Date of Degree

9-2016

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Sociology

Advisor

Barbara Katz Rothman

Committee Members

Pamela Stone

William Kornblum

Subject Categories

Family, Life Course, and Society | Gender and Sexuality | Inequality and Stratification | Politics and Social Change | Quantitative, Qualitative, Comparative, and Historical Methodologies | Sociology of Culture | Sports Studies

Keywords

feminism, college students, gender studies

Abstract

The perceived lack of interest in feminism among “millennials” is a subject of continued debate in sociological literature as well as public discourse. While the U.S. women’s movement of the 1960's and ‘70s can claim some success in reducing educational and professional barriers, legalizing abortion, and transforming conceptions of sex/gender both in academia and in the wider culture, numerous obstacles to gender equality remain. Indeed, the paradox of the second-wave is that it was successful in so many respects that young women and men coming of age today might assume that gender equality is a fait accompli. For scholars and activists who remain committed to the contemporary feminist movement, one challenge is to bridge the gulf between older and younger feminists, who often lack understanding of one another’s experiences and perspectives. This dissertation speaks to that challenge by studying college students’ attitudes with regard to: (i) gender roles, (ii) feminism as an ideology, (iii) feminism as a social identity, and (iv) feminism as a social movement. This mixed-methods study problematizes the use of the word “feminist” in social science research and captures a snapshot of its various definitions from the perspective of millennial college students. Drawing on 2010-2016 survey data of 916 undergraduates at four U.S. universities and 63 semi-structured interviews with students from this sample, I investigate how college students interpret feminist ideology and apply it in their everyday social interactions. The results of this study indicate that a gender gap persists relative to identification with feminism. Overall, 68 percent of females and 34 percent of males identified with feminism in open-ended surveys. In comparison, 88 percent of females and 67 percent of males identified with feminism when a basic definition was offered. Thus, in the absence of a definition, the majority of females did identify with feminism, while the majority of males did not. On the other hand, the majority of both females and males did identify with feminism as an ideology of gender equality when provided a definition. My findings indicate that the definition gap in identification with feminism is largely attributable to four sets of beliefs: (i) the belief that feminists are activists, (ii) the belief that feminists are extremists, (iii) the belief that feminists are anti-male, and (iv) the belief that only women can be feminists. For millennials, these beliefs have been shaped by growing up in the era of “postfeminism,” a neoliberal ideology that emerged in the 1990s, shifting focus from the society to the individual and celebrating consumerism while discouraging activism. Additionally, anti-feminist attitudes that emerged during the Reagan-Bush era linger into the second decade of the twenty-first century, casting feminists as anti-male extremists and promoting a variety of negative stereotypes. My research indicates that postfeminist and anti-feminist rhetoric continues to impact young people’s willingness to identify with the “feminist” label, especially for males. I employ social identity theory to contextualize these students’ resistance to feminist identification. This dissertation also draws on abeyance theory to situate contemporary feminism as a social movement relative to current political opportunity structures. Finally, the students in this study identified four key areas of gender inequality, which shape the body of this dissertation: (i) gender and work/family, (ii) gender and sport, (iii) rape culture, and (iv) body projects. This dissertation builds on the literature in feminism, gender and work, social identity, social movements, cultural studies, and the sociology of sport.

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