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Perspectives of Gen Z Women: Feminism, Society, and the Female Experience

Last summer, I began a medium-scale qualitative study to better understand how women of different generations view feminism and how being a woman has shaped their social experiences. I undertook this project alone and informally out of curiosity about an essential question: what defines the female experience for each generation? My research methods consisted of recorded interviews in which I asked seventeen questions that spanned topics of feminism, childhood, education, the male gaze, and the general experience of being a woman.  Currently, I have decided to share and analyze specific responses of the Generation Z interviewees. These include my sister (Julia), my cousins (Emily and Anna Caroline), and four close friends (Laila, Abril, Leah, and Cescah). Consciousness of the feminist movement has been higher lately as Women’s History Month gave rise to more frequent dialogue surrounding how to push the movement forward. This article is the first installment of my contribution to that effort.

Feminism must recognize equality, history, empowerment, and intersectionality

Each interviewee primarily defines feminism as a movement for equality of the sexes. Leah adds that feminism should allow women to have equal opportunities “without being judged for it or treated differently”. Her comment recognizes that having the same opportunities does not mean we always experience them in the same way. Women often feel pushback from society when they defy the patriarchal system, even when they do so successfully, and feminism aims to eliminate that. The movement also continually takes history into consideration. As Abril explains, “historically, there have been many barriers, many rules set against women, and many thoughts/beliefs that go against the power of a woman and what she can do that prohibit women from achieving things.” Examining how women in the past have paved the way for us to advance their work of empowerment is ingrained in the movement. Empowerment itself is another pillar of feminism, because it’s the action word; the movement goes nowhere without it. Julia and Anna Caroline pointed out a distinct function of empowerment: helping women realize they are equal to men. Patriarchal society creates barriers to achieving this realization, and feminism must instill the power to overcome those. Lastly, feminism has a duty to work with other movements. Laila states that “a lot of feminisms kind of intersect with other issues such as immigration policy, trans rights, and all sorts of other things, and I think that’s really beautiful.” Feminism cannot be a successful movement for equality if it is not equal itself, so it must include all women.

Misconceptions of feminism hinder the movement

Ideas misconstruing feminism undermine the power of the movement in more ways than I can possibly mention in this paragraph. Abril says, “I think the misconception is that women should be more powerful than men, should have a higher status. There’s a radical point. There’s a radical extent to anything.” Her point implies that a radical view should not define any movement, let alone feminism. The misconception that feminism seeks to elevate women above men clouds some people’s ability to see it as a movement for equality, which in turn forms a fundamental threat to the movement as it loses their support. Leah adds that “some people think that feminists are angry.” There are a number of problems with this generalization of anger, two being that it exaggerates occasional, focused anger and oversimplifies complex emotional processes. It is true that I am angry that eleven women a day have fallen victim to femicide in Mexico this year. It is also true that I am frustrated because I never feel safe walking alone at night. I feel an array of other emotions in regard to these issues at the same time, however: sadness, fear, confusion, etc. Despite this reaction, I am not an angry person nor a sad or confused one. The stereotype that feminists are angry is dangerous, because it implies that our emotions hinder our ability to see the social fabric clearly, delegitimizing attempts to achieve equality. In reality, these emotions often compel us to make positive change.

We were socialized into a gendered world, and those stereotypes have made an impact

Society has been sending us subliminal messages about our place and our worth since we were too young to know it was occurring. Everyone experiences socialization, but I will highlight the childhood experiences of women in this case. Abril was raised in Bolivia during the first four years of her life, and recognizes her grandmother’s disapproval of women driving cars and being doctors as a product of the conservative, Catholic culture. She also talked about three schools on a mountainside, explaining that, “The names are ‘Monte Alto’ for the little preschoolers, and then for the girls’ school it’s ‘Horizonte’ and for the guys’ school it’s ‘Cumbre’, and you can see that Horizonte is at the bottom of the mountain, that’s where the sun hits, and Monte Alto is a bit higher, and Cumbre is on the top, so you can see that they put the men on top.” This sent her a hierarchical message at a very young age. Anna Caroline shares a story from first grade, when the girls in her class suddenly rejected anything considered “girly.” She says, “I kind of changed…because I viewed pink and frilly as bad. Now, I’m adopting pink back in, because I actually like it. There was that view in my head that made me hate it because it was viewed as girly, and I was supposed to hate that and be different.” I had the same experience in second grade, when I repainted my pink walls blue and bought a bright blue tracksuit. There’s a level of troubling irony to it, because while the rejection of “girly” things intended to challenge stereotypes, the element of popularity encouraged some girls to become “anti-girly”. This view perpetuated long-lasting negative thoughts around certain expressions of femininity.

We’re tired of being taught to protect ourselves from men who are not adequately taught not to assault us

Leah and Julia have taken Krav Maga lessons. I own pepper spray. Emily avoids the punch at frat parties. Every woman I know (including those outside of these interviews) has been taught defense mechanisms to protect herself from the possibilities of sexual assault, rape, and even murder at the hands of a man. Laila talks about downloading Instagram and seeing ads for small, easily concealable weapons of defense marketed towards women. She states that, “while I was getting those messages of practical things to protect yourself, I was also getting the not so good suggestions about how it’s kind of your responsibility…to protect yourself, but not really telling any man who might be predatory towards you to not do that.” It’s incredibly frustrating and unjust that all women have to be on their guard because some men fail to learn basic respect for women. Anna Caroline explains that she and her female classmates received Jiu Jitsu training in P.E. class, and added that “the boys, they never did the Jiu Jitsu training. I don’t know if they talked about protecting themselves.” This difference in education exposes that her high school recognizes the need for young women to be prepared against assault but has not modified young mens’ education to approach the problem from both sides as far as we know. In addition, Emily expresses the sense of inevitability that women feel about assault. Talking about moving to college, she mentions that, “when I reached the age where I was going to be on my own and independent…I was going to be put in a situation.” Assault (sexual or otherwise) does not feel like a question of if for women; it feels like a question of when.

Men must stop staring at us like that

All women have probably encountered some version of what I call “creepy gas station man.” In my specific example, he stares at you while you pump gas at a dimly lit station in a way that makes you want to jump in the car and lock the doors. His gaze is not so much predatory as it is sliding over your body in a salivating way. He is probably two or three times your age, but men of all ages can give a woman this look in any setting. Leah puts it best: “you feel like they’re undressing you with their eyes.” Julia tells the story of entering a shop to rent a snowboard when she was fourteen and finding a group of eighteen or nineteen year old guys staring at her. She explains that “I could tell they were looking at me kind of strangely like that, and I was dressed up because we were about to go to dinner”. She says it made her feel “self conscious. Like I’m showing too much. . .it makes me feel like I’m on display. . .almost like, dirty.” The look leaves women feeling defiled and ashamed because of it. When the group of young men began to approach her, Julia left without her snowboard and told our parents that she was unable to pay for it because she was a minor. She lied because she believed she had overreacted and did not want to have to justify her decision. Women often experience a terrible sense of violation and subsequent gaslighting all because of this one look.

Men can and should play their role in the feminist movement

Opinions of whether or not men can and should be feminists vary, but all interviewees agree that men have a responsibility to do their part for the movement. Cescah states that “they’re not the main characters, but they’re supporting characters, and they’re helpful”, and Laila adds that “I do think as a man you definitely should agree with the concept of feminism and learn more about feminism and do all you can to support feminism”. Their responses imply a difference between being a feminist and supporting the movement, deciding that men should at the very least act in support. Julia mentions the importance of men not only educating themselves on the topic but sharing their education with other men as well. Men must hold each other accountable for the way they view and treat women, because sexist ideas can permeate quickly in spaces where women are not present to stop them. The feminist movement asks men to learn to recognize these scenarios and speak out against them. As goes for everyone, don’t be a bystander.

Different women have different stories

The narrative is not as simple as feeling unsafe in public; it’s a web of intricately woven experiences. Laila speaks about her experience as a woman of color saying, “not only is that pressure as a woman on you, but on top of that there’s so much more to fight for, always, just knowing that especially black women always get the bad end of the stick…you just feel those layers all the time.” Women of varying races, sexual orientations, religions, etc. face different levels and forms of oppression, and we must remember this when considering how far-reaching the feminist movement is. For Cescah, the hardest part of being a woman is that “sometimes you walk up to someone and you can tell they’re not taking you seriously. And you’re like, ‘why? I am qualified, and I know what I’m talking about, and you’re just not listening.’” Emily states that the most difficult part for her is “the idea that you’re limited in what you can do. The idea that I could have the exact same job and not be paid as much, that’s a hard pill to swallow.” It’s a hard pill to swallow indeed, especially for women who work just as hard as (or harder than) their male counterparts. With all this being said, we must respect the uniqueness of each woman’s story while keeping in mind that it reveals larger systematic issues at play. As Anna Caroline says, “the view society has of us is a big problem.”

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate being a woman
girl power 1
Kristen Bryant / Her Campus

When I think of the word “woman,” I immediately think of beauty that far transcends the physical. My interviewees define this beauty in a number of ways. Laila talks about women’s dual capacity for great strength and empathy, saying, “I find so much strength in my existence. All the women who toiled…to get me where I am, that’s very powerful to me.” She then adds that “being able to walk into a room and have that sort of empathy, you think about the people who usually have it the worst and have the most against them usually have the best perspectives, because they actually genuinely want everybody to thrive.” This perspective is vital, because solutions to any problem must consider those most deeply affected. Cescah and Emily speak on the beauty of the general camaraderie women can have, which allows us to form incredible bonds and resolve issues efficiently. For example, Cescah states that “when you get a bunch of women in a room, while it can be petty, I think for the most part it’s kinder, and things get worked out faster and better”. Perhaps one of the greatest facets of the beauty of women, however, is our power. Julia talks about feeling “powerful enough in your image, not in the way that you look, but in the way you present yourself.” Society has certainly withheld power from women for far too long, but there remains an indescribable aura of power that a woman can carry simply by deciding to do so. It is perceived by all, and no one can take it from her.

These interviews have illuminated several sides of the experience of being a Gen Z woman. While I have tried to include a substantial variety of responses, I do not claim to universalize these findings. I hope the words of these seven women coupled with my analysis will help you ponder your position in society. How has society subtly conditioned you to hold and act on beliefs related to certain genders? This is a big question that I do not have all of the answers to, so I will quote Abril: “A very big part that plays into all of society and how we build generations is education, and nobody is born thinking certain things; they’re all taught. So, I think if that’s the way it gets into society, that’s the same way it has to get out of society.”

I am a first-year at Kenyon College hoping to major in International Studies, Spanish, and Arabic. I love music, good books, and good people.
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