Feminism: Alive, Well And More Relevant Than Ever

09/12/2016 04:19 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2017

After decades of decline and marginalization, feminism is experiencing a renaissance.
Ten years ago, only 24 percent of women surveyed by CBS News considered themselves feminists. Now jump forward to a 2015 poll conducted by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that a robust 68 percent of women say that there is still a need for a strong women's movement today, and 60 percent of women (and 47 percent of the public) identified themselves as feminists. Support stretches across generations: Nearly as many Millennials (63 percent) identify as feminists as do Boomers (68 percent), and fully 83 percent of young women born after 1981 describe feminism as empowering -- a word that only 56 percent of women ages 65 and older choose.

Yet even as young women -- and, increasingly, men -- are enthusiastically endorsing the label, today's feminism looks very different from the cause that our mothers and grandmothers marched for. This New Wave of feminism "is shaped less by a shared struggle against oppression than by a collective embrace of individual freedoms, concerned less with targeting narrowly defined enemies than with broadening feminism's reach," explain the authors of an article based on The Washington Post's findings.

Inspired not by national organizations and charismatic leaders, today's feminists find common ground and shared energy on the Internet and through social media.

To get an inkling of how the Internet and social media have become a uniting force for feminists around the world, just witness the online reaction to the surprise release of Beyoncé's video, "Formation" in February. "Stop Everything!" wrote Essence columnist Aliya S. King, and within a week, more than 7 million people tuned in to watch -- and discuss -- how a mainstream pop artist pushed the limits on our perceptions of race and women in today's culture, with many women -- both black and white -- expressing their appreciation for her honesty and empowering message.

Beyoncé considers herself a feminist. So does businesswoman Carly Fiorina. Black actress and comedian Keisha Zollar, who likes the term "womanist" because it was coined by women of color, shares the tent with white activists like Mindy Finn, the founder and president of Empowered Women. Muslim Sabin Ahmed, a consultant with the World Bank who believes abortion should be legal in all cases, calls herself a feminist, as does Charlene McField, a Christian stay-at-home mom who believes abortion should be illegal in all cases.

Today's feminists proudly fly the flag of inclusion and in embracing inclusiveness, feminism is going back to the future -- back to the original fight for equal rights for all American citizens, of all colors -- articulated by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1866. With 43 percent of all Millennials in the US identifying as non-white, the next wave of the women's movement is fundamentally more inclined to see the fight for equal rights as encompassing more than gender discrimination.

Young women are much more likely to identify as not simply women, but as individuals defined by the intersections between gender and generation, race, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. While 85 percent of women think there's a lot of or some discrimination against women, just as many think there's a lot of or some discrimination against African Americans (84 percent) and gays and lesbians (85 percent). As 82-year-old feminist icon Gloria Steinem noted in an interview with 17-year-old Amandla Stenberg, one of the new generation of feminists, "In the beginning, we thought of feminism as addressing inequality between women and men, but the more we understood it, the more we grasped how broad feminism is."

Yet for all the ways in which the path forward differs, depending on a woman's race, education, and socio-economic background, some challenges remain the same; and for all the ways in which the past differentiates their experience, some aspects of being female cross all divides. United in their belief that feminism is about having choices, young women are eager to forge their own paths toward happiness, whether that means pursuing a career, raising children, being active in their communities, starting a business, making the world a better place, or some combination of all these aspirations.

From Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique; the manifesto of the post-World War II movement that galvanized modern feminism; to Beyoncé, today's generation is embracing feminism on its own terms and, in doing so, adding new energy to feminism's renaissance. "Do we NOT need feminism anymore?" challenges Jenny Jaffe, the 26-year-old comedian and founder of Project UROK. "Yeah, we need feminism! We need feminism until ALL women are equal!"