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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118 Comments

  1. Mary B
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    I saw Gloria Steinem speak at my college last year and she said something that really touched me that this post reminded me of.
    At the end of her speech, a woman in the audience got up and said, “I really feel like I’ve failed my daughter because I’m a feminist but she doesn’t even know who YOU are!”
    And then Gloria reassured her she wasn’t a failure and said, “I don’t care if your daughter knows who I am. I want her to know who SHE is!”
    I think that women don’t have to call themselves feminists to act like feminists and know who they are as individuals. They don’t have to understand what exactly the patriarchy is to understand other issues like their reproductive rights.
    (By the way, there is still a video of Gloria speaking up at the college website: http://www.wpi.edu/News/webcast.html)

  2. SarahMC
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I do think it’s important to embrace the label “feminist.”
    As long as few people embrace it (even when they embrace it’s values), “feminists” remain relegated to the irrelevant special-interest group status. And society continues to mock us and what we stand for.
    When more people identify as “feminists,” others will be forced to see that feminists are not what conservatives say we are – we’re not the stereotype depicted in the media. We’re just regular women with lovers and children and families and friends, the women (and men) sitting in the cubes next to you.

  3. Marissa
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    I personally agree with Naomi Wolfe’s perspective on this in The Beauty Myth, where she argues that women are afraid of the term feminism because anti-feminists have associated it with ugliness. The backlash against feminism was to redirect the arguments to physical appearance and create the stereotype of feminists being ugly, overweight, hairy, and any number of other things that do not meet our restrictive beauty standards. So in all, because of such extreme pressure to meet beauty standards, women reject the term feminism. I think that’s shitty and an indicator of just how much we NEED feminism.
    Another perspective that I have heard on blogs especially, is that many women of color feel that feminism is still trapped in its second wave and is about the needs of white women, excluding everyone else. I personally do not find that to be an accurate definition of the feminist movement in its current state in the least, but I do think it is true of specific individuals who identify as feminists. But I think feminism itself stands for a world-view of all people, including all races and ethnicities and genders and sexes and sexualities and ages, etc. And I think it stands for protecting the rights of all minority populations.
    In other words, I can understand why people in both instances reject the term, but I think it is out of a misunderstanding of the term or negative experiences with individuals who excluded other people’s needs. I think the term is VERY important.

  4. sophia86
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I was in the “I’m not a feminist, but…” camp until my junior year of college, when I took a course on women’s psychology. I now proudly embrace the label (and my boyfriend calls himself a feminist now too!), and I think that people shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge themselves as feminists. As SarahMC has, this is the way we confront stereotypes. But, I do worry that the term turns off a lot of guys who support feminist principles, but find the word’s “fem”-ness to imply an over-emphasis on female concerns and an implicit exclusion of men. Yes, as a feminist I’m concerned about women’s issues, but I’m also concerned about gender issues in a broader sense, and GLBTQ issues, and racial issues, etc. So I kinda wish there was a more encompassing term to use – but until then, I’ll keep using feminist and encourage others to do so.

  5. sophia86
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I was in the “I’m not a feminist, but…” camp until my junior year of college, when I took a course on women’s psychology. I now proudly embrace the label (and my boyfriend calls himself a feminist now too!), and I think that people shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge themselves as feminists. As SarahMC has, this is the way we confront stereotypes. But, I do worry that the term turns off a lot of guys who support feminist principles, but find the word’s “fem”-ness to imply an over-emphasis on female concerns and an implicit exclusion of men. Yes, as a feminist I’m concerned about women’s issues, but I’m also concerned about gender issues in a broader sense, and GLBTQ issues, and racial issues, etc. So I kinda wish there was a more encompassing term to use – but until then, I’ll keep using feminist and encourage others to do so.

  6. caiis
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I think that both (saying you are a feminist and acting like one)are important.
    With voting, for example, it doesn’t really matter if people say they are feminists, just that they have women’s equality in mind when they vote.
    But in everyday like I think it is important for feminist-minded women to identify as feminists because the word has been so stigmatized that to many it is an insult.

  7. nikaara
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    I run into this same problem with friends and family all the time. They think the word “feminist” embodies something too radical for them to fully embrace. I think a lot of people equate feminism with male chauvinism, and no one wants to be called a chauvinist.
    I can understand not wanting to be labeled, though. I think “feminist” is really the only label I’m completely comfortable with wearing. However, someone who really wants to be a feminist can’t hide his/her true feelings just by refusing to be labeled. I think part of being a feminist is understanding what the word actually means…and if you understand what it means, how could you object to it?

  8. betty
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I think a big reason that women don’t want to call themselves feminists because they want to get laid. Being for feminism doesn’t mean being against men and family.
    Do you hide your feminism safely until you get past the first few dates? What choice do you make when the man you love or his family recoils at the mention of feminism?
    Reading the comments even on this blog, some women are loathe to be different, to stick out, to run the risk of being “too…” (insert adjective here). The risk of being “too…” is a deep, deep fear.
    Open up a conversation on this blog about not taking your husband’s name upon marriage as a choice to be an equal in the household name or, like recently, about the childfree choice being a very good choice.
    Lots of people chime in like they are injured because a choice they did not take is applauded and admired. It’s like you always have to tack fifteen disclaimers to an opinion that is not about a woman going traditional to ensure that the traditional ones don’t get their feelings hurt. Even on a feminist board you run the risk of being deemed “too..” and “who does she think she is…”
    What if you don’t go with the pack? What if feminism means at times to stick out? What if a woman dares to eat with relish and take the last cookie at a gathering without any regrets? I make this up, but to some, it is outrageous and unnatural for a woman to not always put herself second (or third or fourth).
    And there are some women that think that there is nothing more important for a woman to do than to be a mother, for example. That’s not true, but on the other hand, are even feminists open to non-traditional choices – evaluating them on the same level of value?
    But hey, what would it mean if you did not have kids? Would your life have the same value as a woman who has kids? What about a single woman versus a married woman? Who is worth more? Would you have a life worth living? Are you worth as much on your own? It’s a provocative question.
    Deep, like I said. It really scrapes deep into what your value system is about human beings. The “F” word challenges that all women have equal value in human beings – even among women. Even some women who call themselves feminists have a hard time letting go of a caste system of some women and their choices making them worth more as human beings than others.

  9. caiis
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    I think that both (saying you are a feminist and acting like one)are important.
    With voting, for example, it doesn’t really matter if people say they are feminists, just that they have women’s equality in mind when they vote. (And that the votes are counted accurately).
    But in everyday life I think it is important for feminist-minded people to identify as feminists because the word has been so stigmatized that to many it is an insult.
    I agree with Marissa that anti-feminists have associated feminism with “ugliness” or “manly-ness” (not shaving or “dressing up,” etc.).
    Another association is with lesbianism. If anyone has seen “I was a teenage feminist,” there is one scene where a woman is beening interviewed and asked if she identifies as a feminist.
    She says no because she doesn’t want people to think she is a lesbian.
    The next question is “Are you a lesbian?” and she says yes.
    That exchange really floored me. Like sophia86, I am also concerned with LGBT issues and I think heterosexism/homophobia also has a lot to do with feminism’s bad reputation in some spheres.

  10. sara
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    I guess I feel like I’m the opposite–A “Yes, but..” feminist. I’m a feminist, but:
    -I don’t think it’s crazy to believe there might be some innate gender differences, nor do I think research into the question should be off-limits.
    -I do believe there is moral content in sex and some sexual decisions, even between consenting adults, can be morally wrong.
    -I think it’s ok to change your name when you get married (even though I wouldn’t), or do some other thing that’s grown out of patriarchal roots, without being so serious about it…
    -And the list goes on.
    My point is: I want to be labeled a feminist, and I agree with what I understand to be core feminist beliefs. But I often read other feminists arguing that people who believe certain things I believe aren’t really feminists. And that’s when I want to say I’m not a feminist.

  11. ttrygve
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    The ideals are far more important than the label.
    The ease with which you can convey the value and logic of feminist views to others is a sign of successes of the feminist movement.
    The persistence of the negative connotation of the word “feminist”, and people’s reluctance to identify with it is simply a sign of your *opponents* success.
    You’re winning (however slowly the progress may sometimes seem to come) the more important battle over ideals, but having a harder time defending the identity of feminism itself.
    Ideals never change quickly or easily, though, so progress there is *very* worthwhile. Names and identities, however, can change more easily, and thus can be *reclaimed*.
    But don’t diminish the victories you should be celebrating because of a minor setback on a mostly unrelated front.

  12. ellestar
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I’ve considered myself a feminist since I learned the word (thanks, Mom, for giving me its true definition).
    At 13, when I said I was a feminist, my then-friend informed me that being “feminist” was (insert Christian conservative inaccurate definition). I knew what it was and how I felt about equality, but I began to understand how much the word scared other people. I began to see how others misinterpreted feminism (often to their own ends). I also saw how intimidating that word was to others, especially boys. Therefore, I became very careful about who I admitted my feminism to because I was young and still cared about what other people thought of me.
    It would have appeared as though I was rejecting feminism because I didn’t proudly state my affiliation out loud.
    Growing older, I cared less about what others thought of me. And I started to get really, really angry at the way women were treated in our society. I began to proudly wave my feminist colors and if anyone around me was intimidated or uncomfortable with that word, it was their problem.
    Basically, I believe that most people who don’t claim the name “feminist,” but agree with its principles, will one day become angry enough to try on the label and find that it fits. If they don’t get angry enough, maybe they weren’t really a feminist to begin with.

  13. ellestar
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    I’ve considered myself a feminist since I learned the word (thanks, Mom, for giving me its true definition).
    At 13, when I said I was a feminist, my then-friend informed me that being “feminist” was (insert Christian conservative inaccurate definition). I knew what it was and how I felt about equality, but I began to understand how much the word scared other people. I began to see how others misinterpreted feminism (often to their own ends). I also saw how intimidating that word was to others, especially boys. Therefore, I became very careful about who I admitted my feminism to because I was young and still cared about what other people thought of me.
    It would have appeared as though I was rejecting feminism because I didn’t proudly state my affiliation out loud.
    Growing older, I cared less about what others thought of me. And I started to get really, really angry at the way women were treated in our society. I began to proudly wave my feminist colors and if anyone around me was intimidated or uncomfortable with that word, it was their problem.
    Basically, I believe that most people who don’t claim the name “feminist,” but agree with its principles, will one day become angry enough to try on the label and find that it fits. If they don’t get angry enough, maybe they weren’t really a feminist to begin with.

  14. ellestar
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I’ve considered myself a feminist since I learned the word (thanks, Mom, for giving me its true definition).
    At 13, when I said I was a feminist, my then-friend informed me that being “feminist” was (insert Christian conservative inaccurate definition). I knew what it was and how I felt about equality, but I began to understand how much the word scared other people. I began to see how others misinterpreted feminism (often to their own ends). I also saw how intimidating that word was to others, especially boys. Therefore, I became very careful about who I admitted my feminism to because I was young and still cared about what other people thought of me.
    It would have appeared as though I was rejecting feminism because I didn’t proudly state my affiliation out loud.
    Growing older, I cared less about what others thought of me. And I started to get really, really angry at the way women were treated in our society. I began to proudly wave my feminist colors and if anyone around me was intimidated or uncomfortable with that word, it was their problem.
    Basically, I believe that most people who don’t claim the name “feminist,” but agree with its principles, will one day become angry enough to try on the label and find that it fits. If they don’t get angry enough, maybe they weren’t really a feminist to begin with.

  15. Chilango2
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I think that if their taught to “think” and “act” feminist, that’s an awesome first step, and will eventually lead to being an “outed feminist” as it were.
    By the same token, encouragement to identify with that political group and consider oneself part of the movement should always be the end goal, so long as the encouragement to do so doesn’t become counterproductive (which is a minority of cases, I think)
    Insofar as that “fear of being called feminist” alot of the other commenters here are correct to note that that is a result of a at least partly successful marginalization tactic by anti-feminists. The efforts that the modern movement are taking (like the bloggers here) to correct that are heartening.

  16. Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    As long as feminists are demonized, the things feminists stand for will be demonized. As long as feminism is not okay, requesting equality for women is not okay. As long as women are afraid to identify as feminists, women will be afraid to ask for equal rights for fear of being labelled feminists.
    As long as devious anti-feminists are out there trying to tell us all that they totally support women and think we are awesome which is why they think we should make lots of babies, it won’t be enough to say you totally support women and think they are awesome.
    As long as there are people who get the fact that feminism is good but don’t completely feel like giving up their anti-woman stances on a few issues or aren’t fully educated, it will be necessary to point out to some “feminists” that they are adhering to anti-feminist beliefs (and that carrying anti-feminist beliefs is incompatible with being a feminist).
    I don’t particularly care if feminism causes men to feel excluded. Any man who gets upset that a word used to describe opposition to patriarchy puts an emphasis on the plight of women, who are more hurt as a group by the patriarchy than he is, is probably a douche.
    And any man who feels so offended that some feminists would rather he use the word “feminist-supportive” that he rejects feminism and thinks we’re all evil bitches for not allowing him a prime glorious spot in our movement where he can do something glamorous and attention-grabbing… is an enormous fucking douche. It’s only off-putting if you think of any woman who doesn’t let you into her club as an uppity bitch.

  17. chefmatt
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I didn’t take the time to read ALL of the comments, but I figured I throw in my opinion. So, forgive me if I happen to repeat what other people have said.
    I think that the philosophy is more important the label itself. While putting a label on people can help them organize, and really convey the message of who they are, I think labels can also be restraining, and legalistic. In the same way that our country has been thoroughly fucked up by the “are you a Republican or a Democrat?” mentality, people should not be classified by what they call themselves, but rather, by what they believe in. My room mates (women) don’t call themselves feminists, but they believe in all the same things, and they won’t hesitate to fight for what they believe in. That, I think is the most important part.

  18. Murray Hogarth
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I swear I’m not posting with the intent of starting another comment war…
    A significant portion of what feminism struggles to accomplish is, to put it very broadly, an end to the phenomenon of men wielding a disproportionate measure of power and influence, which is awarded to them on the basis of tradition, their penis, and society’s continued acceptance of a lot of archaic gender roles and sexist assumptions (i.e. women are more emotional, men are better leaders, etc.).
    Given that feminism is fighting an uphill battle, it seems that the cause would be well-served to focus at least as much energy on recruiting/converting male allies as it does female. Like it or not, the very definition of the patriarchal mindset dictates that the men who so badly need to be convinced of the validity of feminism’s ideals will give those arguments more weight if they hear them from another man.
    To that end, I contend that the “feminist” label should absolutely not receive nearly as much focus as the ideals, nor should one who chooses not to use it be viewed automatically as an inferior variety of ally. What matters is getting more people in the real world to be aware of the forces of patriarchy that are still at work, and to do everything they can to expose & fight them, and you may find that you attract more of these people (especially men) without the f-word than with it.
    I’m sure there will be some people who read this and immediately react “No. It’s all or nothing. If you don’t embrace the word, you’re compromising the ideals on some level, and that’s a step backwards.” I would respond to that by asking that you look at the successes that the “other side” has had (to our detriment) in their willingness to compromise by advancing their agenda one small step at a time. The reason why Roe v. Wade is being slowly chipped away into nothing is because they keep pushing for small restrictions, looking forward to the cumulative effect. They would not have been able to do this if they’d held out for an outright ban on abortion, which is unlikely to ever happen. Unfortunately for women’s reproductive rights, they’re more pragmatic than that, and they will succeed in continuing to restrict it to the point where it’s wholly impractical for more and more women.
    Ask the related question; which is more important:
    A. the acceptance of the word,
    or
    B. the accomplishment of feminism’s mission (with the possible exclusion of A.)
    The answer, to me, is obviously the former.

  19. Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    That was a wonderful article. I wish we (my wife and I) could get my 21-year-old sister-in-law to read this site and understand what is discussed here. She’s smart, but I don’t think she understands the importance of feminism yet.

  20. Wildberry
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I never knew about the stereotype about the ugly, fat, butch feminist until after I already identified one. When I was about 15, my impression was that feminists were angry women who blamed men for their lower position in society, resented their higher one, and wanted to bring men down a notch. Interestingly enough, that was pretty much how I felt at the time, though I was under the impression that feminists were more radical than I was and wanted nothing to do with men.

  21. Murray Hogarth
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    …I meant to say THE LATTER. B. Sorry.

  22. SarahMC
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    But Murray, “feminism’s mission” IS associated with feminism.
    And until more people embrace the word feminism (and the “feminist” label), feminism’s mission will remain misunderstood and maligned.

  23. MirandaJay
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I always just think the “I’m not a feminist but” types are just really dense.
    You can say you aren’t a feminist but that doesn’t mean you aren’t – That would be like me saying “I’m not an atheist but I don’t believe in god”. It doesn’t even make sense

  24. Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I think it’s important to embrace the word “feminist” for a lot of the reasons already stated. Coming out has helped advance the cause of equality for the GLBTQ community because when a GLBTQ person is someone you know and care about, they can’t be demonized as easily.
    If merely labeling an idea, policy or movement as “feminist” associates it with a negative stereotype for the mainstream American, that makes it a lot easier for opponents.
    Murray, you may have a point there but the way you’re suggesting it sounds a lot like the standard “if you’re nice enough, the men will cooperate. Don’t push too hard or you’ll scare off the men.”

  25. betty
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I think that feminism is not just about equality measured against men’s rights and freedoms and value.
    It is also about equality among women and their potential. To not put down the seriousness of women who went for the Ms. title or voting rights (even being strident and in people’s faces!) or the women who did not take their husband’s name — as being “too…”
    It is valuing older women, angry women, childfree women, even the “ugly, fat, butch feminist” mentioned before. What would it mean if these women were equal in value to “pretty, thin, feminine women?” What would it mean if older women had the same value as younger women? What would it mean if childfree women had equal human value to women who have children? What if poor women had the same value as rich women? Pick another mind blowing comparison.
    Pretty radical, but it gets to the heart of the matter.

  26. Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Also Murray, men who are actually susceptible to feminist messages are, in my opinion, not terribly put off when I ask them to say they are “pro-feminist.” The men who respond to this with anger at feminists and a refusal to hear what feminists have to say tend to already be jerkfaces and don’t actually believe in equality for women.

  27. SarahMC
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Very good comparison, Geek.
    The more women who call themselves “feminist,” the more uninformed people will think, “Wait. She’s a feminist? But she’s so nice. And has a boyfriend. We get along. Hmmmmm…”
    I am not privileging “niceness” or “having a boyfriend” above other qualities, I am just throwing out examples of qualities not normally associated with feminists.
    We will never get people on board with feminism if people with feminist ideals refuse to call themselves feminists.
    That just allows people to continue thinking “all feminists are radical man-haters,” rather than, “Hey, my babysitter/cube-mate/lab partner” is a feminist; maybe she’s onto something.”

  28. Murray Hogarth
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    SarahMC, I think your point assumes that anyone not embracing the word automatically misunderstands and maligns feminism/ists, and I think this is demonstrably false. One can make this choice while coming from a place of tolerance and non-judgment.

  29. SarahMC
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    No no no, Murray. That is not what I’m assuming.
    I am saying that people who demonize feminism/ists are enabled when well-meaning folks with feminist ideals reject the term “feminism.”
    This allows anti-feminism, stereotypes and misinformation to fester.

  30. Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Murray- Anybody afraid to use the word feminism despite the fact that it describes to a T the values that they already hold is making a judgement about feminism and feminists. They are rather clearly deciding that they find the movement and the people in it repulsive enough that they refuse to identify as such even if they agree with absolutely everything said by feminists and feminism.
    Just because they are not combative or aggressive doesn’t mean they aren’t being extremely judgemental.

  31. caiis
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Murray-
    The subject of this post is an article about “how to be a feminist without anyone knowing.” It does not seem like the audience for this piece is making the choice to not call themselves a feminist “from a place of tolerance and non-judgement,” as you say, but because anti-feminists have pushed the image of feminists as ugly, hairy, butch, masculine, man and child hating, “uppity,” lesbian or anti-sex feminazis and they are SCARED or as the author says “not ready” to be associated with these stereotypes.
    As Sera said:
    “As long as feminists are demonized, the things feminists stand for will be demonized. As long as feminism is not okay, requesting equality for women is not okay. As long as women are afraid to identify as feminists, women will be afraid to ask for equal rights for fear of being labelled feminists.”

  32. Murray Hogarth
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Geek,
    I agree with your analogy for sure. I think visibility is a good thing; I just don’t think it’s the only thing.
    I didn’t mean for my point to be “don’t push too hard.” I certainly didn’t mean to imply that we should remain complacent in a state of “almost equal.” I was just saying that it’s important to keep in perspective that the word is just a label, and as such its value should not be seen to outweigh the value of the thing to which it refers.
    Sera, I disagree that men who are susceptible to feminist messages are automatically accepting of the word. I’ve dealt with family members who will bristle and immediately reject anything with a feminist label, but if I leave that word out of it I can make points about modern sexism that they will accept. I understand their reaction is somewhat primitive, but still I prefer to choose the course of action (avoiding the word) that will actually make them think. It’s better than nothing.

  33. Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    A rose by any other name…

  34. Emily
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I, too, have struggled with labeling myself as a feminist. In most cases, I do. I’m president of the Feminist Discussion Group on a fairly conservative campus, so sometimes I cherish the word for all the rebellion its associated with on campus. I’ve read Full-Frontal Feminism, and loved it. I also love the history of standing up and making noise that the word is connected with.
    But there’s two sides to this coin. That same history is often racist, and sometimes sexist. The word leaves an awful taste in some people’s mouth–some people who would love attending our meetings and helping in our causes.
    In my life, and on campus, I have worked really hard to change the face and the definition of feminism so that people who have been fed “feminism is evil” their whole lives are given positive, tradition-shaking people and things to equate the word with. So far the mission is going well but slow.

  35. Emily
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I, too, have struggled with labeling myself as a feminist. In most cases, I do. I’m president of the Feminist Discussion Group on a fairly conservative campus, so sometimes I cherish the word for all the rebellion its associated with on campus. I’ve read Full-Frontal Feminism, and loved it. I also love the history of standing up and making noise that the word is connected with.
    But there’s two sides to this coin. That same history is often racist, and sometimes sexist. The word leaves an awful taste in some people’s mouth–some people who would love attending our meetings and helping in our causes.
    In my life, and on campus, I have worked really hard to change the face and the definition of feminism so that people who have been fed “feminism is evil” their whole lives are given positive, tradition-shaking people and things to equate the word with. So far the mission is going well but slow.

  36. Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Murry, your clarification makes sense but only bolsters the point that the label is important. When a good idea can be dismissed by people as a knee-jerk reaction to the label its given that gives opponents an easy shortcut to demonizing that idea even among those who would otherwise support it.
    I’m not saying (and I doubt others are) that defending the feminist label needs to be part of every discussion. But the fight for a broader acceptance of the feminist lable is important and, I think, inseparable from the larger feminist movement.

  37. Andrea
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Well, before I discovered what feminism really was, I was already a sassy, rude, smart loudmouth, so it wasn’t that much of a jump for me to define myself as a feminist. I’ve found that all the feminists I know have a unique combination of intelligence, weirdo-ness, and a generally pistol-like wit. I’ve always wondered if that particular personality type leads to feminism. I think it is certainly an asset, considering the sense of humor needed to handle all the bullshit in the world.
    Who I worry about are young women who notice that things around them don’t seem fair or right, but are stuck in situations with reactionary people and who don’t have the resources to help them define exactly what is unsatisfying to them about their lives.
    I think Angyal hits the nail on the head with her advice for young women, especially the bullet point concerning the nature of one’s sexual expression. As a college-aged woman, the single most difficult thing for me to reconcile is sexuality. What to do, how to do it, who to do it with and, most crucially for me, what I really want to do instead of what my partner wants me to do. College-aged women are the most scrutinized sexually by the media, since they’re old enough that men won’t get a statutory rape charge, but young enough to still be TOTALLY HAWT AND SECKSAY and supposedly dumb enough to exploit Girls Gone Wild-style. I’ve made some difficult transformations in my life, but the single toughest has been reconceptualizing myself as not an object of desire but as a subject with desires. TMI probably, but I’ve found that with my specific sexual needs, women fill them better, though once in a great while (like right now), I’ll come across a feminist man who even surprises me with his views on sex and gender.

  38. ts
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Not sure you’re interested in an outsider’s (guy’s) opinion here, but anyway.
    I think the problem with the label “feminism” is that no one really knows what it stands for anymore without at least five sentences of qualifiers – are you a radical f., sex-positive f., marxist f., equality oriented or gyno-centric f., difference f., separatist f., feministing.com f? I think even a feminist philosopher would have trouble coming up with a significant superset of all those strands.
    Does being f. mean you believe in the more than problematic attempts to redefine epistemology (standpoint epistemology) once popular among many academic feminists? Or are you more on the post-modern side?
    When I hear “I’m feminist” I just have to ask “what does that mean to you” before getting even the slightest idea of what that person is talking about.
    As f. does such bad job at identifying what positions a person actually holds without further explanation, I can understand that people don’t see the point of calling themselves feminist.

  39. Murray Hogarth
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    SarahMC,
    Got it; thanks for clarifying. One who rejects the label TACITLY misunderstands and maligns feminism/ists by allowing said misunderstanding/malignment to continue. That goes hand-in-hand with Geek’s points too about visibility.
    I don’t know; I guess my point was just that you should go with whatever you find, in your own life, fosters productive dialogue. Based on the principles that you’ve outlined about visibility & standing up for the word, do you think I made the wrong choice with the example that I outlined about talking to my more conservative family members?

  40. Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Emily, the history of feminism is also often homophobic. It’s necessary to acknowledge confront those issues. But can’t we do more good by speaking out against racism, talking about how racism and sexism intersect and by speaking out against homophobia and transphobia as feminist than by discarding the label? By demonstrating that feminism is not about those things. Feminists have been flawed, but we are diverse and racism and homophobia are NOT inherent in the women’s rights movement.

  41. Andrea
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    ts -
    I think the basic definition that women are human and deserve to live their lives as fruitfully and freely as men is a good one. And I don’t think you’re much of an outsider if you know all those different kinds of feminism. I wouldn’t say it’s a problem at all that there are so many subsets of feminism, because different people have different concerns. I agree with you though, that once some people get passed the tip of the iceberg of the media’s portrayal of feminists, it can be a tad overwhelming to figure out what everyone’s feminism is.

  42. caiis
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Geek: “When a good idea can be dismissed by people as a knee-jerk reaction to the label its given that gives opponents an easy shortcut to demonizing that idea even among those who would otherwise support it.”
    I agree with Geek. To illustrate: once my ex-boyfriend was complaining about (my) feminism to friend of mine and asked her (in a very confrontative way) what feminism meant.
    She identifies as a feminist to me, but I understand why she didn’t want to get into it with him.
    The reason we had broken up was because his refusal to aknowledge sexism in the world, and our inability to have a discussion about politics, philosophy, etc. (He voted for Bush both times!)
    Anyway, my friend told him to look up feminism on the internet. He did and got a basic definition, “political, social, economic equality for women” or something of the like and could not believe that it was the real definition. He scoffed, “If that was feminism, EVERYBODY would be a feminist.” But cognitive dissonance kicked in and he kept on believing the same old stereotypes, still refused to aknowledge sexism.
    If my ex could have believed that that was what a feminist was, then maybe he would have been one step closer to supporting the cause, but the word was so demonized in his mind that he had to reject the definition completely.

  43. Murray Hogarth
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    priestesssarah,
    Your story was a great illustration of your counter point, and it made me realize that I was probably overestimating the usefulness and ubiquity of my own history. Sorry you had to go through that.

  44. Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    I think embracing the label is important for two reasons:
    1) We owe it to the first and second wavers. We should always fight to make history as accurate as possible, and by allowing the word “feminism” to languish in its slandered reputation is to allow the patriarchs to control history and undermine the battles fought.
    2) The world needs to overcome its fear of united women. This has always been terrifying to male-dominated societies. I think women shun the f-word not just because of the lesbian or radical associations, but because they do not want to threaten or intimidate men. They want to be agreeable, and many men find united women threatening, so they frown on it. Thus, women who are preocuppied with pleasing men also frown upon it. But of course we should be PROUD and BOLD and show men that sisterhood and feminism will only, if we let it, make things better for everyone.
    That said, people do take to the word at their own pace, and some people just don’t like labels at all, which I can understand. I don’t think it’s as important to shout the word from the rooftops as it is to know better than the roll one’s eyes at it.

  45. Lucy
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Well I don’t think anyone should hide who they really are. If people are feminists, they should scream it out loud. There’s no shame in being a feminist. I think it’s marvelous to be a feminist and speak out and tell others about it.
    These past few weeks, I’ve caught myself in love with feminism and it’s all I’ve been talking, thinking, and dreaming about. It gives me joy and pride to know that there are a lot of people who do believe in gender equality. However, we do need to speak about it more so that the word will get around and the whole world can enjoy this amazing lifestyle.
    And I’m also hoping to buy Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism. I’ve read parts of it online and I can’t wait to get my own book. It’s the best book I’ve read so far(from what I’ve read). Hooray for Jessica!

  46. Posted February 28, 2008 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    In my previous post I meant as feminists, not as feminist.
    I also wonder if by not encouraging women to identify as feminist, they are less likely to be interested in feminist theory. It’s important to build on the framework of social analysis that feminists have developed. If a woman says, I’m not a feminist, but… I think she’s also less likely to be interested in feminist theory. But if we encourage women to identify with feminists, it will make the theory more accesable.

  47. SarahMC
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    If we called the feminist movement/viewpoint “Dolphinism,” that label would be rejected and misunderstood and maligned as well.
    Even pro-choice people who don’t agree with gender stereotypes would hesitate to call themselves dolphinists because those who have an interest in keeping women down would quickly tar-and-feather that term, too.
    Women’s advancement is not a popular cause. Calling it something other than “feminism” won’t mean SHIT. Calling yourself a feminist is saying, “I support the social/political/economic advancement of women.” The more people do that, the harder it will be for our enemies to frame the discussions and demonize us, and the closer we will get to reaching some sort of equality.

  48. biochemgal
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    While I can understand both sides of the debate, I do think that it’s important to acknowledge that not everyone who isn’t identifying as a feminist is doing so because they’re afraid to do so. As with any political movement, the feminist movement (and thus feminist label) has an agenda and a history, both of which go beyond “women and men are equal.” The feminist label means more than that, and a rejection of the label is often a legitimate, thought-out rejection of particular aspects of the current and historical agenda, a possibility often ignored in feminist debates on the necessity of the label.

  49. caiis
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    “I think women shun the f-word not just because of the lesbian or radical associations, but because they do not want to threaten or intimidate men.”
    Good point, lizadilly.
    Great posts as always, SarahMC.

  50. Posted February 28, 2008 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know why anyone would want male feminists to call themselves “pro-feminists” or “feminist-supporters” instead of just “feminists.” Asking anyone to take a qualified status based on their genitalia despite their philosophy is inherently anit-feminist.
    And another point we have to be aware of — whatever we call ourselves, it will get slandered. We can change our name every decade, but we’re always going to be defending our identity. And if we don’t claim a name for ourselves, we will be given one (a very unflattering one, I’m sure). So I think we might as well stick up for those that stick up for us, and champion the f-word

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