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?

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