Costello: With young women on board, feminism rebounds

Carol Costello


Happy birthday, Gloria Steinem! The “Face of Feminism” turned 80 on March 25, and guess what? Feminism seems to be turning the corner – again. Many young women are now embracing the term and rejecting the notion that feminists are hairy, ugly, man-hating, angry women. Heck, even Beyonce appeared on the cover of Steinem’s magazine, Ms., last year. And lest critics point to Beyonce’s overt sexuality as evidence of her hypocrisy, this year Queen Bey took it a step further and wrote an essay for “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink.” In it, Beyonce Knowles-Carter (note the hyphenated name!) proclaimed that “gender equality is a myth!” She went on to write, “the average working woman earns only 77 percent of what the average working man makes. But unless women and men both say this is unacceptable, things will not change.” A few years ago, Emma Watson told People magazine of her “Harry Potter” character, “Hermione’s not scared to be clever. I think sometimes really smart girls dumb themselves down a bit, and that’s bad.” Watson added she’s a lot like Hermione: “I’m a bit of a feminist. I’m very competitive and challenging.” That’s not to say all young women feel the same. Or certain older men. Rush Limbaugh perverts the word “feminist” all the time. He likes to call his targets “feminist extremists” and “feminazis.” In 2012, Limbaugh took on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke. She testified before Congress about the need for her Jesuit university to provide contraception insurance coverage for female students. She even admitted to being an “American woman who uses contraceptives.” Oh, my! Limbaugh promptly labeled her a “feminazi” and a “slut.” Or to quote the big man himself: “So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.” It so evokes Bobby Riggs, right? A pro tennis player who, on Sept. 20, 1973, challenged Billie Jean King to a tennis match because “the best way to handle women is to keep them barefoot and pregnant.” Courtney Martin, author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters and co-editor of, a widely read and influential feminist blog, says many young women have been afraid of the word “feminist” because it’s been the target of a powerful smear campaign for decades. But, thanks largely to the Internet, smears like Limbaugh’s are losing their power. At, she says, “we get mail from teenaged girls in the middle of Iowa who say, ‘I stumbled on your site and realized feminism isn’t about man-hating and Birkenstocks.’ They say it’s actually ‘kind of cool and counter-cultural.’” Wow. Really? Martin says yes. Because today’s feminist movement realized it had to embrace aesthetics. Beauty and fun and relationships matter, too. So does the cool factor. Jon Stewart, anyone? Stewart has a cultural agenda, he’s cool, and young people follow him in droves. Jessica Valenti, an author sometimes described as a feminist evangelist, says that when she delivered talks on feminism on college campuses a few years ago, one or two hands went up when she asked who considered themselves a feminist. Today, she says, “now almost all of them do.” And, says Martin, it’s not just because of “cool” or contraception or abortion rights. It’s because of a more evolved definition of feminism. “Feminism means a fight for others,” Martin said. It’s about living a “feminist life.” That means equality for everyone: women, children and, yes, men. That includes advocating on issues like immigration, human trafficking and so much more. Perhaps Lena Chen, an activist and media commentator for Salon, Glamour and her own blog, put it best. “In my lifetime feminism has evolved far beyond the binary identity politics of women vs. men,” she wrote in an email. “To me, feminism is one part of a larger global movement for liberation. Gender norms dictating how you ought to behave, dress, marry, or work are oppressive regardless of what body you inhabit or how you identify yourself.” She says social media have helped many young activists in her generation speak with powerful voices. They no longer need one “figurehead” in “order to create change.” They just need each other. So, happy birthday, Gloria. As we celebrate your long and productive life, feminism has indeed turned a corner. We’ll have to see how far it has gone when you turn 90. Or 100.

Carol Costello is a news anchor on the Cable News Network. This column was distributed by CNN.