Feminist Continuity within Institutions of Higher Education

Feminism in the U.S. has endured over dramatic changes in historical, political, and cultural contexts. Although existing scholarship on the modern women’s movement has highlighted variations in mobilizing structures and dynamics, we know little about the characteristics, identities, and tactical repertoires of feminist movements today. My research on young feminists expands the existing theories that have sought to understand social movement continuity (Taylor 1989) and the changing forms and sites of women’s movement mobilization (Ferree and Mueller 2004; Staggenborg and Taylor 2005; Taylor 1996; Reger 2012; Whittier 1996).

I ask larger questions regarding the incorporation of social movements within institutions, the complexities of collective identities given the prominence of coalitions and movement cross-over, the changing dynamics of movements over time, and the multiple dimensions through which context and “place” alter movement culture.

Through interviews, participant observation, and a survey at three different college campuses (in three different regions of the country, including an Hispanic degree-granting institution and an all women’s college), I analyze the identities, networks, forms, fields of contention, and mobilizing structures of U.S. feminism today. I illuminate how college students continue to adopt feminist and activist identities and how the meanings and collective identities of feminism have changed over time.

I will address a few points from my research and conclude with a bigger picture of my research.

Feminism, Student Organizations, and Sororities 

College students in general, of course, have a long and rich history of social movement participation. At the same time, older generations of feminists often look to college age women to understand the continuity of the feminist movement. In my research, I found that institutions of higher education are generative environments for feminism and are friendly habitats (Katzenstein 1998) for feminist mobilization. Feminist students in this study had a multiplicity of opportunities to engage with feminist ideologies and to obtain funding to support their organizations. These included involvement with women’s centers, women’s studies departments, registered student groups, student government, multicultural sororities, and affiliation with large, national feminist organizations. Each of these entities created a dense feminist network at my field sites.

On each campus, members of student organizations organized for social justice on and off campus, imparted feminist ideology among their peers (much of what they learned in feminist studies classes), provided services to community members in need, and learned leadership skills. Although the campus context shaped the types of mobilization students engaged in, grievances were similar by campus. Their grievances were intersectional. They organized for the Dream Act, to make their universities more inclusive of first generation or transgender students, to reduce intimate partner violence and stalking, and to discuss gender inequality and the state of the feminist movement. However, I also found that student organizing was not confined to traditional feminist student organizations.

To provide an example, at one campus multicultural sororities with predominately Latina and Black women members were active sites of feminist mobilization. Although some have found fraternities and sororities to be sites of racism and sexism, these particular sororities created feminist networks and contributed to a larger feminist social movement community on campus. Members of multicultural sororities reported that feminism was implicit in the collective identities of their organizations. They worked to empower members, provide professional and social opportunities, and serve their community through volunteer work and outreach. Members also spoke about how their sororities articulated feminist goals and co-sponsored events with other feminist organizations, demonstrating the degree to which feminist networks have diffused in such settings.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Organizing in Colleges and Universities

The feminists and their organizations reaped numerous benefits from their university or college. In turn, feminist student organizations contributed to the college or university by supporting the mission and goals of the institution, as well as by stepping in when funding shortages emerged. In the economic downturn, student organizations occasionally filled in the gaps that other institutional entities could not cover. For example, at one university a coalition of students, including many from feminist organizations, planned a day for young women and men from low-income neighborhoods to visit the university in hopes of encouraging greater numbers of underrepresented minorities to matriculate. Students described the importance of the campaign to their feminist mobilization, and spoke about the interconnected nature of feminism and social justice. The university students were in part motivated to protest the administration’s defunding of services that would have supported the enrollment of underrepresented minorities. Nonetheless, student activists took responsibility for a diversity event that in the past was typically planned and funded by school administration.

At the same time, administrators imposed restrictions that curtailed feminist activism. For example, feminist students were very interested in activism around reproductive rights. But the fact that this is a highly contested and “political” issue meant they could not always mobilize in ways they considered the most effective. Student government affiliation prevented one feminist organization from mobilizing around any topic related to abortion in light of campus policies that forbid student money to fund “political issues.”

The Bigger Picture and What’s Next?

In this research project, I found that feminism within institutions of higher education consists of dynamic interactions between women’s studies departments, women’s centers, and a number of feminist student organizations. My survey data indicate that these structures perpetuate feminism by teaching young women about feminist ideologies and movements, activating feminist identities, and stimulating participation in feminist student organizations. The leadership skills students learned in feminist student organizations, their experience in feminist classes, and their desires to contribute to the betterment of their communities is promising to those who doubt the existence of feminism among young women.

The feminism in my research confirms that social movements may create organizational and institutional change while also realizing the broader goals of a movement (Rojas 2007, pg. 7). This perspective views institutions as being in a dynamic and interactive relationship between individuals, movement participants, and organizations. It provides a more optimistic view of the process of institutionalization of social movements than the dichotomies of institutional versus non-institutional social movements, or success and failure (Zald and Ash 1966).

The levels of mobilization and opposition at each institution of higher education complicate the arguments that student activism is most likely to occur at small or highly selective schools (Van Dyke 1998; Soule 1997). Although that may remain the case for student protest, student organizing diverges from this formulation. Student organizing is ubiquitous compared to student protest, and the generalizations based on institutional type obscure the variety of opportunities available to student organizations in different settings. A broader view of student organizing takes into consideration how feminist students mobilize and create change on their campuses, in ways other than street protest or civil disobedience. This outlook on student activism also reveals that it is ongoing and stable, and does not only occur during heightened periods of protest.

In this research project I also consider changes in tactical repertoires and variations in collective identity by context. In a forthcoming chapter based on this study co-authored with Verta Taylor, we examine how institutions are free spaces and abeyance structures. In another forthcoming publication, I argue that online feminism is critical to feminist networks and feminist consciousness among young people. Building on this, I am currently gathering data for a new project on online sexual and gender harassment, and examining how individuals and groups are mobilizing against it.


Filed under Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research, Essay Dialogues

3 responses to “Feminist Continuity within Institutions of Higher Education

  1. Pingback: Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research | Mobilizing Ideas

  2. Pingback: Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research | Mobilizing Ideas

  3. Gran trabajo .. Gracias


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