What is Happening in the Women’s Movement Now?

BY Holly J. McCammon

In 2005, Suzanne Staggenborg and Verta Taylor published an article in Mobilization titled, “Whatever Happened to the Women’s Movement?” I remember being very intrigued not only by the title but the authors’ cogent and useful insights as well. Today this piece remains one of my favorite Mobilization articles, for a variety of reasons. The article wrestles with fundamental questions in the study of social movements, including, what is a social movement? It calls upon us to think carefully about how we define social movements, their structures, and actions. The authors offer compelling evidence that some definitions can impede our ability to see key forms of activism. The article also provides a detailed overview of feminist activism from the vantage point of the mid-2000s, a period when public collective protest events for this movement had less visibility. Yet, as these authors demonstrate, in a variety of realms of society feminist mobilization during that period of time remained bold and consequential. We just needed to understand how to see it.

Attesting to the article’s enduring qualities, it remains highly cited today. Web of Science lists Staggenborg and Taylor’s article as one of the most frequently cited Mobilization publications, and a quick Google Scholar search reveals numerous recent references to it, including Zakiya Luna’s study of reproductive justice framing and Alison Dahl Crossley’s Mobilization article on “Facebook Feminism”; even in the now intensively-digital age, Staggenborg and Taylor’s article has relevance. Elizabeth Armstrong and Mary Bernstein’s influential publication outlining their multi-institutional politics approach also references Staggenborg and Taylor, and one can see the influence of Staggenborg and Taylor on Armstrong and Bernstein’s framework. I would say that Staggenborg and Taylor’s article provides intellectual legacies we may, in fact, be underestimating.

Of course, the observations offered in 2005 by Staggenborg and Taylor about the feminist movement are also exceedingly interesting to carry into an assessment of the women’s movement today, as we witness a point in time of renewed and highly visible activism. From the 2017 Women’s March to women’s leadership in other movements to the rapid expansion of the #MeToo movement, a shift has occurred, with many commentators asking (to offer a slightly reformulated version of Staggenborg and Taylor’s title), what is happening in the women’s movement now?

But as Staggenborg and Taylor wisely advised in 2005, we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that when feminist mobilization is not in the news headlines that it is nonexistent. Prior to the recent upsurge in visible activism, many of the very elements that Staggenborg and Taylor describe in 2005 were operational and many of these elements are what helped fuel the recent upsurge. For instance, Staggenborg and Taylor tell us, even as the second-wave public protests quieted by the early 1980s, many feminist organizations continued their work and new groups emerged as well. When the first Women’s March occurred in 2017 across U.S. cities and towns (and well beyond the U.S. too) feminist organizations, including Planned Parenthood, CODEPINK, and the National Organization for Women provided critical infrastructure that aided in organizing (Berry and Chenoweth; McKane and McCammon). Moreover, Jo Reger’s research demonstrates the continuity of feminist community-level activism in the years since the surge of the second wave, and substantial organizing in the anti-Trump resistance seems tied to these grassroots women’s networks (Putnam and Skocpol).

I would be remiss to overlook Staggenborg and Taylor’s additional observation that women’s movement second-wave activism as well as feminist efforts in the decades that followed have altered the broader culture, in some very basic ways. The women’s movement has changed attitudes and beliefs, so that more people now support gender equality, oppose gender stereotypes and the sexual objectification of women, and value an intersectional approach to understanding discrimination against women. As Reger tells us, “feminism has diffused into the culture … it is everywhere” (p. 3). Even some conservative women today embrace the feminist label (Schreiber). And it was precisely this broader acceptance of feminist beliefs, a product of prior women’s activism, that helped launch the 2017 Women’s March, with many people outraged that a man who made such derogatory statements about women was elected. These feminist beliefs and their broader acceptance also helped power the expansion of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, a movement demanding an end to sexual abuse of women.

Staggenborg and Taylor name other locations where feminist beliefs and activism could be found in the mid-2000s, and these other types of mobilizations, too, contribute to women’s movement action today. Staggenborg and Taylor point to institutional feminist activists, who work inside organizations as insider activists, as carriers of the women’s movement into workplaces, educational and religious institutions, and the government, to name just some of the important arenas where insider feminists are active. For example, scholars (GronertStake) suggest that within colleges and universities insider feminist faculty and administrators often in women’s and gender studies programs, but in other disciplinary domains as well (including sociology), can play important roles in shaping their schools’ anti-sexual violence policies and fostering activism among students.  In recent years, we have seen renewed activism among especially students to fight this abuse of women on campus (Whittier).

Finally, in their 2005 article, Staggenborg and Taylor encourage us to see feminism within other social movements. Cathy Cohen and Sarah Jackson’s discussion of Black feminism in the Black Lives Matter movement is a case in point. Cohen and Jackson consider the BLM movement’s grievances, leadership, goals, and diverse membership, including its trans and queer members. Their discussion helps us see the important impacts of Black feminism in this movement. Similarly, Heather McKee Hurwitz and Verta Taylor’s study of feminism and gender conflict within the Occupy movement reveals women and trans individuals’ resistance of male dominance in the movement encampments. The list of feminists within other social movements could go on, and it would be quite lengthy (e.g., Flores-González et al.;  Kimport;Resurrección).

Staggenborg and Taylor’s 2005 article, “Whatever Happened to the Women’s Movement,” provides an important lens through which to see and understand feminism and feminist activism in the United States (and beyond), in both seemingly quieter times and during periods of visible public protest, like the one we are seeing today. Staggenborg and Taylor’s pivotal article provides a map of places to look for women’s activism, from the obvious to the sometimes less visible. Their article, written some 20 years ago now, helps guide the research of many women’s movement scholars today, including my own. Staggenborg and Taylor ask us to consider what constitutes a social movement and they then center women’s activism as they help us arrive at a fully inclusive definition of collective action.

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