A few months ago, Ilya Gerner wrote a post called “Feminism, a Love Story” and pointed out that only 24% of American women consider themselves feminists, even though an overwhelming majority feel they have it better than their Mom’s generation, thanks to feminists.
How bratty and ungrateful of those 76% of American women!
Or so I thought.
Until I realized: I do the exact same thing. The word makes me nervous, and I think it’s because I don’t know what “feminism” means to the other person in the conversation. Are we discussing someone who believes in equality among the sexes as manifested through equal pay? Or an angry privileged woman? And shouldn’t that energy be redirected overseas toward women who don’t even have basic rights to say, education? Oh and by the way: are we really talking about abortion?
All this over-thinking made me feel like a traitor. And also a sad people-pleaser: why am I worried about defining myself according to how someone else might define me? And why—as someone who has benefited incredibly from the movement—would I ever wary of being called a feminist?
I’m super honored to post the replies here, because their ideas are very thought-provoking. SPOILER ALERT: Their ideas are so thought-provoking, in fact, that I am no longer worried about calling myself a feminist.
Sady Doyle: It’s true that you can’t know how someone is going to respond to the word “feminist,” and it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. And, honestly, that’s part of why I keep using it. If that discomfort is coming from their own bro-ness, or their fear of scary ladies who might not applaud every single thing that comes out of their mouths, I don’t especially care about making their day more pleasant. But there have been a lot of statements, by women who are marginalized along lines other than gender, about the fact that they can’t identify with the “feminist” label, because of its history of only speaking for relatively privileged ladies. And that makes sense. And I support that. I use “feminist” when I want to have a quick, reasonably accurate way to denote my own positions, or when I’m being prickly. But anything else that denotes, roughly, “thinking women are humans, and also not worse than men” is something I can applaud.
Katie Coyle: I do consider myself a feminist, and tend to be slightly loud about it. I understand how loaded this term has become, both to people who don’t share my outrages and beliefs, and those that do. But it’s important to me to continue identifying myself as such for a few reasons. One is that it connects me to a group—one with an imperfect history (and present), to be sure, and one with which my opinions don’t always match up. But I found it much more difficult, before I identified as feminist, to exist as a young woman in the world—in part, I think, because I just felt so alone in my anger, and the aloneness made me think that some things in life were just going to be impossible for me. I don’t feel that way anymore. The second reason is that I think 98% (actual scientific percentage) of people with negative preconceived notions of what feminism is have never actually met anyone who identifies as one. I mean, I’m angry about things—TV commercials, anti-abortion activism, etc.—but I also think my feminism has actually made me a more empathetic, generous person. I hope that others notice that in me and broaden their definition of “feminism.” And even if they don’t, a third benefit of identifying as feminist is how it affects the conversations you have with others—it is amazingly unacceptable, the disgusting shit that people (all genders!) say about women, to women. Letting them know I’m a feminist doesn’t always deter people from acting sexist around me, but it at least clues them in on the fact that I’m going to think they’re a dick forever.
Anne Hubert: I understand where you’re coming from. The word means lots of different things and has lots of different associations for people. I feel pretty strongly, though, that exactly for that reason, I need to grab it, the word and the idea, and attach it to myself in those conversations, as people can probably tell I’m not the strident version of the word from the 60s. I think we need to not shy away from the word feminism. Of course I’ve had plenty of male friends and coworkers bristle at the word, who, when pushed, can’t point to which part of “economic, political and social equality of the men and women” they don’t agree with. I think it’s important that the idea of feminism evolves from hairy armpits and marches on Washington to whatever is needed for the time and place. You’re exactly right that the version of feminism that we get to worry about in privileged America is different than in a lot of parts of the world. But amen, let’s let all of those issues and questions live together in the pursuit of a common goal, which is far from a reality pretty much anywhere in the world. The situation is not nearly so dire here, but it’s real, and I think corrosive.
Daisy Rosario: I am a feminist, but I do usually add that I define it solely as men and women being of equal value, anything else is someone’s agenda, but that is the most basic definition. I don’t think men and women are exactly the same, but I do believe our abilities, skills, and desires of are of equal value, otherwise people should be judged individually.
Brady at Relovingit: I use the term because I don’t know of another label that quickly conveys to people my deep interest in and commitment to ending inequality between men and women. (I would really love if a word existed expressed my beliefs more clearly…gender equalist?) I agree that the word “feminist” has a negative connotation. I think it does call to mind images of “angry women.” I’m guessing, though, that that connotation came from people who wanted to discredit feminists. So I feel like I need to reclaim it—not let people opposed to gender equality define what feminism is. I also feel like just by being a happy and (I hope!) well-adjusted person who calls herself a feminist, I can personally push back against some of those negative stereotypes.
One thing I want to say, though, is that if I’m being perfectly honest, I AM kind of angry. Shouldn’t it make me angry that there’s a pay gap between men and women? That women face a “mommy penalty” if they have a child mid-career while their male counterparts face no such punishment for choosing fatherhood? That corporations publicly objectify women’s bodies every day of the week, but breastfeeding moms get scolded on airplanes? That, unlike my husband, I don’t feel safe jogging alone at night and have to consider if what I’m wearing will attract unwanted attention on the train? That there are countries in which women can’t drive, can’t vote, can’t go to school, can’t travel without a man’s permission? I’m not even scratching the surface of the most violent, hateful acts committed against women, sometimes legally, all over the world.
And while I’m on the topic of anger. I think the fear of appearing to be an angry woman is exactly why feminism is so important. In a class I took last quarter, we learned that when male supervisors express anger, they gain respect from their employees. When female bosses do, they’re seen as moody and irrational and actually lose respect from their employees. I just think it’s important to push back against the expectation that women should always act happy and easy-going, always try to please others.
I totally agree that American women have it pretty good. You and I are immensely privileged. But we shouldn’t say “that’s good enough” and stop fighting on our own behalfs or, more importantly, on the behalf of less-fortunate girls and women all over the world.
We gotta fight the good fight, citizenkerry!