Scholar peers into the feminist generation gap

Jason Schnittker

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

Generation gaps are often cited as the reason for different tastes in cars, clothing and music. Now, Jason Schnittker, the Janice and Julian Bers Assistant Professor of Sociology, has asserted that a slight generation gap explains the decrease among younger women who identify themselves as feminists.

Working with colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Indiana University, Schnittker recently published a paper in the American Sociological Review where he wrote that young adults are much less likely to identify themselves as feminists than adults who came of political age during the “second wave” of feminism in the early 1970s.

Schnittker said that young women at that time “easily attached their beliefs to their identity.” The immense social and political changes that occurred at that time, such as Title IX reform and Roe v. Wade, helped to define feminism for women between the ages of 18 and 27—the time when people usually experience a political coming-of-age. “Those watershed events are the critical link between their ideology and their identity,” he said.

Schnittker and his colleagues used the 1996 General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center to seek answers to a few sweeping questions about feminist self-identity. Not only did Schnittker pose a question about generational differences, he also wondered about the self-identifying label of “feminist” with respect to race and gender.

While it came as no surprise to Schnittker that fewer men than women identify themselves as feminists, the number of men who do so has dipped. This has followed the same slight generation gap as self-identification in women.

The team also found that the effects of marital, parental and employment status were minimal on feminist self-identification and that race does not play a role: black women and men are no more or less likely to call themselves feminists than white women and men. “That was a surprise to me,” said Schnittker. “Typically [feminism] has been thought of as a white, middle-class movement.”

Of course, different groups may define feminism in varying ways. Today’s young women who are engaged in issues of equality are presented with a different set of challenges and can boast about a different set of accomplishments then feminists during the 1970s. Schnittker added that support for feminist issues of equal rights and pay has hardly taken a backseat, but that the persistence of negative terms such as “femi-Nazi” and “the ‘f’ word” may also have deterred many young feminists from identifying themselves as such.

Currently, Schnittker is writing a paper on women’s health trends between 1974 and 2000, and is examining changes in women’s employment health benefits.

Originally published on January 29, 2004