Feminism and labels

Most readers will have already seen this poll by the Daily Beast evaluating attitudes towards gender in the past election cycle, but I’m curious about your thoughts. In particular, the statistic that only 20% of women are comfortable calling themselves “feminists.”

Some points to discuss:
1. The legitimacy of the poll (sample size, margin of error)
2. The implications of the poll
– Is this evidence that “feminist” is a dirty word in our society?
– Or, have so many feminist goals been reached that “feminist” now wrongly connotes an extremist?
– Is it important to call oneself a feminist in order to support gender and sex equality?

17 thoughts on “Feminism and labels

  1. Where I cannot speak to your questions about feminist from a female standpoint (I’m male), I would venture that the word “feminist” isn’t so much a bad word in as much as your assertion that many of the goals have been attained, thus it marks a period of down time for reflection and fine tuning.


  2. Something isn’t computing here. If women don’t want to call themselves feminists because they think that the goals have been attained then why do 68% of them think that they are not treated fairly in the work place? I am puzzled. No, I think we have to go back and look at other connotations of the label. I had an interesting experience this summer while in Asia. My host had googled me before my arrival and had seen that I did work that was feminist. This had made her a little wary. On the second day she worked up her courage to ask me if I was a feminist. I said “yes” and then everyone got uncomfortable, so I took the opportunity to explain what that meant to me and that seemed to put people at ease. Actually, it did more than that. It opened up a cross cultural feminist discussion in which several of the women there unleashed upset that they had been experiencing in silence.

    So how do we fix this disconnect between what we are experiencing and what we are willing to call ourselves? Does it matter what we call ourselves? I think it does because it takes the conversation in directions that it needs to go.

  3. Good question. I have recently come across young women (20s and early 30s I think) who seem completely detached from, and strongly anti-, feminism. They seem to equate feminism with griping and making excuses for women’s lack of progression in the work force, but I haven’t yet had a chance to have a discussion with them. I must admit I was quite shocked, when there is still so very much to be done.

  4. It suddenly occurs to me that what we may be seeing with all this negativity is the place of the word in a discourse that they’re connected with and give weight to. If so, it’s a controlling discourse that tells them not to complain and so on. (Imagine that!)

    The article linked to is full of interesting remarks, not all of which does one want to take at face value. But one didn’t surprise me at all. It’s that women over 50 have the most negative view of women’s equality, or lack there of. One comment says it will change when that group dies, but I suspect it is rather something due to being 50 or over. What might that be, one could ask. Well, one thing you see is the effect of all those small inequalities written large in women’s careers. Perhaps young women just think there weren’t that many potential stars in the older generation, but that is hardly likely.


  5. oo12oo – I don’t think your perspective should be discounted just because you are male (although, sure, you wouldn’t be able to necessarily answer why *women* don’t want to call themselves “feminists”). Do you see many men wanting to call themselves that?

    Sharon – did you find out what your Asian colleagues thought “feminist” implied?

    Debbie – that’s really interesting (especially since I’m in my late twenties/early thirties); I wonder where that connection came from, between griping and being a feminist?

    jj – so you’re saying (if I understand correctly) that some women have been socialized not to complain and they see feminists as doing just that? And how do you think that connects, if at all, to what happens as women get older?

  6. It just occurred to me that the word “feminist” probably features a discourse that the people with negative association think is important in some way. This isn’t meant to be profound; I’m just thinking about the cause is. This makes it look as though in effect feminists are landed with a problem, but there may well be nothing we could have done to prevent it. And it is probably a controlling discourse, one “designed” to keep women relatively quiet. I’m sure there’s quite a bit of literature on how quickly terms for complaining and/or feisty women become negative.

    I think the point about age is independent of that.

  7. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, the kind of feminism that I was most exposed to was very adversarial, very confrontational. I don’t know if this sort of stridency was typical of the movement at that time, although I suppose many movements go through a very strongly assertive phase in establishing their identity, before they “mellow out” and start acknowledging and empowering the diversity of possible perspectives within their general area of interest. To the extent that the mainstream media picked up on the same connotations for “feminism” that I remember from decades ago, I could see that many women would reject the label while still agreeing – even strongly – with typically feminist beliefs and values.

  8. One thing I’ve often heard anecdotally is that women today don’t notice any systemic barriers until they have children– then they become far more aware of these problems. Whether that makes them willing to call themselves feminists or not is another matter– I’ve certainly met plenty of people who don’t realise that feminists spend a lot of time and energy on work/childcare issues. It’s also worth bearing in mind, quite separately, that women of colour may reject the label “feminist” because they see feminism as excessively focused on white women– which it certainly is sometimes, though I’d like to think far less so than it used to be.

  9. Here is a quote from an old yet interesting issue of Discover (http://discovermagazine.com/2002/nov/featadapt), regarding a woman scientists lack of awareness of her own vulnerability to bias:

    “Looking back on her career, however, she believes she was subject to plenty of bias; like many successful women in nontraditional fields, she was just particularly adept at denying it. “I was oblivious for a long time,” she recalls, “and that’s the way I coped. It was very much a defense. If I had stopped and thought about it, I would’ve felt so vulnerable to it.”

    Perhaps some women avoid the label ‘feminist’ for similar reasons.

  10. Jender: or many young women don’t really experience sexism until they go to grad school in philosophy, as you’ve discussed here!

    i think that some women of my mother’s generation believe that they were sold a package of goods by feminism, in the sense that they were told they could and should have equality, and yet they still were working a double (or triple) shift at home raising children and doing domestic work. i’ve worked hard to convince some women that feminism isn’t actually to blame for that, but that it’s a movement and it takes time and struggle.

    i think that some of the women in my classroom see feminism as just affirming whatever particular women want to do (e.g., become scientists; kiss girls to impress boys), in which case they don’t see the use of it, or think we’re beyond that, since neoliberalism does that for us anyway. Others see it as unnecessarily antagonistic, much for the reasons (i think) that alpha quoted above. it’s not nice to admit that you are actually shaped and limited by very powerful forces beyond your control, especially when you don’t think that the guy sitting next to you (who you’re really starting to like) could be responsible for that in any way. -not that he is; it’s just difficult to sort out structural critiques of gender from actual gendered people (at least for many of my students!)

    i wonder if this is a kind of double-consciousness? in which case i think that the answer is more feminism, not less.

  11. In response to Orlando: there were actually two different notions of “feminism”, one from a Japanese woman in her 50s and one from a Korean woman in her 30s. My Japanese companion didn’t explicitly state what she thought “feminist” meant but from what she did say it seemed that she thought “feminist” and some conception of “feminine” that she had were incompatible. (She told me that she was surprised that a feminist could be attractive, a comment that I had a very hard time figuring out how to respond to graciously, as she was my host!) The Korean woman’s attitude was quite different and very much in line with Jender’s comment. She had considered herself a feminist and then she had children and her reaction to them, her wanting to care for them and still ambitiously pursue her career was creating a tension that she couldn’t figure out how to deal with. And she felt isolated because no one was talking about these sorts of difficulties. Interestingly she also was distressed that her mother hadn’t warned her about the difficulties, but, in fact, her mother hadn’t known. Her mother was college educated but did not work outside of the home and so her experience was very different. Some of this is cultural. The rapid changes in Korea seem to have compressed some of the same dilemmas that we cope with in the US.

  12. I think a big part might be an image problem. There is of course the way it has been associated with shrill man-haters — you probably know that smear only too well. Another side might be a generation gap: even without negative framing the word has an association with events that took place decades ago. That is often the time of the youth of “experts”, but there might be a reluctance to identify with it in younger women, which could reinforce those “it’s not relevant anymore” attitudes.

    I don’t think it’s important to label oneself a feminist to support gender equality, but the question itself is interesting. I’m male, but I did label myself one as such for a long time, basically because the phrase “feminism is the radical notion that women are people” struck a chord for me. Now I’m very uneasy using that label. The more I got involved in feminism, the more I’ve been told that this is not feminism at all, that to be a proper feminist you have to be female, white, affluent, college educated and toe the line of various conflicting sets of scriptures. So in a sense supporting gender equality was so besides the point that the question got reversed to “how important is it to support gender and sex equality in order to label oneself a feminist”. And sometimes the answer seems to be “not that much” .

    I wonder whether this experience might have been shared in part by women — WOC do seem to have had a taste of it — even though it’s most likely a pretty insignificant part statistically. I am pretty confused now about what “feminist” means, and about whether it’s possible to be a feminist and something else as well. Maybe I’m not alone.

  13. just like the words “bitch” and “slut,” our society has attached extremely negative connotations to “feminist.”

    amazingly, i was sitting in my economics class the other day when my professor started talking about the wage gap. to my chagrin, i found that she actually thinks gender studies is a “joke” and that we should just call feminism courses “women’s pity classes.”

    it’s one thing for men to wrongly label feminists as “man haters,” but it’s another thing for a woman to undermine other women by putting them down in front of 300 students.

    i openly admit that i am a feminist, but i’m one of the few women i know that are able to identify themselves as such. we need to educate our children to understand the significance of feminism and why it’s a good thing to believe in equality of sexes.

  14. YAG’s and counterfnord’s comments are making we wonder whether we should find another term. Not necessarily to discard the term feminist (and lose the blog title!), but to add a more effective piece of rhetoric. I should say that I am usually pretty against changing language to solve a problem in this sort of way. But it does not help us if we do not use a more effective rhetoric.

    Another alternative might be to modify feminist in a way that stops a quick and negative interpretation. Perhaps something like “I a pluralistic feminist.”

    I can easily imagine that getting shot down, so let’s get other suggestions on board.

  15. I’m interested in feministic ideals but as a 16 year old boy with school, college apps, and other things coming up i have yet to come out of the perverbial closet and become more involved.

    What seems to be the problem is coming from multiple angels. One is that once the feminism died down in mainstream media, companies took advantage of this by advertising sexists products yet giving them the title of “empowering women” though there was not much difference except in expressed sexuality. Another is that now that there are history texts with the feministic movement of the 70’s in them (god its been that long already), to me they seem to portrayed in a negative light. Where as the movement for women’s suffrage is now portrayed as a great cause (from the view of men) because it gave women the right to vote but it did not change their roles at home. The feministic movement of the 70’s has been portrayed as a group of women who were man-hating, lesbian, trouble makers who wanted to destroy any sign that the male gender had ever existed. This portrayed point of view is what is really scaring young women and girls away from identifying with this word.

    If feminist organizations (and i apologize for being totally ignorant of their names) would make a more conscious effort of changing the view of a feminist from the extreme to a more moderate cause in which more women want to identify with, then there may be a resurgence in women who are willing to identify themselves as a feminist. I’m not saying change the goals, that would be an act of conforming back to previously held stereotypes of a woman (aka 1950’s versions). But change how the cause is portrayed in the media, as a more moderate (not less demanding though) view. Such as supporting the Dove ad campaigns, which are really cool in my view. And directing the message to mothers who will spread that on to their young daughters.

    Also groups such as Women Scientists (don’t remember the exact name) need to make more appearances to show young girls that being a female scientist or anything involving a math science combo is cool and exciting. They did a few visits to my middle school and the effect seemed positive, but they did not identify themselves as feminists which, now looking back, is kind of disappointing, but they probably wouldn’t have gotten such a large attendance if they had, which is also disappointing.

    Sorry for the long comment

  16. I really don’t think that the solution is to devise a new name for feminists. As an atheist, I cringe every time I read about someone like Daniel Dennett referring to himself as a “Bright,” a term which strikes me as both futile and, in a way, dishonest.

  17. your average girl: that is shocking. but i was under the impression that all us academics were brainwashing our students to be mindless liberals who all want to major in women’s studies! i guess your econ prof didn’t get the memo ;)

    alec: your analysis is very astute and right on. there seems to be a tension, however, between what feminists can do to change the perception of feminism, and how much control others (say, the “backlash” that susan faludi documented in the early nineties) have over the perception of feminism. i don’t know what the solution to that is, as the struggle over who shapes discourse is always a big task. i do think that if more seemingly “moderate” women (whatever that means) identify as feminist, this may help to combat the idea that feminists are all of the stereotype you describe so well.

    as to different terms: brownfemipower took to the term mujerista after her recent (painful) struggles with white feminism. somewhat like, i imagine, many black feminists of the 70’s and after self-identified as womanist. i think that the kind of critique that these identifications offer is healthy and it is a reminder to question one’s own position as a woman as a representative one, which is of course (or ought to be) part of the overall mode of critique that i think feminism operates in.

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