Why some young women are shying away from the f-word
By Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch
June 10, 2009
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 feministif I call myself
a feminist, it's a black feministjust 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 outthe
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 forboth 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