In written responses to the question "Are you a feminist?" all of my male students, and most of the women, answered no. But many of the women's responses were followed by "but." They wrote, "No, but I don't think it is right about the different standards," and "No, but I do believe in some of their beliefs about equality," and "I believe in women's rights, but I am not as headstrong as some people." Of the "yes" answers, one added "I guess," and another wrote, "I'm not going to burn my bra or anything."
When I read that last one, I started to think about where students get their ideas about feminism. In the news media they hear debates questioning whether Madonna is a feminist, which is a whole lot sexier than wondering why only 20 states have laws requiring insurers or employers to cover prescription contraceptives when other prescriptions are covered. And, no doubt, Rush Limbaugh ranting about "feminazis" is far more quotable than a working mother talking about her search for good day care.
The work of feminism comes to these students in bits and pieces for which they have no context. They've heard Geraldine Ferraro's name, but they don't seem bothered that it has taken their whole lives for the appearance of another serious female presidential or vice-presidential candidate. While they are taught more about women than was any past generation, they aren't taught about feminism as a movement, as the evolution of political and social thought and action.
Students can name a few plot points and characters in the history of feminism, but they miss its themes and deeper meaning. They might read about the Seneca Falls convention, or about Eleanor Roosevelt or Sandra Day O'Connor. But those are blips on the cultural radar, photos in the history books, distinct moments in time. Feminism, to these students, is not action, not even a way of seeing the world. Instead it is a few events, radical and divisive at the time, now just something that happened long ago, something with no connection to their lives. And feminists are the bra-burning, hairy-legged, man-hating lesbians, with their signs and their raised fists, who were there.
The Chronicle of Higher Education: What Feminism Means to Today's Undergraduates