The Ol’ F-Word Debate

Does is matter if women identify as feminist or is just important that they live feminist values?
It’s a question that has haunted the movement for ages. It came up quite a bit for me when I was teaching gender studies at Hunter College. I could see that I was reaching the young women in men in my class–that they were moved to think about race and sex as constructs, sexism in the workplace, rape, sexuality as a spectrum not a binary (in other words, they were really “getting it”)–but few of them left my class wearing the feminist label proudly on their sleeves. Did I fail? Or was it enough that they were thinking and acting like feminists?
As I’ve been speaking at college campuses around the country about my book, I’m running into the same questions. I always argue that being involved in feminism is one of the solutions to the crisis of self-hatred and eating disordered behavior in this country (basically that having a systemic lens to apply to all of this personal suffering can be totally healing and liberating). And sometimes “the kids these days” seem to embrace my point. Some ladies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, IL (home of the first ferris wheel) started a feminist group on campus after I was there (yeahyeahyeah). Sometimes, they take their own creative spin on it…
I was at Princeton recently and one of my student guides was the fabulous and brilliant Chloe Angyal. Not only is she studying sociology and thinking about working in public health, but she had great cowgirl boots and an Australian accent (swoon). Anyway, we’re new best friends. She sent me this link to a piece she wrote called “How to be a feminist without anyone knowing.” In it, she claims that she is “a self-confessed raging feminist,” that she doesn’t “think anyone should be ashamed of the label.” At the same time, she writes, “I can understand how many women are not quite ready for it yet.” She then goes on to detail five great feminist mindsets/actions for the “I’m not a feminist but…” types that don’t involve truly coming out as feminists.
Okay, so what do we think? Obviously the best case scenario is girls and women around the world embracing the term and being raging, out, joyful feminists. BUT, given that best case scenario isn’t always possible, is this a good alternative perspective? Will thinking and acting like a feminist long enough lead closeted ladies into the light? Does it matter–really and truly–if they ever embrace the label as long as they’re contributing to the movement? (I think it does, but I’m asking for fancy rhetorical effect).
There’s this other book out, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, called Full Frontal Feminism. Um, obviously FFF is–in part–an argument for why young women should and need to embrace the label. And what a wildly successful argument it has been! I run into young women all the time who say that the book turned them into out feminists, that they named their clubs on campus “Full Frontal Feminism” in honor of their awakening etc. (Go Jess, go Jess, go go go Jess!)
But what about those gals who are still hanging out in the in-between? Must we convince them to take the label or is it enough that they’re down for the cause?

Join the Conversation

  • Court

    I’m so bummed that I missed Courtney’s talk at Princeton! As a daily feministing reader for about six months now, I was excited to see her come visit my campus, but I had a show opening the next night so I couldn’t make it.
    Chloe’s article in The Prince is spot on – there are so many people on this campus, men and women, who embrace feminist values without wanting to be associated with what they perceive to be a radical or man-hating movement.
    I’ll share one story that gave me hope: during freshman week, the Resident Advisors talk about respect and treating everyone equally. At one point, one RA asked his advisee group, “Who here is a feminist?” The only person who raised his hand was a freshman boy from Arizona, who then proceeded to explain feminism to everyone. The RA asked, “Now that you know what feminism is, who here is a feminist?” and everyone raised their hands.
    Note: It wasn’t just an exercise in conformity. At every diversity-awareness event there’s time for discussion of different points of view, and it’s always made clear that free speech is a given even if it offends other people. If there are racist, anti-feminist, or homophibic comments made, the RA mediates and explains how everyone has a right to their own opinion, but has to act respectfully toward others even if they don’t agree.

  • waxghost

    I just want to add my vote that men absolutely can be feminists.
    I didn’t read the comment upthread as entirely excluding men from being feminists but as calling out those men every feminist has met who call themselves feminist and then act like they should be treated like benevolent gods for deigning to embrace feminism. There are some men like that, but there are plenty others who don’t use that identification as an ego-stroke who are feminists and (imho) free to use the “feminist” label.

  • exelizabeth

    I am baffled by people who don’t call themselves feminists because there are just too many viewpoints of feminism, so the word “feminist” is meaningless or not descriptive enough.
    Aren’t there lots of people who call themselves “Christians,” but hold wildly varying, if not contradictory, viewpoints? Same thing with “Democrats,” “Conservatives,” “Environmentalists.” Just because a movement or belief system has debates within it, or even contradictions, is no reason to reject the label, unless you disagree with the fundamental concepts underlying it.
    One of the reasons I call myself a feminist is BECAUSE there is debate and disagreement in the movement; it’s not monolithic, so it has room for me as well as for people who don’t see eye to eye with me.

  • caiis

    I think that men can be feminists and I completely agree with exelizabeth:
    “Aren’t there lots of people who call themselves “Christians,” but hold wildly varying, if not contradictory, viewpoints? Same thing with “Democrats,” “Conservatives,” “Environmentalists.” Just because a movement or belief system has debates within it, or even contradictions, is no reason to reject the label, unless you disagree with the fundamental concepts underlying it.”

  • exelizabeth

    HotblackDesiato: I fully embrace the feminist label, and one of the issues I am most concerned about are constructs of masculinity, many of which I think are harmful to both men and women. There is quite a lot of recognition and discussion of that amongst a lot of feminists!
    I find often when people say things like, “Feminists don’t talk about X,” they actually DO talk about X quite a lot, it’s just whoever’s saying it hasn’t come across it (or bothered to do the research).

  • HotblackDesiato

    I’m not saying that feminists cannot be concerned about constructs of masculinity. What I am saying is that one of the required assumptions of feminists would have to be that societally forced gender roles harm women far more than men. Without this much feminist dogma including male privilege and notions about the patriarchy would not make any sense.
    I agree with you that feminists could care about how societally forced gender roles harm men, despite believing that they harm women much more. But without this belief I don’t see how someone could agree with many of the core teachings of feminism.
    I posted because I disagreed with some comments above who equated feminism with only wanting equality. I think there is more to it than that, even though there is still a lot of disagreement and discussion within feminism.

  • Keith Ellis

    “I didn’t read the comment upthread as entirely excluding men from being feminists but as calling out those men every feminist has met who call themselves feminist and then act like they should be treated like benevolent gods for deigning to embrace feminism.â€?
    Yes, but part of my point is that I’m often misperceived as one of those people. That’s why I’m trying to make the distinction I’m trying to make for myself, and to propagate its idea to others.
    To make this most clear, I feel that sexism against women is a clear injustice that should be fought by every right-thinking person. I’d like to fight against it with as much vigor, with as much leadership as I’d fight anything else I consider injustice. And, more importantly, I think I ought to be able to.
    In contrast, however, in a great many or perhaps most or even all contemporary feminist contexts, it’s not appropriate that I be active with as much vigor, with as much potential for leadership, as the women around me. For exactly the reasons discussed in the quote and more extensively elsewhere in this thread.
    The idea I’m trying to get at is the answer to asking why it seems obvious (to me, and I think most people) that any person should be able to be an equal partner in the fight against sexism while, simultaneously, it’s equally obvious that men should not be equal partners in the fight for feminism.
    In feminism, a man cannot do the sorts of leadership things that both men and women do when people organize for a cause because they are implicitly utilizing their privileged position when they do so. They are implicitly saying, “I’m taking charge because it’s the most natural thing in the world that I, a man, take charge when women are involved.â€? It doesn’t matter that the individual man isn’t actually thinking that. He is, in some real sense, still doing that because we are all part of the larger society—and when the forms of the inequalities of the outside society are duplicated within a community designed to eradicate those forms, it’s very hard to prove that it’s not just forms, but substance. If for no other reason (though there are surely other reasons) than that we are creatures of habit.
    When I make the distinction between opposing an injustice and advocacy, I’m trying to get at the distinction between the cases in which women are not threated and the cases in which they are. Women are threatened by men involved in feminism when they (correctly) feel that their own agency is being challenged or reduced, usually in forms that mimic external society.
    A woman’s agency is a finite thing, she possesses it in full, in part, or not at all. There are things that men can do—and often, in fact, do—to ostensibly further women’s interests but are also reducing some particular woman or group of women’s agency.
    In contrast, there are things that men can do to oppose sexism that don’t in any way affect any individual woman or group of women’s agency.
    The notion of empowerment is deeply involved in this kind of distinction. You can “help� people in ways that empower them or disempower them. Many, many people have a sort of color-blindness when it comes to the distinction between the two.
    But all of us who are disadvantaged in some way know the difference very well from being on the receiving end of the difference. And I include myself in an underclass because I am physically disabled. I know the difference between people who are helping me in a way that empowers or disempowers me.
    So do women, and so do blacks and other racial minorities.
    I went to a very small, exclusive, liberal arts college. It was very white. In my class, we had only two blacks out of about 125 students. One evening, when one of these black people, a woman in my circle of friends, came back to the college, she was closely questioned by the campus police who ignored the other students with her. One of my other friends was incensed. While my black friend told her white friends to forget it, this one friend just couldn’t let it go. She must go to someone and protest, she said. Someone had to pay for the racism.
    I very gently said to her that although this was clearly an outrage, going against our friend’s preference for letting it go was in a very real sense usurping her own agency to answer racism and reifying the social status that it is we white people who matter, who will be listened to, who can “saveâ€? our black friends.
    But she was more enamoured of her outrage than she was concerned with how her actions might simply compound the indignity our friend had received that night.
    There is a place for her to fight racism. It wasn’t that time and place.
    There is a place for men to fight sexism against women. In the context of the feminist movement as it exists today, that place is narrowly circumscribed as it necessarily must be when there is only one game in town, feminism, and there are few men involved. In that context, every man who attempts to act as an equal is being naively blind to the reality that in doing so, he is necessarily diminishing the agencies of the women around him.
    No, you don’t go, as a white person, to a black neighborhood and encourage them to vote as a means to reducing racism. That’s condescending and only a white person would fail to recognize this.
    As you can see from the male feminists who have disagreed with me in this thread (or at least cloak themselves in feminist garb in order to complain about discrimination against men), this is a comprehension that is very difficult for a male feminist to achieve.
    More importantly, and this is very much subjective and speculative, it’s my sense that many of the men for whom it’s easiest to play a muted, diminished role in feminism are those for whom feminism is a sort of indulgence in women’s culture in the first place. Ask yourselves: when you see Iraqi children dead in the streets from American bombs, is this an outrage you will find it easy to mute in order to not offend? Activism that you would limit in order to not offend? No, it shouldn’t be easy.
    There needs to be a place in the movement fighting sexism against women where men are full partners, where they can be as active, as loud, as anyone else—not just because there should be a place for them to be, but to get them out of the places they shouldn’t be. Right now, there’s only the places where they generally shouldn’t be, and that’s a problem for everyone.
    In the months or however long it’s been that I’ve lurked at feministing, I’ve noticed more and more men in these threads. And they have been increasingly disruptive and their higher and higher profile is inappropriate and counter-productive. The good as well as the bad.
    With all due respect to SarahMC and others, anyone who thinks I’m advocating some sort of blanket “sit on his hands” policy is simply not reading me very carefully. There is a great many things men can do that will reduce sexism against women. But there are things they shouldn’t do, too.
    This is a problem that needs to be fixed, not denied or glossed over.

  • Kate Hutchinson

    I am very tired of women being afraid to call themselves feminists–I see that as a win for the patriarchy who have succeeded in taking away from women the empowerment of the term by degrading it.
    Recently, I redid the top page of my blog to describe myself as a Feminist first, before anything else. I’m not going to be afraid of the label.

  • avast2006

    “Out of curiosity, what do you think of the term “pro-feminist male” or the idea of studies of masculinities within feminism?”
    What “masculinities within feminism” sounds like — repeat, operative phrase being “sounds like,” as the original question concerned the apparent perceptions surrounding the word “feminist” that may cause people to reject the label — is that the speaker is defining some sort of Feminist Principle as the be-all and end-all of right-thinking human experience, within which right-thinking men define themselves. In other words men are expected to define themselves in terms of womanhood, effectively making “man” into a subset of “woman.” This is ironic, considering certain feminist attempts to control language via terms like “womyn.” (BTW, I’m curious what you think of that term.)
    I’m not claiming this is what you intend. I’m discussing a possible reaction to the specific words used and the connotations or implications that they carry.

  • exelizabeth

    HotblackDesiato: This is a complicated issue, so it’s doubtful I’ll be able to address it very holistically, but I can give you the gist of things that I’ve been thinking and reading about.
    The patriarchy still exists, and it as an aggregate benefits men more than women. This is why we still see men getting paid more than women, women still bearing the majority of responsibility for birth control and child care, women still being raped at alarming rates, etc.
    Now, constructs of masculinity, because men are still dominant (though women have made much progress) inherently shape concepts of femininity more than concepts of femininity shape those of masculinity. Femininity is often see as the opposite of masculinity, so masculinity is associated with strength, assertiveness, competitiveness, stoicism, leadership, and so on. Femininity is associated with caring, emotion, nurturing, weakness, kindness, softness, etc. As feminism has changed concepts of femininity, there has not been a similar shift in concepts of masculinity, which, in my opinion, has greatly limited individual men who don’t fit those paradigms.
    While men are privileged collectively, this does not translate to individual privilege for all of them, and a lot of individual men who don’t fit traditional concepts of masculinity are greatly harmed by being perceived as outside of male gender roles. The thing is, they are a largely harmed by other men (think school yard bullying). They are harmed and oppressed in the same way that women are. This is why concepts of masculinity harm both men and women, and why I think feminism must address them and involve men in that effort.
    So I do believe social roles harm women collectively more than they harm men collectively, but that individual women do have access to a broader gender role than individual men do.
    I have actually said many times that I think feminism has gone just about as far as it can go without addressing concepts of masculinity and how they impact men and women. We need men to be heavily involved and leading this effort to do that, and we’re not really working towards that end. I’m not sure how to do this, but I do know that men who are harmed by the masculine mystique need to get mad enough about it to do something before anything can change.

  • SarahMC

    Keith, thank you for clarifying. I understand your viewpoint a bit more now, and I think I agree with most of what you have to say.
    A couple weeks ago I commented that I found it ironic and bothersome that a commenter with the handle “A male” was dominating so many of Feministing’s threads. I do not dislike that person, but I completely see where you’re coming from and what you’re saying.
    Though I think a lot of the men who tend to dominate conversations on feminist blogs are not feminists, but rather MRAs or agitators.

  • kissmypineapple

    Keith, I second Sarah’s thank you. Your latest post was much clearer for me, and I appreciate very much the respect you have for women’s needed primacy in the movement right now.

  • exelizabeth

    Keith: You raise interesting points, and I do see your point. As a white person, I support anti-racist efforts and ideals, but I often feel I am too silent. And yet I am not sure how to be active without being insulting. But I realize that the most effective way I can support those ideals is to not be silent. You don’t have to tell feminists what to do; you’re right, that would be insulting. But supporting the work of feminists is to indeed be a feminist!
    Speak up when someone makes a sexist joke or when you see an insulting commercial. I see SO MUCH everyday that’s fucked up, that is hurtful both to men and women, and I try to comment on both. I think entrenched gender roles and gender determinism hurts both genders, and I try to speak out against it (see my comment above for more on that, if you’re interested).
    And you’re right, not every feminist discussion a place for you; but not every feminist discussion is a place for me, either! I am white and straight, so discussions about queer issues and race are not always a place for me to interject, though I appreciate the opportunity to listen and learn, which is a way I can learn what to say to support their issues, and how to be respectful.
    And you know what? Sometimes you’re gonna get attacked. There are angry people out there (and everyone gets angry sometimes), and some of them are women, and some of them are feminists. And there are some female feminists who have a hard time figuring out what to do with male feminists or who aren’t comfortable with them, and sometimes you’re gonna get crap just for being a man. It sucks to get crap for being who you are. Welcome to the everyday experience of women and feminists. And no, it’s not right, and we fight against that, but it’s gonna happen and you have to pick your battles.
    The example you gave with your friend is interesting. I think you’re right that the white girl took the agency away from her black friend. However, which is worse? Speaking up too vigorously and perhaps crossing a line? Or staying silent in the face of injustice? I think it’s good to be aware of that line (which is why listening is helpful, so you know what those lines are) and not try to cross it, but don’t let it rule your life. It’s better to cross it mistakenly occasionally than to always stay silent.
    An example of this is I had a really intense and awful discussion with a rape apologist on a livejournal. Only one person said anything to support me (well, my boyfriend said something, and the troll accused him of exactly what you mention– standing up for me because I “couldn’t handle it myself;” but standing up for someone who is being attacked and fighting back doesn’t take away their agency! It provides them support!). My friend whose journal it is, I pretty much assume he agrees with the apologist, or at least didn’t think his horrendous views were bad enough to speak up about. I think he was afraid. I lost some respect for my friend.
    So anyway. I can speak for myself and many feminists when I say we’re glad to have men who support us.

  • lyndorr

    Yes, I think I see what you’re saying Keith. Your post made me try to imagine a male midwife or a male women’s studies teacher. I mean men can only understand what it’s like to be a woman to a certain extent (and vice versa). Just like I can understand what it’s like to be black or poor only to a certain extent. So I can do my best to be not racist but inclusive of all and encourage others to do the same but I won’t be “leading the movement” like the girl you described in your post. I think that’s what you’re getting at?
    That being said, I do think it’s important to get men involved so they can understand why the feminist movement is so important, not be part of the problem, and not encourage sexism from other men.

  • RealWoman

    “I could see that I was reaching the young women in men in my class–that they were moved to think about race and sex as constructs, sexism in the workplace, rape, sexuality as a spectrum not a binary (in other words, they were really “getting it”)–but few of them left my class wearing the feminist label proudly on their sleeves.’
    Boy! You sure are brainwashing those kids aren’t ya? Yeah! it looks like it.

  • RealWoman

    “I could see that I was reaching the young women in men in my class–that they were moved to think about race and sex as constructs, sexism in the workplace, rape, sexuality as a spectrum not a binary (in other words, they were really “getting it”)–but few of them left my class wearing the feminist label proudly on their sleeves.’
    Boy! You sure are brainwashing those kids aren’t ya? Yeah! it looks like it.

  • dividebyzero

    Well since we teach that labels are social constructs, why not forget about the feminist labels. It just makes it that much easier for haters to make it into a box to fit the stuff we do into it and make it look like a dirty evil place. Christianity is like that in my opinion. People forget that to be Christian is not the same as being a fundamentalist. Many folks are doing the same with Islam lately and of course that has to stop too.
    Liberals rarely identify by that label for the same reasons lately. In 2002 give or take it was turned into an evil person who hates Americans and wanted/caused people to die. Now I see the progressive label thrown around as an alternative and that’s not right either. At first it sounds good but it’s really an old label and the original definition isn’t really what they espouse today under the same banner. I fear that it will eventually go the way of populist and just mean absolutely nothing at all and/or just serve as a mask for fundamentalist smears.
    Also the term feminist may lead to omition of other related and important themes that need to be considered. I see a lot of discussion about men and feminism. My argument about labels aside, I believe men can definitely be feminists and rightly should be. I’ve heard stories about women’s studies professors baring men from their classes and even though I understand the premise, can we really believe that’s the best thing in the long run? At what point does all this labeling and excluding cross the line into the opposite extreme of the crap-tastic adventures in funda-nutty land which we were trying to avoid in the first place?
    I consider myself a feminist male (well I could go into the shades of gray that Cortney thankfully mentioned in this article which apply to me but I won’t since I have trouble with labels and all anyway)and even though I don’t technically know what it’s like to have a vagina and be objectified and continually abused in a institutionalized and socially accepted manner and all those other juicy details we learn about from feminist theory, I can relate to victimization in it’s various forms. One of the things I have to ask is who’s to say who’s victimization is worse? Do we have to at all? I see arguments comparing racism and sexism and all the other -isms like it’s a contest of who’s got the coolest scar! It’s frigging disgusting if you ask me.
    Which brings me to another subject which is more or less on topic. I am sick and F*cking tired of the stupid “who’s the bigger feminist” debate. If I have to listen to one more damn debate about who’s not a real feminist because they’re not reading all the right books or up on all the right famous feminists, I’m libel to shank someone with a sieve made from my own arm bone. Graphic I know but I really want to make the point clear.
    You know at the end of the day we’re all fighting the same fight and I think if we slow down enough to listen to our gut/heart/spirit/god then we will be able to tell who’s really with us and who’s against us. I think our time, energy and other precious resources are far too… well, precious to be wasted fighting amongst ourselves and denouncing someone who may just be a budding feminist instead of taking them under wing and helping each other become better feminists and better people together.
    Besides, the internal quibbles are exactly what our detractors want to see us do. They want labels… They are so black and white in their thinking that the best way to shut them down is to be unified and diverse. It’ll blow their minds. Also to keep in mind is the psychological effects of this constant holier than thou attitude. I’m no professional psychologist or anything but isn’t this the same phenomenon that causes young girls to lose their minds from the constant comparison to celebrities and their more(perceived) successful peers? I think the best thing for any movement to do is to get along and make sure they do all they can to be welcoming to novices and newcomers. Being uppity or even appearing to be uppity should be taken very seriously and actions taken to soften it.
    I know a lot of folks in the social change world think it’s cliche to harken back to Dr King but Letters from the Birmingham Jail really helped me focus my efforts in all social justice. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for focus. Many accuse him of not being angry enough or playing into the man’s plan for the black community but reading this book proved to me that he was one pissed off leader. He thought he was fighting the good Christian fight but when it came time to stand behind him and do the right Christian thing, almost all other church leaders left him to rot.
    I really appreciate this forum and this article to spark conversation on this topic. It’s great to get this out into the open and make people question the fundamentals of what we’re doing here and to remember what it is we came to do in the first place.

  • nanabush

    As much as it breaks my heart, I think we need to give up on the name “feminism.” It’s just been dragged through the dirt way too much. There’s no way we can make it cool or relevant for the masses ever again. “Post-feminism” is too firmly established in the dominant discourse of the new generation to get “feminism” to rise out of the ashes. Too many people think that it excludes men, and god forbid we exclude men.
    I say that last sentence sarcastically, because we still have such a long way to go with women’s rights. Women still need their own space, their own platform, just so much still, but the men of today aren’t the men of fifty years ago. They don’t feel culpable for the history of patriarchy because they’re not. So even though 20th century feminism didn’t do enough to revolutionize the male experience, and as a result men are still being raised with all kinds of problematic ideas regarding their gender, identity and place in the world, we have to include men now and get the message out there that patriarchy sucks for everyone.
    My guess is that there will be another feminist revolution, but it won’t be under the name of feminism.