Last Sunday, the New York Times ran two stories on Gloria Steinem, both in the Fashion & Style section. Many of us wondered why these articles were relegated to the “women’s pages” of the Fashion & Style section, and there was some outcry to this effect. Yet the world has changed greatly since Gloria Steinem, especially the media world, and that the singular rise of social media has given all women the power to be what only one was capable of attaining in a broadcast and paper media world.
The first–Gloria Steinem, A Woman Like no Other–gives a short overview of Steinem’s activism, notes the current situation with the Komen Foundation and the rise of social media. Overall, the article questions why there isn’t one single leader for women with the unique combination of personal qualities that made Steinem an iconic leader of the women’s movement in the 60′s and 70′s. There is the admission that there are now “feminisms” vs. one monolithic feminism, and that, in the 21st century, there is “a more inchoate sense of feminist leadership.” Steinem herself does not see this as a negative, and states, in an email, how “It’s obviously a great sign of growth and success that the media no longer try to embody the bigness and diversity of the women’s movement in one person.”
The second article–My Roommate, Gloria–is a sweet puff piece on how Shelby Knox, while a college student, came to share a New York apartment with Steinem. In the early years of this century, the press and many others, were ready to anoint Knox the next leader of the feminist movement. However, it wasn’t necessarily to be. Knox now works as director of women’s rights organizing for Change.org, and says she is happy to be writing press releases rather than being the subject of press releases.
Maybe this is a part of the “why we don’t have a single feminist leader these days” is that no young woman necessarily wants to be the sole voice of an entire movement. The glut of mainstream media keeps the camera in one’s face far longer than it should be, and probes the personal lives or public figures in a manner that might have been considered inappropriate 40 or 50 years ago (think Clinton vs. JFK.)
The 24-hour news cycle has perhaps taught us that only very strong, or very narcissistic, people survive the glare of the modern-day spotlight with their psyches in tact.
Yet the other aspect of all this media is that we have a thriving “people’s media” landscape on the Internet. The Voice of the People, channelled through various social media platforms, what marketers bemoaned with the Motrin Moms, has become the force for change that got the Komen Foundation to back down from their anti-Planned Parenthood initiative, Rush Limbaugh to lose face for his attempt to shame Sara Fluke, and is currently bringing shame to the Sanford, Florida police department in the Trayvon Martin murder case.
What started–around the time of Shelby Knox–as a “disreputable” and troubling form of “new journalism,” the blog, the forum, the chatroom, and other forms of what we now called social media, are the places where groups rally around those who first hear the message, then spread the message. We hear about protests against Limbaugh, and we spread the links to friends on Facebook and Twitter, who spread the links to their friends. We write about the incidents on our blogs, which are now picked up by Google, which leads to readers that then click the links to other stories or petitions and get others to act.
In the 21st century, with our dispersed and populist media landscape, we have important stories–stories that require activism to create change–dispersed and made viral like never before. The populist media that so many feared might lead to something bad, is actually forcing change for the good–and is bringing awareness to women’s issues that most of us felt were resolved with the women’s rights struggles of the 70′s.
So maybe, in the 21st century, it’s not the monolithic leader, the attractive and photogenic young woman—a Gloria Steinem– who becomes the image and voice of the woman’s movement, but all of us who use social media platforms to spread information, who are already the voices of a new women’s movement. Perhaps we are, as the NYT noticed–in the “inchoate” phase of a new, stronger women’s movement that better represents the needs of women across the country.
All that’s needed, right now, are women who spread the word to other women. It’s the groundswell that demonstrates the power of women.
Maybe at some time, when we are confronted again with situations where only one leader can speak, one leader will emerge. Yet that might not even be the case any more. We may simply have women like Sara Fluke, who have to speak for us in special instances. There is no doubt that our world has changed because of social media, and so, the ways in which leadership emerges in this new landscape will be different.
Only time will tell.