Feminist Icons: Past, Present, and Future

By Kim Loewen on
August 15, 2011

Tonight HBO will premiere a new documentary about one of the greatest icons in feminist history, Gloria Steinem. Gloria was interviewed last week by the Daily Beast:

Mention the name Gloria Steinem to many women under 30, and if there is a flash of recognition at all, they put her in Florence Nightingale’s league—an admirable figure from the history books. To them, feminism was a war won before they were born, the miniskirted 1970s revolution that freed their mothers and grandmothers from drudgery and discrimination, paving the way for their own generation’s unfettered freedom.

Throughout my time in high school, whenever we talked about anything related to feminism, the only people mentioned were Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and maybe Betty Friedan. Once I got to college, I discovered the remarkable stories of Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt who fought tirelessly to get Congress to pass and the states to finally ratify the 19th Amendment. Then came the 1970s and women like Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and Sarah Weddington. Yet, these names were never mentioned outside my feminist world. My world now is an anomaly in which feminists and progressives abound and feminist icons are not only known but regularly sought out.

While Gloria Steinem continues to fight for feminism, I have to wonder, who will step up and stand out as this next generation’s feminist icon?

This summer, we watched as five strong Democratic women stood up to serve. They bravely took a stand against Governor Scott Walker and his Wisconsin cronies, offering to put themselves forward as candidates in the Republican recall elections. We saw Team EMILY volunteers, led by women working tirelessly (making tens of thousands of phone calls and putting boots to pavement) in an unprecedented grassroots effort to get out the vote and help their fellow women. EMILY's List was proud to support all of these courageous women.

Looking beyond Wisconsin, women across the country are taking a political stand for feminism everyday. Each year EMILY's List alumnae Carolyn Maloney (NY-14) reintroduces the Equal Rights Amendment. Recently, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) gained national recognition for her “Off the Sidelines” campaign which urges more women to get involved in the political process. And just last week, Pres. Obama posted a slideshow highlighting several strong women across the executive and judicial branches, such as Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor. There are also courageous women like EMILY's List candidate Tammy Duckworth, Major in the Illinois Army National Guard, who risked life and limb for this country abroad only to come back and keep fighting and serving.

To talk about feminism is not just a political conversation. There are feminists in all walks of life, like blogger and activist Jessica Valenti, the visionary founder of Feministing.com who has enabled young women to speak out for their generation and ensured their struggles are shared.

Maybe the next Gloria Steinem is among one of these many amazing women. Or maybe it’s one of you. As Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, said: “watch the movie, cheer Gloria's triumphs and then get inspired. Because the fight's not over and Gloria's not looking back. ‘The point is we go forward,’ she says. ‘We're nowhere near where we need to be.’”

Kim Loewen is a senior at American University and an intern in the New Media Department.

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