Generation gap explains decline in feminist ranks

December 16, 2003

Despite gains brought about by the women's movement, young adults are far less likely than their middle-aged counterparts to call themselves feminists, according to a study conducted in part by the University of Pennsylvania.

Researchers examining the link between age and social attitudes about feminism found that support for abortion rights and gender equality in the workplace -- a strong part of the feminist tradition -- is virtually unrelated to whether young adults as well as senior citizens call themselves feminists.

"These results suggest that men and women whose political coming -of age coincided with the feminist movement are more likely to think of themselves as feminists than their younger or older counterparts," said Jason Schnittker, assistant professor of sociology at Penn and co-author of the report, "Who Are Feminists and What Do They Believe: The Role of Generations." The report was published in the American Sociological Review.

Dr. Schnittker conducted the research with Jeremy Freese, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Brian Powell, professor of sociology at Indiana University.

Schnittker said that, while the feminist movement may not lose any of its hard-won accomplishments, the findings indicate that it may be increasingly difficult for contemporary feminists to present the united front once characteristic of feminism.

"There appear to be many more conceptions of feminism these days than there were in earlier generations, allowing a variety of different people, with a variety of different ideologies, to self-identify as feminists," Schnittker said. "It's not just a story about some groups moving away from feminism, which most people have assumed, but about new groups and diverse ideological groups moving into it."

The study also found that:
• Women were more than twice as likely as men to think of themselves as feminists.
• Men and women born between 1935 and 1955 were the most likely to self-identify as feminists.
• Racial differences played no significant role in self-identification as feminists.
• Marital status, parental status, employment status and income were not significant factors in self-identification as feminists.
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University of Pennsylvania
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