Millennials. We might not vote in elections, but at least we have “woke” attitudes toward social conventions such as dating. Or do we? There’s a new survey circulating which, according to USA Today, shows most single people today believe “feminism has changed dating for the better.”
But I’m not sure that’s what the survey, conducted by Singles in America, actually reveals. Yes, a majority of men and women said that feminism has been good for dating. That said, a majority of the more than 5,000 respondents could not even agree on what “feminism” means.
Just forty-seven percent of single women, and thirty-seven percent of single men, said they defined feminism as women being equal to men. Which is odd, given that USA Today uses “feminism” and “the rise of gender equality” interchangeably in its write-up of the survey.
Quite a lot of singles—forty-three percent, according to the survey—said feminism “means a lot of different things,” which seems like a polite way of saying, “I’m not sure what it means,” something only six percent were willing to admit.
“The definition of feminism seems fairly straightforward,” writes Mary Bowerman. Meaning: gender equality. That’s a good definition! Would that it was so. But anyone who has spent any time on the internet, or on a college campus, or in an argument with someone who publicly identifies as a feminist, knows it’s not that simple.
Tristan Bridges, an assistant sociology professor at the College at Brockport, State University of New York, explained as much in an interview with USA Today.
“Feminism may be about pay equality, while for others it’s about immigrant rights,” Bridges said. “When we talk about feminism in mass media it’s treated as one thing, but in the classroom we talk about feminisms, because there are lots of feminisms and fem-theories, and feminists have disagreed about what the future looks like since feminism was invented.”
Got that? Feminism is about gender equality, or immigration, or whatever you want it to be. In political discourse, the meaning of the word is often stretched beyond recognition to mean “opposition to everything my political adversaries support.”
For example, because Republicans are supposedly literally waging a “war on women,” you can’t be a feminist and support conservative politicians or policies. Advocating for “limited government” is anti-women because women are employed by the government and pay taxes and receive government benefits, and so on.
One reason so few people know what feminism means is because, as Bridges pointed out, feminists are constantly arguing about what it means to be a feminist, or even what it means to support “gender equality.”
Take, for example, the ongoing feud between so-called “radical feminists” and other factions of the modern left, such as transgender activists. As Michelle Goldberg reported in 2014, the “Radfems” were being viciously attacked at the time over their desire to ban prostitution, and their refusal to accept transgender women as actual women.
One would hope it would be possible to identify as feminist without taking a side in such squabbles. Being a feminist should not preclude someone from supporting entitlement reform, or changing the channel when the WNBA playoffs comes on, or declining to attack journalists for poking holes (through diligent reporting) in the Rolling Stone “Rape on Campus” article. Certainty, being a feminist should not require venting one’s outrage at the “patriarchy” after watching that viral video of the BBC pundit whose children interrupted his interview on South Korea.
We should be able to agree on a generic (and benign) definition of feminism that works for everybody—a sort of general acknowledgement that, yes, women face a lot of challenges that men don’t, and many, or even most, of these challenges are unfair; efforts to address and mitigate such challenges as much as possible are, generally speaking, a good thing.
But it’s not so simple. I’m still not entirely sure whether holding a door open for a woman, or offering to pay for the check on a date, is polite or oppressive. The answer will differ depending on whom you ask. Can men ever say anything of value on the topic of feminism? Probably not. Who knows?
As usual, politics and polarization have gummed up the works. Liberals, and the rabbit hole of identity politics, have confounded the issue beyond recognition. At the same time, conservatives can be too quick to dismiss some of the more benign iterations of feminism as typical snowflake whining. The Internet provides a great forum for people to yell at each other, so that’s helpful.
In any event, it seems rather ambitious to claim today’s singles are thrilled about how feminism has improved the dating experience when most of them can’t agree on what it means, and probably won’t anytime soon. Trying to define it on a first date is probably inadvisable, but by all means, stay woke out there.