What is wrong with feminism?

There have been two posts so far on the PBS program, Women Making American; see here and here. It is not as problematic as I originally feared; that is, it isn’t just about fairly recent white US female media personalities. Still, a program that attempts to follow even the limited history of the feminist movement from Friedan forward is going to be short on critical analysis.

Nonetheless, there were two topics that often get at least a mention on this blog about which we’ve not had much explicit to say. So when the program took them up, I listened very carefully. The program’s style of interviewing one or a few women meant that in some cases we were just getting one person’s opinion. Still, though the content on two topics was very minimal, I thought it might be interesting to get reactions from those of you who come here.

Topic One: why don’t young (white, middle-class) women want to describe themselves as feminists?
One answer: because feminism is associated with the more extreme forms it took in the 70’s and 80’s. Women today are not so anti-male, etc, as these parts of radical feminism.

Topic two: Why doesn’t the feminist movement attract more women of color?
One answer: because it typically leaves out class; women of color see the problems in terms of race, gender and class.

I think it would be a mistake to think along the lines of “it can’t be this simple,” because in fact these are not simple problems. But what do you think?

16 thoughts on “What is wrong with feminism?

  1. Thanks for the post (and blog!)

    I’ve begun to think that one answer to question 1 has to do with the academic nature of feminism. At least ,the students I ask seem to be worried they don’t know what it is. The impression is that, like other studies in disciplines, feminism has a methodology and experts in it are trained, etc. I’ve asked, “so it would feel like saying you are a sociologist, when you don’t work in that field?” and gotten yes responses. I don’t really have a solution to this, if it is a problem.

    Question 2? I think white feminists are often still racist in detectable ways, and plenty of people pick up on that. I’m convinced by George Yancy’s work on this.

  2. I feel like the answer Anne proposed to topic one might be better suited as a dichotomy. Maybe part of it is that young women see this ‘either-or’ way to go on feminism: either feminism is anti-male (i.e. – crude view of radical feminism) or it’s so banal as to be obvious and not worth of self-identification (i.e. – crude version of liberal feminism where being a feminist just means that women shouldn’t have their rights/status driven back to the 1950s or earlier).

  3. Matt: I’m skeptical about the idea that ordinary people have disjunctive beliefs, or at least very many of them.

  4. Agreed. I did a lousy job saying what I meant. The disjunction isn’t that people think feminism is either X or Y. It’s that people either think feminism is X (radfem) or they think feminism is Y (libfem). They hold one of two possible gross misconceptions.

  5. Topic I: because feminism is perceived as dealing with interpersonal, male-female relationships rather than women’s social position and options, and is perceived as a personal attack on men.

    Topic II: because feminism has done little to help working class women–the 2/3 of women (in the US) who aren’t college graduates. It has done very little to address horizontal sex segregation in the labor force, to enable working class women to get out of the pink-collar ghetto, to get guy jobs–manual labor.

    OK? Next question?

    I just spoke at a class at our law school. And this came out in the discussion, in a class off law students most of whom were women. I’ve simply never been interested in being lawyer or manager. Breaking glass ceilings to get to be a partner in a fancy law firm or being a corporate exec is something I’ve never even thought about, and something I can’t even imagine wanting. What makes me envious is, e.g. when I had a guy sanding and refinishing my floors, something he does without supervision, as an independent contractor. We got to chatting and said after he was done he was going to go camping with his family. That’s the kind of job and life I find appealing. Or when I had my porch, which was collapsing, redone by carpenters and others. That’s the kind of job I’d find appealing.

    Feminism had done next to nothing to make it feasible for women to get those kinds of jobs.

  6. While I kind of know what people are talking about when they talk about young people today’s reluctance to describe themselves as feminist, it seems odd to just assert it as a general, unqualified fact. Tons of adolescents and 20-somethings claim that title, as is evidenced by the various “I need feminism because…” blogs out there (e.g.: http://whoneedsfeminism.tumblr.com/). I happen to be one of those young people myself, and the vast majority of my friends and classmates see themselves as feminists. I know this is not the rule–I run with a fairly progressive and intellectual crowd–but was ‘feminist’ ever an uncontroversial title? When was this golden age when all the kids were totally down with exposing themselves to the derision and hostility directed towards feminists?

  7. smachel: nice points. I suspect that if you looked at our blog posts on this topic, they are more qualified than my generalizing comment is.

  8. In response to the first question: is there such a hesitation? I doubt I know more than a handful of people in the group specified who wouldn’t describe themselves as feminists, though this may simply be due to the fact that I live in a liberal area where few of the people I know (with some major exceptions) are politically or socially conservative.

  9. On the first topic: Socio-religious expectations (and pressure) would be at least part of the answer. I live in a more traditional-conservative part of the country (USA) where many women overtly loathe feminism, even in its more moderate expressions.

    On the second topic: Again, living where I do, it seems many women of color shoulder far more responsibility in both home and community than “typical” white, middle-class women. They also face greater challenges related to race and income, so it makes some sense that women of color are less attracted to feminism, per se.

  10. Thank you for posting this topic. I’ve been scratching my head over the resistance towards Feminist Theory in the classroom. I have found that broadening the discussion to contemporary global issues brings about more interest for my students, and it helps to dismantle their presuppositions of what Feminism means (as something that is radical and counter-cultural).

  11. Topic I: I once had a 20-yo explaint it to me: “feminists hate men… and besides, they say you should sleep around with many guys, and I’m not too interested in that.” So I think we have the media to thank for a lousy public image.

    Topic II: Where I live, women of color are first- or second-generation immigrants from countries where values are more traditional. It can’t explain it all, but it plays an important role

  12. Louis, your “Topic II” reminds me that it is wrong to think of women of color as forming some unified group with shared opinions.

  13. They’re not simple problems at all but, historically, the answers you have provided are what the issues boil down to. And they’re issues we still haven’t addressed, despite our multiple “feminisms”. The problem of WOC and feminism is most worrying to me.

  14. @anne: It is. But we cannot exclude context either. I’m not really thinking about personal opinion as much as social pressures and family aspirations.

  15. this is a nitpick, but i think Andrea Dworkin has written about how radical feminists have been labeled as anti men. if i remember correctly, radical is more along the lines of ‘against the status quo.’

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