Columns » Jay Barth

Feminism fuel

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In a rite that felt nearly religious, a year ago this week thousands of women voting for Hillary Clinton wore white to the polls mirroring the suffragists who fought for women's access to the ballot a century earlier. Those same women were shell-shocked and saddened by the stunning victory by Donald Trump last Nov. 8 — both because of its unexpectedness and the winner's "locker room talk" that confirmed a treatment of women that was (at best) objectification and (at worst) sexual abuse. Fascinatingly, the exhausting past year has produced a feminist moment that few would have expected when Kate McKinnon mourned Clinton's loss with a rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" to open "Saturday Night Live" the weekend after the election. While many groups targeted by Trump administration policies and pronouncements (such as immigrants and transgender Americans) have seemed very much on the defensive across the last 12 months, a moment of genuine feminist empowerment has emerged and shows little signs of abating.

The first signs of empowerment were, of course, the immense women's marches that developed spontaneously not just in Washington, D.C., but across the nation the day after Trump's inauguration. Those events were crucial in focusing in on the president as the target for the tangible challenges still facing women in the United States (the iconic pink hats, of course, have their roots in Trump's "Access Hollywood" video), in assuring participants and observers that they were clearly not alone in their sentiments, and in creating cross-generational personal connections in communities across the country.

The political engagement exhibited that day has not faded. While most Americans are following politics more closely since Trump was elected, a recent Pew Research Center poll shows that 58 percent of women are paying more attention than before while 46 percent of men are. Moreover, there are signs that more women are turning that engagement into their own races for public office at different levels, setting the stage for 2018 to become another "year of the woman" where a sharp uptick in women's political success shows itself. A recent analysis by political scientists who study women candidacies in the U.S. shows that Trump's election was a catalyst for many of these new prospective women candidates. Recently, I spoke to a group dedicated to training women to run for political office in Arkansas. The energy to run, particularly among the youngest women in the training, was palpable. Importantly, they were thinking strategically about how to turn that interest into a candidacy that gave them the greatest chance of success.

In addition, across the months and across different communications outlets, many important new voices have emerged as key explainers and critics of the Trump era — many of them women. Perhaps the most interesting new feminist voice is Lauren Duca, who weaves back and forth between traditional op-eds and a lively Twitter feed (where she now has over 350,000 followers). Her most high-profile gig is as a columnist for Teen Vogue, where she writes the weekly "Thigh High Politics." That op-ed is unique in that it mixes sharply written analyses of politics (often through a consciously gendered lens) and always closes with "to read" and "to do" lists for her readers (which have grown beyond the teen girl target audience for Teen Vogue. Yes, I'm man enough to admit that I now pop onto the Teen Vogue website.)

Traditional and social media have merged most importantly on the recent series of stories regarding sexual harassment by a growing list of media figures and politicians. Clearly, a variety of forces have combined to make this a moment when such stories have dominated the news, but Lin Farley, a journalist who helped popularize the term "sexual harassment" in 1975, pointed to Trump's presidency as a key ingredient for both the initial mainstream media coverage as well as the overnight and overwhelming #metoo movement on social media in which women of the "Mad Men"-era joined the youngest women in telling their often gut-wrenching stories: "Because of the election and because of who we elected, I think there's been an awful lot of ferment about the issue of women, women's rights, women's place in society."

The last 52 weeks have been exhausting ones. There is no reason to think that the coming weeks will be any less stress-inducing. However, particularly because of the cross-generational nature of this new feminist moment, there are many signs of hope for a more equitable America.

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