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Feminist Experiences and Identities Theory Proposal

Hannah Scott
Western Carolina University

Feminist Experiences and Identities Theory Proposal

The emerging student development theory, The Feminist Identity Development Model

(FIDM), suggests a non-deficit based emphasis on identity. The Feminist Identity Development

Model (Downing & Roush, 1985) is comprised of a linear, five stage progression that supports the

idea of an individual adopting a positive feminist identity. The model is founded in a female

perspective and is based off of real life experiences of women in society that have faced

oppression and gender discrimination. Although this model provides a strong platform for the

development of a feminist identity, it contains flaws that must be addressed to align with current

feminism trends. The following discussion addresses the current Model of Feminist Identity

Development, provides context to explain why the theory must be altered, supporting literature

that indicates the flaws in the current theory, and proposes a new revised theory.

The Feminist Development Model

Downing and Roush introduced the Model of Feminist Identity Development in 1985 to

provide a feminist perspective on a woman’s identity development. Based off of Cross’s (1971)

Black Identity Development model (see Appendix A), the Model of Feminist Identity

Development (1985) provides a “heuristic value for the development of a model of positive

feminist identity” (Patton, Renn, Guido & Quaye, 2016, p. 271). The Feminist Identity

Development Model (1985) suggests that women progress through the model at different rates,

based on their surroundings and interactions with others. The linear progression of the five stages

of development eludes that individuals must begin their development at stage one, and are not

complete on their feminist journey until the final and fifth stage. Stage one, Passive Acceptance,

deems that women lack awareness of the structural and systematic ways in which women face

gender oppression and discrimination. Stage two, Revelation, is reached when an individual gains

consciousness of the injustice women face. Stage three, Embeddedness-emanation, suggests that

women in this stage “attempt to reconcile their deep desire for greater ‘gender consciousness’

while also negotiating their intricate connection to dominant culture through marriage,

motherhood, and career” (Patton et al., 2016, p. 272). Stage four, Synthesis, is reached by women

who positively view being a woman and begin to value the qualities that make them unique.

Finally, stage five, Active Commitment, suggests that women adopt a solid identity, which shapes

their behavior and advocacy for women in society.

Multiple Genders Advocating for Feminism

The millennial generation has transcended what it once was to be a feminist. Those that

identify as feminists today recognize and advocate for the “inequalities and inequities along the

intersectional lines of ability, class, gender, race, sex, and sexuality, and seek to effect change in

areas where these intersectional ties create power inequity” (Day, 2016, p. 2). Although the

emerging feminist theory was created in 1985, technically after the beginning of the millennial

generation, current statistics show that over 63% of self-identified feminists are of millennial age,

between the ages of 18 and 34 (Cai & Clement, 2016). With the majority of current feminists

being a part of the millennial generation, there is a shift beginning to take place in what it means

to be a feminist, and who identifies as an advocate for feminism.

Men and women alike are self-proclaimed feminists, which contradicts the theory’s heavy

emphasis on a woman’s rejection of a man to become a feminist. “A national survey by the

Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation finds six in ten women and one-third of men call

themselves a feminist or strong feminist, with roughly seven in ten of each saying the movement is

empowering” (Cai & Clement, 2016, p. 1). Being that the younger generation is reclaiming the

term feminist, the emerging Feminist Identity Development Model (1985) should be altered to

express that the model exists as a developmental journey an individual goes through to adopt a

feminist identity.

Blaming a Man to Become a Feminist

To begin the process of altering the Feminist Identity Development Model (1985), the

language associated with the theory must become inclusive of all genders. Downing and Roush

took an approach to the emerging theory that suggested blaming men for women’s inequality is a

part of the linear progression one undergoes before becoming a feminist. Stage 1, Passive

Acceptance, states that women in this stage embrace the idea that males are superior, and are

content with their roles as a women remaining traditional through time. Stage 2, Revelation, notes

that women in this stage adopt a dualistic perspective upon experiencing a conflict, where, as a

result, they place women on a pedestal and begin to view men negatively. Women entering stage

3, Embeddedness- Emanation, begin once again interacting with men, but exhibit apprehension

when doing so. Stage 4, Synthesis, states that women in this stage begin to formulate their own

opinions about men that are not grounded in research (Patton et. al., 2016, p. 271-273).

Presumably, individuals today can identify as feminists without necessarily moving through these

prescribed stages.

Relevant for Young Women Today?

Research indicates that social movements shift overtime and as does the salience of

individuals’ identities. Females specifically identify as feminists often when an event occurs that

propels them into exploring their identity and the importance of being a female (Erchull, Liss,

Wilson, Bateman, Peterson & Sanchez, 2009). Often, the relevance of identities is time and

context bound and is heavily influenced by the societal and political climate. With these social

considerations in mind, the article, ‘The Feminist Identity Development Model: Relevant for

Young Women Today’ (Erchull, Liss, Wilson et al, 2009), addressed the practical application of

the 1985 model to women in the new millennium. After conducting a study of two- hundred

women who varied in their feminist identities, the literature supported the need for an alteration to

the original 1985 Feminist Model.

This analysis provides some support for the Downing and Roush model. “Revelation,

embeddedness–emanation, and active commitment were related to women’s status as self-

identified feminists, a finding that is consistent with previous research” (Erchull et al. 2009, p.

840). Research shows that age aligns with the stages females move through as they navigate the

model. This is consistent with the Downing and Roush model suggesting that, as women age, they

move from experiencing anger to focusing on activism (Moradi, Subich & Phillips, 2002).

Paradoxically, the lack of difference between feminists and non-feminists on the synthesis stage

supports the problematic nature of the stages in the current model (Liss, Crawford & Popp, 2004).

“Although Downing and Roush conceptualized this as being the penultimate stage of developing a

feminist identity, it appears that many women endorse items about being strong, independent, and

integrating their identity as a woman with their identity as a person without necessarily holding a

feminist identity” (Erchull et al. 2009, p. 840).

Millennial Feminist Identity Development Model

The Millennial Feminist Identity Development Model (2017) is my personal revised

version of Downing and Roush’s Feminist Identity Development Model (1985), based off of

Cross’s Black Identity Development Model (1971). The model has been revised to reflect an

inclusive perspective on the adoption of a feminist identity. Millennial feminists identify as

advocates for “equality and equity based on gender, gender expression, gender identity, sex, and

sexuality as understood through social theories and political activism” (Day, 2016, p. 1).

Individuals identifying as feminists may be members of any race, ethnicity, sex, gender, national

origin, or religion. The following revised model reflects the developmental process feminist

individuals undergo.

Phase 1, Pre-encounter. In this phase, individuals lack awareness of social and systematic

gender-discrimination related to females. Traditional female roles are maintained as a result of

being unaware of the inequality and inequities women face. Possibly because the individual has

not yet encountered a crisis moment, or for lack of exposure, the individual is comfortable living

without knowledge of female oppression.

Phase 2, Revelation. In this phase, individuals experience a crisis that begins to inform

their sense of awareness about the inequality of women. The revelation phase effects individuals’

outlook on society, and leaves the individual feeling, emotional, confused, angry, and guilty. This

phase often leads to a period of distrust and rejection of authority.

Phase 3, Immersion. This phase allows for individuals to surround themselves with

information and other people to build their knowledge about sexism and feminism. Individuals in

this stage begin forming their own perceptions, based off of their interactions with others and own

understanding. Individuals begin to transition into a new mindset and perspective that is fixated on

equality and equity for women. For men, this phase could result in male privilege guilt.

Phase 4, Synthesis. Individuals in this phase become comfortable in their feminist beliefs,

and are proud to identify as feminists. This phase represents the solidification of an individual’s

perception of society, and leads to greater self-awareness. Women in this stage are firm in their

beliefs of equality and equity for all, while being comfortable with themselves as women. Men in

this stage abandon male privilege guilt by becoming aware of how to use their privilege to

advocate for women’s rights.


Phase 5, Commitment to Beliefs. This phase represents individuals’ transition into activism

of their beliefs. They practice commitment to educating others, furthering their personal

knowledge, and advocating for women’s equal and equitable rights. Individuals in phase 5 seek to

recruit others to advocate and continue challenging the system alongside them.

Aside from the revision of Downing and Roush’s Feminist Identity Development Model

(1985) to reflect inclusion, the new model also reflects fluidity. By changing the “stages” to

“phases,” the model represents the flexibility one may adopt in relation to their feminist identity.

The new model reflects the real transitions an individual may go through in their lives by allowing

the progression from one phase to another, or between phases multiple times before solidifying

their feminist identity. As previously stated, environment heavily influences one’s feminist

journey, and the new, fluid model reflects that (see figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1

Phase 1, Pre-encounter Phase 2, Revelation Phase 3, Immersion Phase 4, Synthesis Phase 5, Commitment
to Beliefs


As times change, so must society’s way of thinking. By adapting Downing and Roush’s

model to reflect current feminism in the United States, I believe I have refreshed an intentional

and purposeful student development model. As a future student affairs practitioner, I believe it is

important to note that while the Millennial Female Identity Development Model (2017) provides

an updated platform for feminists’ identity development, each individual will progress differently.

It is important to realized that like feminism and identities, each individual will form their own

perceptions differently throughout their lifetime, and those perceptions and identities have the

right to be ever changing and fluid.



Cai, W., Clement, S. (2016). What Americans think about feminism today. The Washington Post.

Retrieved from

Cross, W. E., Jr. (1971). Toward a psychology of Black liberation: The Negro-to-Black

conversion experience. Black World, 20(9), 13-27.

Day, L. (2016). What Is Feminism?. Women & Gender Studies at Eastern Kentucky University.

Retrieved from

Downing, N. E., & Roush, K. L. (1985). From passive acceptance to active commitment: A model

of feminist development for women. Counseling Psychologist, 13, 695-709.

Erchull, M., Liss, M., Wilson, K., Bateman, L., Peterson, A., & Sanchez, C. (2009). The feminist

identity development model: Relevant for young women today?. Sex Roles, 60(11-12),

832-842 doi: 1007/s11199-009-9588-6

Liss, M., Crawford, M., & Popp, D. (2004). Predictors and correlates of collective action. Sex

Roles, 50, 771–779.

Maniam, S., Smith, S. (2017). A wider partisan and ideological gap between younger, older

generations. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from


Moradi, B., Subich, L. M., & Phillips, J. C. (2002). Revisiting feminist identity development

theory, research, and practice. The Counseling Psychologist, 30, 6–43.

Patton, L. D., Renn, K. A., Guido, F. M., & Quaye, S. J. (2016). Student development in college:

Theory, research, and practice, (3rd Ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Appendix A

(Downing & Roush, 1985)