“I’m Not a Feminist, But…”
Why some young women are shying away from the f-word
All too often, you’ll hear a woman start a sentence with “I’m not a feminist, but…” Such a statement is usually followed by a pro-feminist idea. Since its inception, the term “feminist” has faced negative connotations from both sexes. Helen Andronaco, a student at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut, captures the negative stereotypes with her perception of feminism. “My image of a feminist is an aggressive woman, hostile towards men and ‘gender roles,’ who is determined to make anybody not agreeing with her opinions, male or female, feel uncomfortable,” Andronaco says. “I have this image because the word ‘feminist’ itself has such an unpleasant ring to it, plus I’ve never really met any woman who claimed to be [a] feminist that [hasn’t] had severely disturbing/militant opinions about how other people should live their lives.”
Such allegations aren’t uncommon. Laura Lockwood, the director of the Women and Gender Resource Action Center at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, who calls herself a lifelong feminist, says “many women have bought into the right-wing backlash myth that feminists are man-haters.” Amanda Marcotte, editor of the feminist blog Pandagon, says she feels that the backlash towards feminists is due to miscommunication of how feminists behave. “I blame sex. Young people are fed a bunch of lies about how feminism precludes getting laid, and because they’re human beings, they avoid it,” Marcotte says. “What they need to know is that not only do feminists get laid, they find ways to do it that don’t involve cruising around with sleazy guys who aren’t any good in bed anyway. Once you clue into that advantage, being a self-identified feminist becomes much easier.”
It’s hard to say exactly how many women identify as feminist. No broadly-based scientific poll has been conducted. Since polls are never conducted, articles can variously declare feminism dead every few years, relying largely on anecdotal evidence. Since that seems to be the only way to answer a question about feminism, Campus Progress decided to talk to young women about what they think of feminism. What they say is an interesting look into how feminism is perceived by ordinary women, some activists, some not.
Feminism has a long reputation for creating divisions among women. Feminism began with women fighting for their right to vote around the turn of the century, and many at the time thought gender equity was “resolved” with the 19th amendment. But in the 1960s and 1970s the movement evolved into what is commonly known as the second wave, largely attributed to the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. As the result of the work of Friedan and others, feminists fought for equal rights in the workplace and law, awareness of sexual assault, and the end of economic and social disparities that occurred because of the gender gap. But multiple factions of feminism arose; the most prominent of which was black feminism. Leaders in that movement complained that the larger feminist movement excluded or marginalized women of color. Such concerns persist today: Channon Miller, who is active in the Trinity College Black Women’s Organization, recognizes some of the limitations of the feminist movement for women of color. “I’ve [read] some history on the feminist movement, and I feel that the issues of the women of color are completely different, and in a lot of times, they aren’t recognized. So I feel that it’s also hard for me to connect to this movement where my ancestors, black women and other women of color, aren’t acknowledged. I call myself a black feminist—if I call myself a feminist, it’s a black feminist—just because that movement is separate.”
After the divisions in the second wave, feminism took on a new perspective in the 1990s known as the third wave. It continues through today, with some even arguing we’ve now transitioned into a fourth wave. Samara Strauss, a research assistant in pediatric psychopharmacology, is a young woman who doesn’t identify as feminist but has a positive image of feminism. “My image of a feminist is someone who is extremely independent, free-thinking, and aware of the issue that gender plays in everyday interactions,” she says. Strauss’ image of feminism is because of a lot of the work of the third wave and modern feminists like editor of the blog Feministing Jessica Valenti, who wants to make feminism “cool” again.
Miller, despite her problems with the movement’s relationship with women of color, finds some benefits to the label. “My image of a feminist is a woman who stands up for her rights and the rights of other women, and is passionate about making sure that the United States and [the international community] is a progressive place that women can have the same rights that men do,” Miller says.
But Miller also feels that the biggest constraint of the feminist movement is negative stereotypes, restricting feminist-identified women. Miler feels that “from the outside I do look like a feminist, but the reason I don’t call myself that is I don’t want people to put me into this box that I’m this one type of way.” Miller is an activist for feminist issues, but steps away from using feminism to describe herself. She’s not unlike many young women today.
Jocelyn Schur, a member of the Trinity Students Organized Against Racism, says, “Some people chose not to call themselves feminists because they don’t know exactly what that means and they are also afraid of the stigma.” She also says that “the greatest downside of the feminist movement would be that it shuts people out—the connotation of the word closes some people off of what they are trying to advocate for.” What keeps these women and men from calling themselves feminists is the stigma that is attached to that name, and the restrictions that it imposes. Those who do not call themselves feminists are afraid that if they identify as a feminist, they won’t be seen as anything else.
Strauss, though she said she has a positive view of feminism, says, “I’ve had too many experiences where self-proclaimed feminists want to engage the discussion of feminist issues [as long] as you agree with their opinions on how various issues should be handled. For example, I can call myself a feminist if I believe in abortion but not if I don’t.” It’s a debate that has been raging in the blogosphere in recent months, with legallyheidi wrting, “Feminism (at least to me) is not just about reproductive rights, it’s not just about the Lilly Ledbetter Act. It’s about equality and empowerment and setting goals and accomplishing them because we’re not in the 1900s anymore and we can vote, we can run for office and we can have careers and The Man can’t stop us.”
Some believe that such a focus on abortion rights alienates other women who might be pro-woman but not pro-choice. “I think some self-proclaimed feminists just like to be overly assertive about controversial issues to generate feelings of superiority to others by forcing them to listen to a bunch of crap they’ve read in books and simply recite [it] for the sake of reciting and hearing others agree or disagree,” Andronaco says.
But one of the most common declarations about feminism is that it has already accomplished gender equality and isn’t “necessary” any more. “Of course, the situation isn’t perfect, and problems with equal pay for equal work and domestic violence, just to name a few, still exist,” Strauss says. “However, success seems like an appropriate term when comparing the situation of today’s American woman to that of a woman 100 years ago.”
“I think the goals of feminism have been met, but there are still some more. Women still are discriminated in the workplace…they are not given as many rights, wages or time off as their male counterparts. There still is a while to go, but we’re getting there,” remarks Miller. The data on women in the workforce is mixed. The current economic climate predicts that women will soon become the majority of the workforce, yet statistically women make less than men, with the gap growing larger the longer women are in the workforce. As the Ledbetter case showed, women are still discriminated against in the workplace.
The women interviewed agreed with feminists that equality should be guaranteed for everyone. All these women seemed to be on the same page about the goals of feminism, but they just disagreed about the use of the word itself. Some found it limiting. The difference between feminists and non-feminists isn’t because of what feminism stands for—both groups believe that all people, regardless of gender, should have equal rights. But if that’s the goal, then there is still a long way to go. “As long as women are sexually and physically violated, trafficked and pimped, exploited, and endure discrimination, the work is not done,” Lockwood says.
Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch recently graduated from Trinity College. She was the senior co-editor for Women Unite!, part of the Campus Publications Network.