Selling Feminism: A History

For decades, writers have been publishing guides to make the movement seem appealing to young women. How convincing are they?
Seal Press, Mariner Books, Penguin Books

 A glistening, lipsticked mouth graces the cover of Sexy Feminism: A Girl's Guide to Love, Success, and Style, a book by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Heather Wood Rudúlph released in March. Born out of their blog, the book aims to show girls and young women that, unlike what they may have heard, feminism can be--and often is--sexy. Tackling questions like "Is Dieting Antifeminist?" and "Plastic Surgery: Can You?", Keishin Armstrong and Wood Rudúlph break down the complex intricacies and varieties of feminist values into easily digestible chunks--perhaps too easily digestible. Sexy Feminism doesn't just want to share the word with girls and young women, it wants to make feminism cool, attractive, and simple--and it's far from the first book to try and package feminism for a young audience. There's a long history of feminist writers trying to redefine and rebrand the concept to appeal to a young audience.

Books espousing feminist values for girls were abundant in the 1970s. Books like Girls Can Be Anything and The Cat Ate My Gymsuit confronted feminist issues head-on, from sexist career expectations to body insecurity. Without labeling themselves as overtly feminist, Girls Can Be Anything depicts the many career choices for girls, and The Cat Ate My Gymsuit follows 13-year-old Marcy Lewis as she navigates the dangers of adolescence, all while fighting to keep her favorite English teacher at her school. These books showed younger readers that they could do things and be things; the books' characters were not reduced to romantic sidekicks or senseless victims.

 The 1980s saw the first appearance of overtly feminist materials for girls and young women. One of the first books to do this was the 1981 collection Feminism For Girls: An Adventure Story. A variety of feminist perspectives on different topics relevant to young women and girls, the book avoided preaching. It offered no manifestos and no rules, and instead tried to offer its readers a number of ideas and starting points. As the book's editors, Angela McRobbie and Trisha McCabe, write in the introduction:

Adventure is founded on initial confusion, even fear. It demands enterprise and ingenuity. It necessitates tactics and manoeuvers. Unlike myths, adventures are open-ended, there are no foregone conclusions. We won't be offering a step-by-step guide to the feminist 'Good Life.' We prefer to deal with clues, suggestions and ideas.

The book contained perspectives on a variety of topics--what it means to work as a secretary, analysis of Jackie magazine, a case study on black girls in Britain--meant to provoke thought rather than designate official protocol. While Feminism For Girls was trying to combat stereotypes of feminism in an effort to appeal to young people, its approach was one of transparency and compassion rather than condescension and authority. The book, however, wasn't very popular. According to McRobbie, it didn't sell well, and many of its contributors "retreated into the academy." Nevertheless Feminism For Girls is notable for being among the first books to reach out to a young audience and consider youth outreach an activist issue.

In the late '80s and early '90s feminism and its derivatives moved into the mainstream, creating previously unseen amalgamations of theory and pop. The magazines Sassy, Bust, and Bitch were all founded between 1988 and 1996, and a younger generation began to define feminism for themselves. While Bitch was the only magazine to explicitly label itself feminist, all three publications helped usher in a new generation of women sympathetic to feminist values.

In 1999, Bust made a foray into girl-guide territory with The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order, a collection of essays from Bust writers and contributors on Third Wave-defining topics like sex and pop culture, articles with names like "the mysterious eroticism of the mini-backpack," and an essay by Courtney Love. Unlike Feminism For Girls, The Bust Guide tackled pop culture and mainstream media from within, simultaneously critiquing and embracing it. The guide was indicative of a change in feminism: Rather than being a collective movement seeking political change, feminist and girl-affirming values were taking hold on an individual scale, in small and isolated actions.

Then came the latest generation of feminism marketers, among them Jennifer Baumgardner, Jessica Valenti, and the authors of Sexy Feminism, who have tried to steer feminism away from individualist girl power and back towards its collective, political roots. Baumgardner's 2000 book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, coauthored with Amy Richards, pointed out the difference between individualist, "girl power" feminism and political, collective feminism. Baumgardner, for one, felt that she couldn't relate to the "Jell-O-shots versions of feminism" portrayed in the magazines Bust and Bitch. As she notes in her introduction to Manifesta:

Feminists my age, Girlies with tight clothes and streaky hair, who made zines and music and Web sites, exhibited the confidence and self-worth that I craved from Ms. But part of what was free about them seemed to be that they weren't taking on anything they might have to lose. Soon I...realized that the whole movement was in a kind of crisis: the people who are creating the most inspiring feminist culture and the people who have a working knowledge of feminist political change haven't met yet.

Baumgardner and Richards's goal was to show young women (who might already consider themselves feminists), that feminism depended upon collective, political action. While some criticized the book's writing and argument, Manifesta was largely hailed as a success, praised by Gloria Steinem for "show[ing] us the building blocks for the future of this longest revolution," and was recently reprinted in a special tenth anniversary edition.

Jessica Valenti embarked on a similar venture when she launched the website Feministing in 2004. More focused on collective rather than personal feminism, the site primarily focuses on political issues, and also publishes cultural critiques and interviews with prominent feminists and role models. In 2007, Valenti published her first book, Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters, a how-to guide for the fully feminist life. The book begins with an explanation of why feminism is wonderful ("When you're a feminist, day-to-day life is better. You make better decisions. You have better sex.") before launching into chapters with titles like "You're a hardcore feminist. I swear." The book takes time to dispel "myths" about feminism: that feminists hated men, didn't shave, and were only chaste, middle-aged women.

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Jordan Larson is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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