February 1, 2019

Professor Lynn Chancer on her latest book and the resurgence of feminism in the Me Too age.

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

after the rise and stall of american feminism book cover lynn chancer

How do you tell the story of a movement that’s making headlines daily?

That was the task facing Professor Lynn Chancer (GC/Hunter, Sociology) as she tackled her latest book, After the Rise and Stall of American Feminism: Taking Back a Revolution.

The book couldn’t be more timely, given the Me Too movement and the swell of women entering politics. But women’s issues have evolved so rapidly in the last few years that Chancer had to change the book’s title several times just to keep up.

Chancer’s original title was I’m Not a Feminist, But… Until recently, that phrase was sometimes uttered by women who supported concepts like equal pay, but who thought of feminists as radical man-haters. But between the time Chancer began writing five years ago and now, “there’s been a shift,” she said in an interview. “Gender-based concerns and concerns about sexuality are much more in the forefront of cultural consciousness.” Calling the book I’m Not a Feminist, But… ” would not acknowledge that cultural shift.” (Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has long downplayed gender issues, is finally embracing feminist themes, according to a recent New York Times story.)

Lynn-Chancer-Horizontal_DSC6436 photo in library

“Gender-based concerns and concerns about sexuality are much more in the forefront of cultural consciousness," says Professor Lynn Chancer.

Photo credit: Alex Irklievski

So Chancer renamed the book The Rise and Stall of American Feminism. That title reflected her research on the history of women’s rights in the U.S., which showed “spurts of political progress and activism” followed by decades where the movement seemed stuck.

Once again, though, Chancer noticed a shift happening in real time, propelled in part by social media. As women in the last year or two have begun to demand recognition in every sphere from politics to Hollywood, “it no longer seemed accurate to say the movement stalled. … Things were happening that were in some ways validating some of the points I was making.” For example, she said, “what happened with Hillary Clinton losing the presidential election and the Me Too movement, I think that had the effect of making women more than ever interested in going into politics.”

Chancer solved her title problem by adding one little word: after. Calling the book After the Rise and Stall of American Feminism also accurately conveys the book’s sweep from the past to the present and into the future.

The book offers a survey of feminist history, from the suffragettes through the push for equality in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, to more recent concerns about intersectionality: Where do issues of race, class and gender norms fit in with women’s rights?

Chancer also pushes the reader to contemplate some uncomfortable realities. She explores “looksism,” meaning the cultural preference for beauty and youth, as something that continues to hold women back professionally, socially, and in terms of how they see themselves.

She wonders why universal daycare has disappeared from the political agenda, since so many other industrialized countries provide it, and since it would benefit so many Americans, from poor families to working mothers to single parents.

Chancer notes that equality is not just a women’s issue. Men are still stigmatized for behavior or choices that are traditionally associated with women, whether it’s expressing emotion, entering a field like nursing, or failing to be the family breadwinner.  At the same time, what feminists call “toxic masculinities” must change if sexual harassment and sexual assaults are to become “closer to rare than common.”

Chancer spoke about her book on The Thought Project podcast. Listen in

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.