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Feminism comes into the mainstream

In recent weeks, stories about feminism – whether that theme is an undercurrent or an explicit focus – have surfaced in the mainstream dialogue with increasing frequency. While even the most basic requests of the women’s rights movement continue to be met with befuddling vitriol, I am hopeful that increasingly sensible and nuanced media coverage will help the general public to overcome irrational stigmas about feminism.

My impression of an increasingly fair media treatment of feminism was buoyed by the celebration of International Women’s Day on Friday, March 8. First observed in the United States in 1909, the holiday has grown exponentially over the last century into a worldwide event with millions of participants. All mainstream news sites that I visited presented diverse coverage of the occasion, including photo collections of female workers in other countries, essays on the modern place of feminism and captivating statistics and charts. Though not much of the content would be surprising to an aficionado of feminist blogs, the unavoidable mainstream coverage made a statement to the general public that the status of women around the globe is highly varied, sometimes troubling and relevant to everyone.

Feminists in the United States had a recent victory to celebrate on International Women’s Day this year: a renewal and strengthening of the Violence Against Women Act, which President Obama signed into law on Thursday, March 7. Every Democrat and every female in Congress voted in favor of preserving the Act, which provides vital support for local programs to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as to address the aftermath of these crimes. Still, 138 male Republicans in the House and 31 in the Senate balked at renewing what was previously considered to be a noncontroversial law. Perhaps they found the new provisions – opening the programs’ services to LGBTQ victims of violence and giving Native American tribal courts power to prosecute non-tribe members for crimes on reservations – too radical.

However, the generally wide support for the Act’s renewal including dozens of Republicans in Congress and the sheepish statements released by some of those who voted against it indicate that, at the very least, it is no longer socially acceptable to be apathetic to the plague of physical violence against women. The War on Women is all too real: More U.S. women 11,766 were murdered by their husbands or boyfriends between Sept. 10, 2001 and June 6, 2012 than the total sum of 9/11 terrorist attack victims 3,073, U.S. troop fatalities in Afghanistan 2,002 and U.S. troop fatalities in Iraq 4,486 combined. Passage of the Violence Against Women Act should have been unanimous, but the support of many Republicans and the clear anxiety that many of its opponents felt for their reputations following the vote indicate that the most basic demands of feminism may soon be seen as undeniable.

Intimate violence is just one of many issues that continue to disproportionately affect women both in the U.S. and around the globe, and the work of the feminist movement is far from over – but this work will go much faster if the media coverage continues on a trajectory that portrays women’s rights as a current and vital concern for all of us.