Is "Hashtag Feminism" Inevitable?

Worries over contemporary feminism reflect the unavoidable dilemmas of a largely successful social movement.

By Nathan Pippenger

In the new book Feminism Unfinished, Astrid Henry labels the latest generation of the women’s rights movement, active since the 1990s, “hashtag feminism.” Elaine Showalter, in a review, worries about its fragmenting effect on the movement:

…Henry also admits that “the most defining feature of this generation of feminists is its inability to be defined by any single political goal, ideological perspective, or way of being feminist.” Hashtag feminism “runs the risk of being merely an identity to claim without any political content.” Perhaps, Henry suggests, the diversity and flexibility of “a million little grass-roots movements” are stronger than “one singular vision for social change.” She points to demonstrations, foundations and fundraising as examples of 21st-century feminist activism. Still, she acknowledges concerns that “feminism as a concept is now so watered-down as to be meaningless.”

I share that concern. In my view, a mass movement requires a clear goal, compelling enough to unite people across the dividing lines of race, class, age, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity, and to persuade them to work collectively to achieve it. The goal must be concrete and attainable, even if its ideological underpinnings are complex or contradictory.

“Hashtag feminism” is a catchy phrase that pithily summarizes the potential and limitations of online organizing. Just a few years ago, it was still common to hear excited predictions that long-awaited political upheavals would be delivered, at last, by the liberating power of Twitter. It’s clearer now that social media, like anything else, is a tool: well-suited for some goals, and not others. The Internet has proven effective at a certain kind of consciousness-raising, even if it’s still driven by the brutal demands of pageviews and advertising revenue. This dynamic shapes, I think, the complex entangling of online feminism with pop culture, which (depending on your point of view) could be a powerful popularizing vehicle, or a problematic bowing to corporate interests and a sexist media culture. Or both.

One larger question raised by the “hashtag feminism” generation, which seems only partly attributable to the rise of the Internet, is what happens to social movements after they’ve achieved a core goal. If one of the core goals of feminism is to make culturally normative the idea that women are equal to men, the last several decades give reason for optimism. Overt displays of sexism and misogyny have by no means been eradicated, but they’ve been made generally unacceptable in most quarters. Once the principle of women’s equality has become a basic cultural norm, its application in a variety of more particular political projects seems the natural next step. Perhaps inevitably, these manifold applications take the form of local struggles, since—as the diversification of feminist voices insists—there is no single representative feminine experience, at least not at any real level of specificity. Some feminists will prioritize gender-based violence; others, pay equity; others, education.

I don’t know whether this proliferation of smaller projects is a desirable outcome for the movement or not. On the one hand, it mirrors the historical tendency of left-wing movements to splinter, to the detriment of achieving key goals. But on the other, social movements that have achieved a few early (and fundamental) victories may find this dynamic impossible to resist. Showalter asks: “But what goal unites American women now? Which leaders inspire us? As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently said, women’s autonomy and dignity in the United States are being undermined and eroded just when gay rights are getting overdue attention and respect.” The comparison to gay rights here is instructive. If Showalter is (as I suspect) implicitly linking the political victories of gay rights to the (relative) unity of the movement, it’s worth stressing that the most obvious LGBTQ gain—marriage equality—was, at first, the subject of bitter intra-movement controversy. It’s only in victorious retrospect that marriage equality appears as the obvious primary goal of gay rights, behind which the movement was firmly united.

Now that nationwide marriage equality is surely only a few years away, it’s not inconceivable that we’re in for a coming period of division within LGBTQ politics. Already, there are internal fractures over (for instance) whether to accept marriage as a normative relationship model, or to what extent pride parades should be family-friendly. Like sexism, homophobia in its most overt forms is increasingly unacceptable; it will only become more so over time. That was a major goal of the gay rights movement, and from that massive social change, a variety of more localized and particular political struggles will follow. Each will be crucially informed by the logic of LGBTQ equality. Indeed, none would be possible without that fundamental victory of the broader movement. But it seems unsurprising that, in the wake of that victory, the members of the movement should turn next to their own daily, local struggles—which must necessarily take diverse forms. Again, I don’t know if, over the long run, that could harm the broader goals of equality by leaving the national movement, as Showalter and Justice Ginsburg argue, vulnerable to the forces of backlash and reaction. But I also don’t know whether, as a basic tendency of successful social movements, it could or should be avoided.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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