4-year-old can stand up for herself, then so can we!). Katie Barry, a Boston University sophomore, says she’s always challenging her peers to question the gender system in place by expressing herself and encouraging others to do the same.
“I would absolutely consider myself a feminist,” says Katie. “Ambition, success, leadership, and confidence are associated with masculinity, but I choose to openly chase all of those things, red lipstick in tow.”
Despite the strides women have made, the social and economic inequality still present encourages many college students to support feminism. Sarah Beth Kaye, a senior at Rutgers University, is passionate about being a community organizer for gender equality. She insists an environment in which women can thrive and succeed is only possible if women are free from the same criticisms that don’t affect their male counterparts.
“Women need to work together to ensure the safety of all women and to create an environment of support for women to grow intellectually, socially, and politically throughout their university career,” said Sarah.
Aleixka Macfie-Hernendez, a sophomore at James Madison University, is also proud to call herself a feminist, emphasizing that feminists aren’t seeking to overpower males.
“When I graduate and land the job of my dreams, I want an equal pay band. I want to be promoted and be told that I too can be considered as the head of the household, the one who also has the opportunity to provide for the family,” says Aleixka.
Like Aleixka, many collegiettes believe it is necessary to embrace feminism in order to prove women can do anything men can do. There’s nothing wrong with channeling our inner Elle Woods and going against what’s expected of us—all while wearing heels and a skirt, too, if we so choose!
The college feminist of today
Many collegiettes believe that you cannot pinpoint what today’s feminist looks like, despite the stereotypes continued from the past. They agree that college feminists are simply comfortable in their own skin and are free to express themselves the way they see fit.
“The college feminist is likely sitting next to you and you don’t even know it. There’s no standard for what one looks like,” says Zarah Kavarana, a women’s studies minor at Boston University.
What she enjoys most about modern or third wave feminism is its inclusion of men, whose support she believes is a key to gender equality. Zeilinger would agree that today’s collegiettes are enthusiastic about embracing intersectionality and male feminists more so than the feminists of the past.
“I think the college-aged feminist is arguably more dedicated to being inclusive of all and approaching feminism from an intersectional framework than ever before,” Zeilinger says, adding, “Our generation understands that in order for any of us to progress, we all must progress together and are committed to making this happen.”
She has observed that the power of the Internet has largely shaped modern-day feminism.
Blogging, social media-based activism, and forms of online organization have helped connect college feminists more than ever. They follow in the footsteps of first and second wave feminists, all while joining forces with their male counterparts and ignoring the negative stereotypes of the past.
Being a feminist in college doesn’t mean you have to be a feminism expert or fit into a certain mold. With the movement being as inclusive as it is, it’s okay, too, to have questions about identifying as a feminist—just keep an open mind, ask questions, and be informed about what the movement is trying to achieve. We’ll say this, though—as long as you believe in equality no matter what your gender or gender identity, you are certainly a feminist—even Queen Bey herself will back you up on that.