When did you first learn that “feminism” was a dirty word?  It happened to me shortly after my first sociology class when I learned about the different waves of feminism. I couldn’t wait to shout my enthusiasm from the roof-tops! I quickly realized a large sect of society does not value the feminist movement nor understand patriarchy is still very alive and well. Studying the movement made me feel like I was coming home to something I’ve always felt and known to be true. I wanted to do more to educate others, stand up for injustice, and help reshape people’s ideas about gender. 

Much of my focus throughout my academic career and later within the field of social work fell directly in line with feminist theory. I treated men legally charged with acts of domestic violence and court-mandated to complete a 12-month course as part of their sentencing. As a program facilitator, it was fascinating to learn about the societal beliefs these men held. These beliefs were not only reinforced by mainstream culture, but seeds planted by familial norms. The program curriculum consisted of strategies designed to unpack and eventually challenge men’s belief systems about women and consisted of topics to include economic privilege, gender norms, acts of intimidation, and sexuality. Since I had the uncommon opportunity to work with the members over a longer-term basis, I was able to witness the significant changes that took place within these groups. The number of men that awakened to the reality of sexism and its dangerous outcomes, such as physical, emotional, and sexual violence was stunning. What often helped fuel the change process were inquires placed upon how men wanted their daughters to be treated or how they did not want their sons to repeat their mistakes. I recall one particular member stating, “I would never want my daughter to be with a man like me.” What allowed me to embrace an open heart within this work was the chilling realization that these men internalized our culture’s messaging and were only acting in ways they were taught men ought to behave. They learned well. We now know this phenomenon as toxic masculinity and are working to rewrite the script, especially for young boys.

The re-ignition of the women’s movement in 2016 re-acquainted many women with the devastating reality that gender equality remains a lost battle. As a product of living in a patriarchal culture, we forget women still do not yet have the same rights as men and are victim of violence and oppression in ways that continue to go unrecognized. The first Women’s March was a result of a collective consciousness awakening to the destructive nature of patriarchy. On January 21, 2017 three million people boarded buses, Sharpie’d signs, and took to the streets as part of the largest protest in American history. In Washington, D.C; Boston; Buenos Aires; and beyond, marchers from 82 countries and all seven continents rose in solidarity.

Feminism is taking on a new meaning and while consumerism and its marketing campaigns about “female empowerment” are at times misguided, exposure is important. Younger women are being given permission to question stereotypes about gender and will be the ones advocating for change in the future. Third wave feminism is about challenging the more subtle instances of oppression and prejudice to include the pressure women receive about not being able to be great mothers and love their careers. Furthermore, the current dissatisfaction is not necessarily related to inequality (though this remains a core issue), but rather the country’s rising pressure to halt, or even reverse, women’s quest for that equality. Research over the course of feminism in American history point to periods of backlash triggered by the perception – accurate or not – that women are making great strides. “A backlash may be an indication that women really have had an effect,” feminist psychologist Dr. Jean Baker Miller writes. She continues, “but backlashes occur when advances have been small, before changes are sufficient to help many people. It is almost as if the leaders of backlashes use the fear of change as a threat before major change has occurred.” The following principles have a longstanding history with feminism and are associated with our current wave. 

-Ending violence of all people to include the staggering numbers of women that are murdered each day by strangers or intimate-partners

-Environmental justice

-Reproductive rights

-LGBTQ rights

-Fair compensation

-Civil rights, disability rights, and immigration rights – No human is an “alien”  

Susan Faludi writes, “Feminism asks the world to recognize at long last that women aren’t decorative ornaments, worthy vessels, members of a special interest group. Feminism’s agenda is basic: it asks that women not be forced to choose between public justice and private happiness. It asks that women be free to define themselves – instead of having their identity defined for them, time and again, by their culture and their men.” I would add the feminism “agenda” must include men allies modeling vulnerability for boys. This consists of appropriate emotional expression as well as permission to live out their soul’s desires over rehearsing society’s outdated script of what it means to be a man.

For further exploration regarding toxic masculinity and progress in this area, please watch the documentary: The Mask You Live In.