Column: Why millennial women don’t want to call themselves feminists

How dare they?

Much to everyone’s surprise, recent polls show that a significant majority of millennial women plan to vote for Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton. In response, feminist heavy-hitters such as Gloria Steinem and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lost no time in scolding young women for their perceived treachery.

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” warned Albright at a Clinton rally. On the “Real Time with Bill Maher” show, Steinem suggested younger women were backing Sanders just so they could meet young men. She quipped, “When you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.'” (Steinem later apologized.)

Sanders draws strong support from millennials, because he represents to them someone who will solve the problems that most directly impact their lives — student loan debt, free college tuition, better job market. Ironically, they seem to be unaware that Clinton plans to tackle those very same issues, albeit in different ways. They’ve bought the message that a vote for Clinton is a vote for “the establishment.”

And could it be that some women shun Clinton because of competitiveness? This phenomenon, in which women simultaneously hold other women to higher standards, and then penalize them for reaching those standards, often plagues highly successful women. We see this kind of thing all the time in academia, where female professors routinely get lower teaching ratings than their male colleagues, particularly from female students.

But my reading of this phenomenon is more forgiving of millennials. I think their distrust actually represents an indictment of modern day feminism.

Riddle me this: Why do the vast majority of Americans believe in equality for women in the workplace and the home, yet refuse to call themselves “feminists”?

A 2013 Huffington Post/YouGov poll showed that only 23 percent of women and 16 percent of men consider themselves feminists — even though 82 percent of both genders believe “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.”

If this state of affairs does not seem like a contradiction to you, then consider the dictionary definition of feminism: “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities; the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.”

Should we chalk up this apparent contradiction as yet another example of human irrationality? I don’t think so, for three reasons:

1. The current generation has rarely experienced institutionally and legally sanctioned sexism.

First-wave feminists were the suffragettes who fought to give women the vote.  The majority of second-wave feminists (like me) were women of the 1960s and 1970s who believed that the rights and privileges of citizenship should not be curtailed on the basis of gender. We acted on these beliefs by fighting to improve women’s socioeconomic and educational opportunities, and to improve women’s access to reproductive health care (such as birth control and abortion). We wanted life to be fairer and better for ourselves and for future generations of women. Philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers refers to these feminists as “equity feminists.”

But, ironically, it is the very triumphs of second-wave equity feminism that lead young women to believe feminism has nothing to do with them. They have never faced a world in which employment ads were neatly divided into high-paying “Help Wanted: Male” and low-paying “Help Wanted: Female” categories, where women were forbidden entry into top-tier colleges like Harvard and Yale, where birth control was difficult to get and abortion was illegal. These scenarios sound like science fiction to today’s young women rather than descriptions of recent history.

2. The term “feminism” has been hijacked by a minority of vocal extremists who have redefined it as “gender feminism,” claiming that gender is a patriarchal social construct created in order to oppress women.

Gender feminism is based on the discredited belief that humans are born as blank slates and all sex differences are artifacts of socialization. They believe the only way to achieve true political and economic equality is to erase all differences between men and women by rigidly socializing boys and girls to be the same.

Gender feminism is very much alive and well in American colleges and universities, housed within many Women and Gender studies programs. And it is there that some young women decide to distance themselves from the term. Barnard College student Toni Airaksinen recently blogged about her experiences in such a program:

In one year, I took three Women’s Studies classes. My professors taught me that, because I was a woman, I was victimized and oppressed. Prior to enrolling, I did not see myself that way…Mentioning anything that didn’t support the notion that females were unilaterally oppressed would be akin to blasphemy.

As gender feminists try to inculcate a psychology of victimhood in their students, the progress second-wave equity feminists accomplished is slowly eroding. Planned Parenthood is under attack and was nearly defunded, putting the lives of millions of poor women and their children at risk. Abortion clinics are bombed, and abortions rights are so greatly curtailed that doctors must perform invasive and unnecessary ultrasounds. And women continue to earn less than men in the broader workplace.

3. “Feminist” has come to mean “careerist” — competing with men in the workplace on men’s terms.

This implies that stay-at-home mothers cannot be feminists and that women must put career ahead of family in order to compete.

This phenomenon can be traced to a shameful chapter in second-wave feminism. Shulamith Firestone declared “Pregnancy is barbaric.” Ellen Willis admitted that “I saw having children as the great trap that completely took away your freedom.” Gloria Steinem described her mother as spiritually broken by giving up her career as a journalist to raise her children.

Within the confines of the traditional workplace, where men were the breadwinners and women’s place was in the home, careers are meant to be unbroken, rising trajectories. We are expected to claim our turf and prove ourselves in our 20s and 30s and move into positions of greater prestige, power and authority in our 40s and beyond.

This, of course, leaves no room for forming and caring for young families. Hitting the “pause” button in mid-career to raise a family makes it difficult if not impossible to resume one’s career later. The time spent raising the next generation of taxpayers and entrepreneurs will be seen as time wasted, and your resume will be deep-sixed for “lack of initiative.” Too often, this is true even if “hitting pause” simply means going part-time or requesting fewer travel demands.

To bring this point home, consider the results of the Harvard and Beyond Project conducted by economists Claudia Goldin, Lawrence Katz, Naomi Hausman and Bryce Ward, a project that tracked three cohorts of female Harvard graduates (1970, 1980 and 1990) 15 years after they received their degrees. The striking impact of children on women’s careers was apparent. Among those who had no children and a law degree, 83 percent were employed full time. For those who had one child, only 64 percent were employed full time, and for those who had two or more, fewer than half (49 percent) were employed full time. These values were the same for MBAs, PhDs, physicians, dentists and veterinarians.

Goldin explains the wage and career-ladder gap this way: “Quite simply the gap exists because hours of work in many occupations are worth more when given at particular moments and when the hours are more continuous.” As Goldin points out, what is needed is a system that rewards the amount of work accomplished rather than when the work is accomplished. The current system rewards work done early in one’s career far more heavily than work done subsequently.

Our double-income marriages had another unforeseen impact on the entire country and economy: a red-hot housing market. According to Elizabeth Warren and co-author Amelia Warren Tyagi, today’s two-income family earns 75 percent more money than its single-income counterpart of a generation ago, but actually has less discretionary income once their fixed monthly bills are paid. This is because higher family incomes triggered a ferocious bidding war for housing and education among the middle class.

Housing and tuition prices skyrocketed, which now means that there must be two wage earners in the family because it is virtually impossible for families to live a middle-class existence on only one middle-class paycheck.

So this is how we live today, aptly described by William Falk, the editor in chief of The Week:

As I write this, my wife, Karla, is on a business trip to Chicago, and I am in the 15th hour of a day that began at 6 am … On days like this, I think back to seeing my successful dad walking home from work nearly every day at 5:30 pm. My stay-at-home mom had dinner in the oven; my brother and I ate with our parents, and we all spent a leisurely evening together. How 20th century. Today, the world is globalized, profit-driven, hyper-competitive; our employers run lean, demanding more and more hours from those of us who haven’t been pruned (yet). We must carefully ration any time spent on our kids, our spouses, ourselves. In return for our relentless productivity, our “standard of living” has risen: We get to buy cooler devices, nicer cars, more stuff. We are so much richer and more fulfilled. Aren’t we?

Second-wave equity feminists smashed the barriers to greater political, educational and economic opportunities for women. The new challenge for third- and fourth- wave feminism is to take back the term from radical gender feminists and to take back our personal lives from an unyielding workplace.