Overlapping and shifting strategies have recurred throughout this historical survey. Feminists who once concentrated on liberal demands for women’s access to male jobs now call for men to share the valuable labor of caregiving. Another case of political adaptation can be found in the realm of reproductive rights. In the United States, the language employed to defend access to abortion has shifted over time from “abortion on demand” to “prochoice” politics, not only in response to opponents’ use of the term “pro-life” but also in recognition of the fact that abortion is not so much something women desire as an option they may require, albeit a difficult one. In other revisions, middle-class, white feminists came to recognize that for women of color and poor women, sterilization abuse is as important in reproductive choice as are contraception and abortion, while for lesbians, the right to parent (by insemination or adoption) must be part of the reproductive rights agenda.
Internationally, a quest for “reproductive health” rather than “reproductive rights” has proven to resonate more strongly in regions such as eastern Europe. As African activist Adetoun Ilumoka explained, the concept of reproductive rights “doesn’t mean an awful lot to the average Nigerian woman. They are concerned with their health, certainly with their ability to make a living.”15 International feminist organizations have learned that only by addressing the underlying economic disparities between wealthy and poor nations, as well as between men and women, will women truly exercise reproductive choice.
A final example of changing ideological frameworks can be found among younger, “third-wave” feminists in the United States, many of whom have rejected any conformist politics concerning fashion, culture, sexuality, or gender identities. An earlier generation’s penchant for politically correct language and styles may have fostered internal cohesion, but it left many feeling excluded from the feminist fold. To the third wave, who came of age in the 1990s, feminists come in myriad and protean forms — whether stylishly chic, punk, or tailored; female, male, or transgendered; heterosexual, lesbian, gay, or bisexual. At a time when academic theorists were challenging the legitimacy of any kind of unified identity, including that of “woman,” third-wave activists claimed overlapping, multiple, and malleable identities that could enhance coalition politics rather than preclude activism.
In my view, feminism has grown stronger through redefining itself and rethinking its politics. Rather than the “death of feminism” story with which I opened, I wish to emphasize the various reinventions of women’s movements. Not everyone who participates in these multiple challenges to gender hierarchy will necessarily identify as a feminist. Labels aside, I would argue that women who have access to and control of wages, make their own marital and sexual choices, exercise political rights, and can engage in artistic and intellectual, as well as parental, tasks (as well as men who defend women’s rights and reclaim parental work for themselves) are both the beneficiaries of past feminisms and the foundation of future transformation.