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

  • Jessica F.

    priestesssarah’s story perfectly illustrates the reasoning behind people who say “I’m not a feminist, but…” Part of the issue is that many of the most visible icons of feminism are second-wave leaders, writers, activists, etc. People hear sound clips or read books from the 1970s about the main issues in feminism from that time, some of which no longer feel pertinent (for example, a woman headed to law school may not understand “The Feminine Mystique” because she has career options). This leads a lot of younger people to conclude that feminism is obsolete. There’s a bit of willful ignorance involved, and a willingness to assume that the justice system is, well, just. But the end result is a group of people who believe in equality for women but don’t think “feminism” encompasses their concerns.
    The media-created false dichotomy on any issue doesn’t help. For example, when abortion is distilled to a simple pro-life/pro-choice binary, women who feel that abortion itself is wrong but who seek to correct the social issues leading to it (better sex education, paid family leave, welfare funding) may not find a voice in the media portrayal of the pro-choice movement and may then conclude that they’re not allowed to be a feminist. It’s like any other group or movement–the stringent radicals get the most press and it’s up to more moderate people to create a voice for the movement that doesn’t leave everyone thinking we’re all wackos.

  • dananddanica

    Very good point biochem.
    Applying a label to yourself goes beyond looking at what the dictionary definition of the word is and agreeing with it. In my biased mind I cannot fathom how someone could not be politically liberal when looking at the definition of the word but I definitely understand why someone who could have a lot of liberal beliefs could not label themselves a liberal.

  • caiis

    I think the word “liberal” is treated about the same as “feminist” in some circles.

  • inmediasres

    Seconding what biochemgal says. I identified as a feminist from the time I was eleven or so. Once I got more grounded in feminist theory (and lots of other theories), I stopped describing myself as a feminist for a two main reasons: my theories of justice go beyond feminism, and I have concerns about the ease with which we as feminists colonize the experiences of “others.” My main pet peeves in college were the tendency to speak for women from the “South” in a way that devalued “their” view of the world and the crass way women’s studies courses used intersex conditions to break down female/male binaries, with no regard for the people who actually are intersex and what they think about their bodies and experiences.
    I’m now back to describing myself as a feminist because I believe it’s a way to publicize to others that the way I live and think and vote is absolutely informed by and inseparable from my feminist values. We may not all agree on the particulars of how feminism should look, but it’s a damned big tent with room for a lot of perspectives and dialog.

  • jeangenie

    I aspire to be worthy of the label ‘feminist’. I always hope that I do and think enough to deserve to be called one. Respect!

  • rileystclair

    “I think the word “liberal” is treated about the same as “feminist” in some circles.”
    it absolutely is. often even in the same breath (and often followed by “latte-drinking”).

  • SweetPea

    i’ve found that sometimes, if you’re trying to make a (feminist) point to someone who needs a little education, they might listen to what you have to say and consider it UNLESS or UNTIL they hear the word feminist, at which point they just dismiss what you’re saying becuz, well, of course you’d say that becuz you’re one a dem radical feminists. you can sometimes achieve more for the cause if you do so covertly.

  • hellotampon

    If you self-identify as a feminist, then you are already a part of the ideal. As for those who say, “I’m not a feminist but…” It would be cool if they would reclaim the title. Think of all the words we have to put down women- we shouldn’t let “feminist” be another one of those negative words.

  • Amber schn0562

    I think if you believe in feminism and act feminist, yet don’t call yourself a feminist, you are a coward. You are saying “yeah I believe all these things but I’m not like those FEMINISTS”.
    By refusing to label yourself a feminist you are saying there is something wrong with being a feminist. You are allowing other peoples negative perceptions to impact you.
    If it thinks like a feminist, acts like a feminist, it’s a feminist.

  • Crotchfire

    I don’t call myself a feminist, but I sympathize and agree with most positions (as I understand that) that are traditionally considered feminist.
    So why don’t I take the label?
    I have the same problem with taking the label of feminist that I have with taking ANY label.
    The word “feminism” means too many different things to too many people.
    Is it a negative thing to be a feminist overall? No, but if you can have two people who believe in two mutually exclusive things as being representative of their feminism, then the word isn’t right for me.
    I’d be happy to call myself a “sort of feminist”, maybe one member of a subset of the group, but I can’t call myself a universal feminist.
    Bear with me, it took me many years to accept the mantle of “atheist”, despite having no religious belief for all my life.

  • hellotampon

    I don’t think anyone expects feminism to mean the same thing to every person.

  • avast2006

    “I think if you believe in feminism and act feminist, yet don’t call yourself a feminist, you are a coward.”
    The problem is that there are a lot of different philosophies that have, for better or for worse, gotten grafted onto the label “feminism.” “All heterosexual sex is rape.” “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” “Breeders.” If all you believe is that “women should have equal rights, opportunities and responsibilities as men,” how do you repudiate the stuff you disagree with while still attempting to use the one-word summary of the movement?

  • Bobbo

    My involvement with the feminist movement goes back to the 2nd Wave. The terminology discussion back then was whether “feminism” or “women’s liberation” was the best vocabulary word.
    I’m guessing that the term feminism finally won out because women’s liberation got shortened to “women’s lib” by the media. It made the whole thing sound trivial which I suppose was the point.
    As a man, I’ve always been reluctant to call myself a feminist because I thought it sounded pretentious for a man to do that. There are certainly men around who apply the term to themselves as a way of covering over their own male chauvinism. The term “male feminist” sounds kinda silly to me because you would never hear the term “female feminist”.
    I know both male and female feminists in the younger generation tend not to have this hang up and I was told in no uncertain terms by a women’s studies prof that I’d better start calling myself a feminist because the whole movement is under attack and it needs all the help it can get.
    Personally I think the term feminist is wonderful and my involvement with the feminist movement has been one of the high points of my life.
    Now if I could only get rid of my old fashioned hangups about calling myself one….
    Bob Simpson

  • Mindy

    I always considered myself a feminist but I have since discovered that I cannot be one, as I am a SAHM and don’t appear to fight the patriarchy.
    “”And yes, I do think that feminism should be about careers and productivity.”
    Hell yeah! You CANT be a feminist and a housewife at the same time. Get your ass out there and work.” -from yesterday’s children = cars thread.
    Although seriously this society is so fucked that I tend to not identify myself as a feminist to others since I am fat and therefore, ugly and the world already has that stereotype of feminists I don’t need to prove it.

  • talknormal

    Just to toss in my .02, I think it’s interesting that the ‘label’ debate so often garners responses along the lines of “well, some people don’t identify with feminists, but that’s mainly because they don’t know what feminism REALLY is” …because I think what the question demonstrates, in fact, is that there’s really a plethora of feminisms that are invoked by that label and they’re all (well maybe not ALL of them) “real” feminisms. I think some commenters (the earlier male poster comes to mind) have basically alluded to this already… I think that given the plurality of feminisms, it would follow that there’s also a lot of reasons to call oneself a feminist, and a lot of reasons to reject the label.
    For me, as a transgendered person (also as someone who identifies as antiracist), I hated the idea of calling myself a feminist for a long time because my sense was that feminism didn’t seem to care very much about people like me. At the time, that probably made sense because I was in a college program where I was surrounded by mainly straight, upper-middle class women who honestly didn’t appear to understand or care very much about trans issues or why a feminist movement should be accountable to those issues (most of my college years I was like, “what the hell, all these bougie women spend their class time freaking out about whether their boyfriends will like them for being feminists and I can’t even use a school restroom without getting hassled!”) A lot of the people who were the most transphobic to me in college were women who used feminism to justify their transphobia. Of course, there’s been other movements, historically, away from the feminist label for– at least I think–completely valid political reasons (womanism, for instance).
    So yes, I do agree that there should be education towards folks who are scared to call themselves feminists (I mean, for reactionary reasons), but it’s also on us to make sure the label lives up to it, right? That seems like an even more important calling to me.

  • Deadra

    I have to admit I’d find it kind of strange to start with the label of feminist.
    I just turned around one day and realized that I believed in certain things, stood up for certain things, thought in a certain way….and that the sum of all this technically made me a feminist.
    I don’t usually say that I’m a feminist. I don’t have to, because whenever I do or say something uppity bitch-y , the word is thrown in my face like it’s supposed to be an insult. And that’s when I embrace the term.
    Btw, and I’m making an exception from my own rule here to say that I say this *as a feminist* (label first), I reserve the right to take my husband’s name when I get married, provided that I like it, because I’ll be making an informed choice.
    I also reserve the right to become the stay-at-home Mum of a litter of children.
    And I won’t be talked down to for that, either.

  • emmaschmemma

    i have had many, many (often heated) arguments with one of my friends over this very topic. she shares all the same beliefs and values as myself, but refuses to call herself a feminist. she’s a very intelligent woman, so i think it goes a little deeper than the “i’m not a feminist but” type. rather, she has recognised that, more often than not, identifying as a feminist may have the result of effectively alienating yourself from other sections of society. while i understand her point, i strongly disagree. in the UK (as i’m sure in the rest of the world, unfortunately) telling someone that you are a feminist results, at least 7 times out of 10, with at best a look of surprise, at worse downright horror. i have had numerous experience where i have told friends that i’m a feminist, only to received shocked/confused responses, including the classic “but you have a boyfriend….” . what i think is important, however, is that, while these initial reactions of shock and horror are the result of a culture which still paints all feminists as irrational man-hating ogresses, they soon lead way to genuine questions about what feminism is. what i’m trying to say, somewhat convolutedly, is that defining oneself as a feminist often raises the opportunity to dispel the myths that those around you may believe about feminism itself.

  • FEMily!

    I fully embraced the feminist label when I really learned about the movement and what it continues to do in my Women’s Studies course I took when I was a sophmore in college. I think that’s because I’ve always thought like a feminist, but didn’t know that there was a glorious identity label and group to belong to. It’s like having a disease that has plagued you for your whole life, and no doctors have been able to figure out what’s wrong with you, and then finally, a doctor tells you, “You’re not crazy. You have” whatever it is, and then you get this sense of relief that you’re not alone and that you have other people who’ll understand you. Except with feminism and not a disease.
    I do understand that not everyone is going to embrace that label, and I think it’s okay. Actually, I would rather people apply that label to themselves when they’re ready and willing. I used to think that if you believe in gender equity in all ways personal and political, then you were a feminist. But then there are people who consider themselves feminist, but are actually quite racist, homophobic, and/or transphobic, and I don’t know if I want the already “scary” label of feminism to apply to such people. Not that feminists have to be perfect. I think feminists just have to be cognizant of other oppressions out there that affect women.

  • Wildberry

    “Btw, and I’m making an exception from my own rule here to say that I say this *as a feminist* (label first), I reserve the right to take my husband’s name when I get married, provided that I like it, because I’ll be making an informed choice.
    I also reserve the right to become the stay-at-home Mum of a litter of children.”
    Seconded. Sometimes, someone like my mom or my sister or my best friend will ask me if I will take my husbands name if I ever get married, and what about my kids? I say I probably wouldn’t take his name, maybe he would want to take mine. Or maybe I would if I liked his name. It depends.
    And while I think I’m probably too excited about having a career once I graduate to be a SAHM, I don’t think in this day and age it would be so bad, at least for me. I’m very much an introvert. As long as the kids and husband help do housework, all I’d need would be books, video games, the internet, and a subscription to a good MMO and I’d be all set. Certainly doesn’t mean that I’d let the “breadwinner” make all the financial decisions and whatnot, or become some kind of an unpaid servant.

  • Jane Minty

    Hm, I have never had a problem with my “feminist” label, since I learned the term (when I was 8 or 9?). I guess I was just born this way. Throughout school I knew that when other people gave me shit for the label, I just knew they were idiots anyway. No big deal.
    I never understood women who didn’t identify as one. It just always seemed natural to want to be treated as an equal. I’m sure we all identify ourselves as parts of other groups, and like the range of beliefs in any specific group, it’s OK NOT TO AGREE WITH ALL FEMINISTS ON EVERY TOPIC.
    I’ve also never had a problem getting laid, but then again why would I want anything to do with a penis affixed to an anti-feminist?

  • Maggie

    A lot of it, as lots of people have already mentioned, has to do with what your experience with feminism, as a label, has been. I posted about this on my blog, if anyone’s interested. I don’t think I’ve said anything that hasn’t been addressed in comments, but I went on in a little more detail. :)

  • whatsername

    Ultimately how we live is going to change the world more than what we call ourselves while we’re doing it.

  • Geek

    While I think being a feminist can mean many things, I tend to be academic about things and I see it more as a way of looking at the world and analyzing various social structures, history, literature, etc. That is why many feminists can disagree very strongly about many different things. But if your views are shaped by a feminist analysis, you are a feminist.
    Much like, say, the Christian religion rises from the believe that Jesus is the son of god and that a Christian should follow his teachings. That belief shapes how Christians analyze the meaning of things around them an dmakes them Christian while still able to have very different beliefs about almost everything else.

  • Fenriswolf

    I didn’t identify as feminist until fairly recently. I didn’t have a problem with the term, I just didn’t think about it. I was brought up in a sex positive, feminist environment – my mother used to explain about the sexism I’d encounter as I grew up and took me to women’s support groups, my father play fought with me, taught me how to fix things, taught me not to be ashamed to talk about my vagina. He also tried to throw a party for me when I got my first period. I was not impressed lol
    But yeah, I was surrounded by feminist literature and wasn’t exposed to much popular media so I never got negative connotations established with the word. Hence I didn’t even think about labelling my views until I found this site and was excited to be part of a movement, not just a lone voice lamenting to sympathetic ears.

  • SarahMC

    defining oneself as a feminist often raises the opportunity to dispel the myths that those around you may believe about feminism itself.

    Yes! This is what I was trying to say.
    And Geek, I totally agree with this:

    But if your views are shaped by a feminist analysis, you are a feminist.

    I don’t see why the fact that all feminists are not identical would turn people off the label “feminist.”
    Liberal Christians still call themselves “Christians,” even though right-wingers also call themselves “Christians.”
    I have a question for those of you who say you don’t embrace the “feminist” label – How do you respond when people ask if you are a feminist, or whether you agree with feminists, or some variation of that?

  • avast2006

    “I have a question for those of you who say you don’t embrace the “feminist” label – How do you respond when people ask if you are a feminist, or whether you agree with feminists, or some variation of that?”
    Personally, I would say “I believe that women and men should enjoy the same rights, opportunities and responsibilities.” That’s pretty difficult to argue against.

  • HotblackDesiato

    In reference to priestesssarah’s post regarding her ex-boyfriend not being a feminist, because feminism is not just, “political, social, economic equality for women”, I have to agree with the ex-boyfriend.
    I also believe that women and men should enjoy the same rights, opportunities and responsibilities, but I would not call myself a feminist. While having that belief is necessary to be a feminist I do not think it is sufficient.
    Most feminist writings, rhetoric and ideas I have encountered also seem to operate under the assumption that societally forced gender roles harm women far more than men. It seems like a core assumption for most feminists. This assumption is what I think separates my views, and perhaps others, from most feminists.

  • Wildberry

    And your assumption is, what? That gender roles harm men more? Or that they don’t harm anyone at all?

  • HotblackDesiato

    My views are irrelevant. I’m not trying to pick a fight. I’m just suggesting why I, and maybe others, can want equality but not be feminists, even by most feminists’ standards.

  • DaveNJ17

    My views towards equality of all kinds are pretty hardcore, especially in regards to foreign affairs and the extent to which countries should change, even in the context of their current cultures. However, I don’t identify as a feminist, nor do I think I ever will. It’s pretty simple as to why: the term itself implies a singular goal, and my goals are much more (no pun intended) broad.
    I identify myself as an egalitarian. It’s not a gender-specific word, nor does it have any connotations but the ones I make for it. I just find it funny that people want “congressman” changed to “congressperson” (as they rightfully should), yet the movement itself has a gender-specific prefix. Even if it’s not implied by its followers, the word itself implies that feminism is for females. That’s one main reason why men don’t identify as “feminists” in general, event hough many agree with its core tenets.

  • thestrua

    80 posts later…;)
    So I actually talked with Courtney about this after her presentation at Illinois College, but it’s a hard subject to bring up.
    I don’t post a lot on here, but I think I made it somewhat apparent that I’m a practicing Roman Catholic in at least two of the posts. I have trouble calling myself a feminist because it comes with certain political assumptions. I believe in the equality of the sexes, that man and woman were created as equals and should treat each other as like human beings. However, I also believe in life at conception and waiting until marriage to have sex.
    I feel like the larger feminist movement rejects me and women like me. Before talking with Courtney about my true feelings, I asked a watered-down question during her presentation that led to three other students and a professor approaching me and asking about what I really meant. When I explained, they all said they felt the exact same way I did; they have strong, Christian beliefs, but they don’t know how to call themselves feminists when they feel rejected by the larger community. One of the girls even surprised me with these feelings because she is so involved in the GWS events on campus.
    We want to promote gender issues. I am angry about the number of sexual harassment and assault cases in our society. I hope to have a very fulfilling sex life with my husband. And I really hate the fact that one of my male friends dismisses his value as a person because he can’t get a “cute” girl to go out with him.
    But do I dare call myself a feminist? Religious groups would think I was pro-choice, and feminist groups deny I’m a “true feminist” because of my religious beliefs. It’s a nice Catch-22 I’ve gotten myself into…

  • Keith Ellis

    “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.â€?
    Yes, but there is another aspect of the term feminism which lately has been my concern about this as the label for fighting sexism against women.
    The problem as I see it is that all right-thinking people, men and women, should be against the injustice which is the oppression of women. To achieve real change, men will need to be deeply involved, sooner or later.
    But the problem I’ve faced over and over again as a male feminist is that I’m a second-class citizen within feminism. Now, that’s been good for my consciousness-raising, but it’s not good for the movement as a whole.
    And the reason this happens is because there’s two aspects to the feminist movement: opposing the oppression of women and advocating for the interests of women. What is presumptuous and borderline offensive for men is to act as advocates for women because it implies that women cannot advocate for themselves. Whenever a man is an active feminist, the discomfort mounts because the implication is that it takes a man to take care of those poor women. It’s condescending. And the thing is, I think that anything that smacks of advocacy for an oppressed group by a member of the oppressing group is condescending.
    On the other hand, opposing the oppression itself is not condescending.
    An example I thought of was this: there is a difference between advocating for the Iraqis and opposing the injustice of the Iraq Invasion. The former is presumptuous for an American, as America is the invader. Iraqis can advocate for themselves, should advocate for themselves, and wealthy and white liberal Americans advocating for those poor Iraqis smacks of the whole White Man’s Burden thing. But simply opposing the Invasion and Occupation itself on the grounds of it being unjust? That’s not condescending, that’s not usurping something the Iraqis could do for themselves.
    All of us ought to oppose the oppression of women, because the oppression of women is unjust. And a man doing so is not stepping on any woman’s toes or condescending to her. It’s simply doing what’s right.
    It’s my opinion that the choice of the term feminism is a result of the unfortunate (and revealing) truth that it was women alone who spoke up against sexism. In that context, opposing sexism against women and advocating for women in general were identical concerns. But the larger issue here is ending the oppression of women and that’s not equivalent for advocating for women in general and it is an appropriate thing for men to do, in fact a necessary thing for men to do; while, in contrast, advocating for women is not.
    I think a lot of disagreements I’ve had over the years with my fellow feminists who are women would have been avoided had it been clear that I oppose the oppression of women, but I do not in any way see myself as a “liberator” of women, or otherwise condescending. I’m doing what I do as a person who believes that I can tell the difference between right and wrong and that the oppression of women is clearly wrong and I must oppose it.
    So, to me, the issue isn’t that feminism is a bad word. It’s not; and I’m sad that so many young woman are afraid to self-identify with it. But I do think there’s an issue here concerning the need for a term that is more specifically anti rather than pro. How can anyone condemn a woman for opposing the injustice against women? How can they condemn a man for doing so, for that matter? It’s a lot harder for women—not just men—to self-identify as being self-interested advocates rather than as opposition to injustice and evil. Misogyny and sexism against women are evil, they are just as much so as racism and slavery (which, by the way, a large portion of the world’s women live within as a practical matter). There should be no shame in announcing, loudly, that you oppose evil. Unfortunately, feminism sounds like a special interest group.

  • Marissa

    I am curious as to whether or not you believe your religious values extend to other people? If you do not believe in abortion for yourself, do you believe we ought to then restrict access to safe abortion for everyone? If you do not think it is morally correct for yourself to have sex until marriage, do you think we should make laws and regulations so other people will follow that path (such as the justification for abstinence-only education)?
    I appreciate you being open about your position on a feminist blog and opening up your personal ideas for debate, so I apologize for putting you on the spot.

  • Marissa

    How can one exactly be a “second-class citizen within the feminist movement”???? As a white person, it is damned insulting for me to call myself a second-class citizen within say the civil rights movement for instance. I think a more appropriate term is privilege, privilege from the same kinds of racism and discrimination that happen on a daily basis.

  • waxghost

    FEMily!, that’s how I came to it too, so I actually think that the word itself is important. I wouldn’t have embraced it like I did if I didn’t learn so much about the history of feminism in women’s studies classes and, while I now consider myself “always a feminist,” I think I’m a better feminist for knowing so much of that history and for getting over society’s negative connotations of the word. But I also realize that the word may have more meaning for me than for others simply because of how I ended up embracing feminism in the first place; I can also understand a lot of the other points that have been made about why someone wouldn’t embrace the word but would embrace the philosophy, and it’s really the philosophy that counts, no matter what we call it.
    Perhaps, rather than looking at it as an “either/or” thing, we should look at it the way many of us view sexuality now: as a spectrum of possibilities that is different for everyone.

  • waxghost

    Keith, I think you need to read this article about the ways that people from a dominant group can help those from an oppressed group. It is not condescending unless you are telling the oppressed group what you think they need, rather than listening to what they are saying they need. If only those in the oppressed group can advocate for themselves, the very fact that they are an oppressed group – meaning they don’t have as much power as one or more other groups – means they aren’t going to get very far.

  • Keith Ellis

    “It is not condescending unless you are telling the oppressed group what you think they need, rather than listening to what they are saying they need.�
    It’s my argument that a non-member of an oppressed group shouldn’t be in the position of advocating for the interests of that group, which is what concerning themselves with “what they needâ€? is doing. In the terms of the article to which you refer me, I don’t think it’s the place of men to “help” women at all. Women can help themselves. Men can oppose the oppression of women. There is a difference, though subtle.
    “As a white person, it is damned insulting for me to call myself a second-class citizen within say the civil rights movement for instance.�
    Insulting to whom? You ought to be a second-class citizen of the civil rights movement insofar as that translates into “furthering the rights and interests of black people�. Which is, as a practical matter, a large portion of the activity of the civil rights movement, then and now.
    Going to an urban, largely black ghetto and organizing a voting registration drive is condescending and not appropriate for a white person. You are in that sense acting as an advocate, and implying that your unacknowledged privilege means that it is appropriate for you to step in and do what blacks can do for themselves.
    On the other hand, when being in the civil rights movement means actively opposing racism, then you are not being condescending as a white person, you are acting in your own interests with regard to the furtherance of justice.
    Now, as a historical matter, the civil rights movement has always been more integrated than has the feminist movement with regard to men. The more integrated the movement is, the more there’s a sense of common cause against injustice. This is a double-edged sword and for many this is too watered-down, thus more radical movements which are intentionally not integrated.
    Within some civil rights groups during the civil rights era, a white person would not have been a “second class citizen” and shouldn’t have been. Within others, he/she would have been and, more importantly, should have been.
    Throughout its history and to the present, the feminist movement hasn’t been integrated and it has thoroughly mixed advocacy for women with opposition to sexism against women. Which, as I said, are the same thing when only women are involved.
    But it’s not appropriate for a man to advocate for women, because advocacy is ultimately “helping”, which is condescending especially when so few other men are involved. The perversity of the situation is that the less integration there is, the more inappropriate any single instance of integration.
    In concrete terms, a room full of mixed black and white people addressed by a white person (say, John Edwards) on the topic of racism is a far different thing than when it’s a room of almost nothing but black people addressed by a white person (say, John Edwards).
    In the feminist movement, it’s always a roomful of women. A man has no place being prominent in any way. A man shouldn’t be prominent in any way. And when participation is strictly limited in this sense, that’s exactly what it means to be a “second-class citizenâ€?. What I think you missed was my point that it’s appropriate that it’s this way.
    But it’s not for the best for the long-term goal to eliminate the oppression of women. That will require a broad social movement which involves both men and women. The only way that the movement can be integrated is if the movement is sharply distinguished from being advocacy for women and well understood to be opposition to sexism against women.
    I don’t think there’s problems with the term feminism and what it implies (and how it is understood in practical terms) because men are pushed away from it—I think it’s a problem because there is a) a definite need for there to be an appropriate outlet for men to oppose sexism against women; b) a definite need for an outlet in which women can oppose sexism against women without feeling like they are advocating for themselves; and c) this being naturally the same outlet would be a broader-based social movement than has feminism been to-date.
    This isn’t a criticism of feminism, as such. Going back to the arguments about racism and blacks, I feel there is a need for both integrated antiracism movements and black-only advocacy/antiracism movements. They are both important and necessary. It’s approaching the battle from two different directions and respecting peoples self-determinacy. Put another way, blacks don’t need whites or others to “helpâ€? them. But all people need all people to fight racism. This is exactly true with regard to women, men, and feminism.

  • Marissa

    “A man shouldn’t be prominent in any way. And when participation is strictly limited in this sense, that’s exactly what it means to be a “second-class citizenâ€?. What I think you missed was my point that it’s appropriate that it’s this way.”
    I agree with a lot of what you say (such as how it is condescending for you to advocate on behalf of, etc.). What I take issue with is your choice of language. It is not appropriate to be a member of a dominant group and call yourself a “second-class citizen” within a minority group. The phrase “second-class citizen” has a number of implications that just should not be appropriated by a member of the dominant group. This type of language sounds like that used by MRAs or those who argue for reverse racism. I know that is not at all what you are saying, but I do think you should rethink your language in this instance.

  • kissmypineapple

    Keith, I disagree. I don’t claim to speak for anyone else, but I personally find it more insulting for a man to sit on his hands when he could use his privilege to help me. How do you actively oppose the oppression of women without doing anything to help women to end that oppression? If you are a prominent male legislator, in the position to use your popularity to garner massive support for pro-woman legislation, how on earth can you justify not doing so? If you find yourself as the CEO of a company, in the position to enact major changes in policy that relieve harassment and discrimination, how could you sit idly by and just say, “Do it yourself?”

  • Keith Ellis

    “ The phrase “second-class citizen” has a number of implications that just should not be appropriated by a member of the dominant group. This type of language sounds like that used by MRAs or those who argue for reverse racism. I know that is not at all what you are saying, but I do think you should rethink your language in this instance.â€?
    Yeah, I see that. But I think it’s unfortunately quite accurate in that it points at the oxymoronic nature of the term. Implicit in my argument is that contemporary feminism just doesn’t know what to do with the few men who want to be involved and this is because it’s fighting the internal tension of wanting to be egalitarian with the fact that, in this context, it’s not appropriate that it be egalitarian.
    I’ve been a feminist for my entire adult life, which is just now a quarter century. I’ve been navigating this terrain for a long time. A man’s introduction into a feminist environment—any feminist environment, you see it here all the time in the comments—causes a conflict of identity and purpose. Both men and women will choose sides on the egalitarian vs appropriateness debate. And then much time is spent talking about what to do about the man/men. It’s a distraction, it sucks energy away from the core of the feminist movement, those women who are working for real change. “We have to argue about what we will allow a man to say again??â€? they sigh. This is all because feminism, right now, is trying to be all things to all people. It’s trying to be egalitarian and a space for women…not to mention being green, being conscious of all power relations and social injustice, etc.
    Really, feminism is too restrictive label for all these things and, more to the point, the movement itself needs to allow itself to divide into different things pursuing different—but related—goals differently. Specifically, there needs to be a place here, where men are involved in an egalitarian manner, and a place there where they are not. And, again, how this relates to the term feminism is that by its etymology and by its practice, it implies something narrower than that while simultaneously trying to be something wider than that. The tension is evident in everything from male involvement to female reluctance to be involved.

  • avast2006

    marissa asks: “How can one exactly be a “second-class citizen within the feminist movement”????”
    By way of explanation, sera: “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.”
    In other words, sit down, shut up, and stay out of the way, oppressor-man. This is “our” movement, not “yours.” In fact, don’t even use the term “feminist” to describe yourself. You can’t be an actual “feminist” unless you’re an actual “femme.” (You’re welcome to join the Ladies’ Auxiliary, though.)
    That kind of second-class citizen IN THE MOVEMENT.
    The operative phrase is “within the movement.” It is entirely possible that the privilege that one enjoys within society at large is the very thing that makes one into “tainted goods” within the specific movement.
    The original question is why people don’t label themselves “feminist.” According to sera, half the population isn’t allowed to. Oddly enough, this is categorizing people into groups based not on their political stances, but on their genitalia. How enlightened.

  • Keith Ellis

    “Keith, I disagree. I don’t claim to speak for anyone else, but I personally find it more insulting for a man to sit on his hands when he could use his privilege to help me. How do you actively oppose the oppression of women without doing anything to help women to end that oppression?â€?
    Well, what I’m trying to say is complicated and needs to understood with nuance and not so literally. Obviously there is a large gray area between “opposing an injusticeâ€? and “helping those harmed by the injusticeâ€?. The two blend to each other and in some contexts are indistinguishable.
    But even where they are indistinguishable, you can tell what someone’s doing by how they arrived at that place and time to make that decision or take that action. Even if the action itself is indistinguishable between advocacy and opposing harm, what brought them to that point tells you a lot.
    Go back to my racism parallel. Suppose you’re a white person in a black neighborhood witnessing a police beating of a black person. (Well, I know that a sane American will not interfere in the heavily armed actions of our police, our supposed protectors, but bear with me in this.) If you take action in some way—speak up, take a photo, whatever—is that patronizing/condescending, or not? Well, it depends upon why you’re there.
    If you were following the cops around, looking for abuses, then you’re opposing their injustice. If you were hanging out in a black neighborhood so you could do something to protect blacks from racist police, then you are patronizing them. Why you’re there makes all the difference in the world.
    So, as a man, I have to ask myself: why am I here, talking to all these women who are feminists?
    And, really, the thing is, I don’t really belong here. I certainly don’t belong here posting comments like the five or so I’ve posted tonight day after day after day. Call this a guest appearance from an ally. I’m not a member, I shouldn’t be.
    With that in mind, I shall bow out now. I do hope I’ve presented some interesting ideas.

  • Marissa

    I see what you are saying about the sheer scale of what feminism covers, but I believe quite firmly in the need for the term feminism. I think without the term, the movement may lose sight of the fact that on a global scale, women face the brunt of oppressive forces and are very much disproportionately effected. This is my problem with people who refuse the term feminist in favor of the term humanist. I feel, given the state of lack of concern for women’s issues, women will be left behind if the term is changed. But I do empathize with your position, being inbetween in a sense. Out of curiosity, what do you think of the term “pro-feminist male” or the idea of studies of masculinities within feminism?

  • avast2006

    Sorry, I’m not seeing the distinction.
    By way of example: Women and men should get equal pay for equal work. This is a perfectly straightforward principle. Name me any circumstance where a particular class of people should get unequal pay for equal work. Yet somehow it’s condescending for me as a man to state (dare I say it, advocate for) this principle? I’m just not seeing it.

  • Jennifer

    You can say you aren’t a feminist but that doesn’t mean you aren’t
    I rooted for the Giants in the last Super Bowl. Doesn’t make me a Giants fan. I just hate New England.

  • Monika

    I do these days identify myself as feminist because I believe in gender equality but for a long time I didn’t because my experience of the movement left me with the impression it was all about favouring women over men. Basically swapping our traditional gender roles not bringing them into balance.
    Even up-thread I note that SarahMC says “Calling yourself a feminist is saying, “I support the social/political/economic advancement of women.”â€? And I wouldn’t really agree with that. Maybe it is just semantics but I would say I support social, political and economic (at least in terms of access/opportunity) equality for everyone. At the moment I totally agree that means advancing women but if there was an issue that men were on the oppressed side of I would be all for fighting that.
    I had a long, intense argument once with some girlfriends where they tried to insist I was a feminist because of what I believed and I refused to accept that because of what I thought feminism was. Ironically that lead me to do some more internet reading about feminism and to eventually conclude they may have a point. On a related note I am younger than them and it was my husband and I in disagreement with them. I mention younger because I think my generation got the chance to take first and second wave achievements for granted and to be impacted by what I think are some misguided outcomes of feminism like positive discrimination (positive discrimination is in my opinion still discrimination and not at all positive). Incidentally my husband still wouldn’t identify as feminist – he is fine with the goals and ideal but sees it as something for women more than men which is not an argument I can totally disagree with. He says he would prefer a movement with a label like “equalist�. I think I am slowly convincing him with all my talk about feministing though!
    At the end of the day he is not that big on labels anyway and for both of us whatsername summed it up well “Ultimately how we live is going to change the world more than what we call ourselves while we’re doing it.â€?
    DaveNJ17 summed it up really nicely as well.

  • annajcook

    I think I started identifying myself politically as a feminist when I realized (in my teens) that the values I held about women, gender, sexuality, etc., weren’t “common sense” to many of the people around me. I had been aware of the term before, in a more historical sense, and thought of myself as part of that heritage of feminist activism–but it was hearing other people dismiss or revile feminist actions and feminist beliefs that made me consciously take on the term. When a word still has that much power in a culture, then it still has work to do.
    On the question of men and feminism: I’ve heard a lot of women, in a number of different generations, talk about the “can men be feminists” question. Only speaking for myself here, but I personally think men CAN be feminists, and I’m not insulted by men claiming the word if through their values and actions they embody what feminism means (just as I try to do).
    I think, for me, there’s a difference between claiming a political identity–which is how I think of feminism–and claiming a more subjective identity (say, as a woman, as a person of color, as a trans person). Obviously, men are NOT women–and they should realize that there are subjective experiences of being a woman in our culture that they will never experience personally. But I don’t think being a feminist requires that you have those experiences. There’s shouldn’t be a vagina litmus test for feminism, any more than there should be for national elections!

  • SarahMC

    Monika, in order to achieve equality, we must advance women socially/politically/economically. Men don’t need the advancement. Women do.
    I have grown very tired of people who walk on eggshells to avoid coming across as pro women’s lib because “I believe in equality for EVERYONE.” That’s reduntant. “Equality” includes everyone. Men, as a class, already have power. Feminism doesn’t aim to bring men down; it aims to elevate women so they are equal with men.
    Keith, I appreciate your contributions and am always pleased to get support from male feminists.
    But I find it really offensive that you’d prefer to sit on your hands than use your power to advocate for women’s liberation. How does that attitude distinguish you from your run-of-the-mill non-feminist man?
    I am fine with men calling themselves “feminists.”
    I think their most important role is to listen and examine their own privileges.
    I mean, if someone tells a misogynist joke in your presence, do you not protest?
    I am also curious as to why a religious person would hesitate to call herself a feminist, just because feminism and her religion have some conflicts.
    Like I said before, conservative Christians, liberal Christians, Baptists and Catholics all call themselves “Christian,” even though there are a lot of conflicts among those sub-groups.

  • annajcook

    do I dare call myself a feminist? Religious groups would think I was pro-choice, and feminist groups deny I’m a “true feminist” because of my religious beliefs
    Marissa raised a good point above; I agree that to me, as a feminist, the question is not whether any one individual would have an abortion, but rather that they don’t attempt to coerce other women into making the same choice they would. Someone on this blog, at some point, pointed out that freedom to follow one’s moral convictions in these matters is really a freedom-of-religion issue–so by protecting other women’s constitutional rights to make moral decisions, religious people are supporting their own right to make their own moral decisions, based on their religious beliefs (the original poster, I forget on which thread, put it much better than I did!)
    I don’t know if you’re aware of the substantial body of feminist theology out there–Catholic and otherwise–which might be of some help in attempting to reconcile these two parts of yourself, and maybe communicate with religious folks about feminism. I went to a Church-affiliated college as an undergraduate and my introduction to theoretical feminism was actually through feminist theology classes, believe it or not! So I’ve always thought the two went together quite well. Although it did lead to a lot of anger at the institutional church along the way, I won’t lie.
    If you’re interested, I’d recommend a book my prof wrote, Feminism & Christianity: An Essential Guide. It gives a nice overview of feminist theology, the history of women and the church, and it’s written for a lay/undergrad audience, so it’s not jargon-heavy.

  • Geek

    I have to agree with SarahMC (as I usually do) about feminist allies who have privilege but don’t use it to help advance feminist causes. There is a difference between knowing that women need to be the voice and decision makers when it comes to feminism and thinking that any action on behalf of women is condescending.
    Since when do allies not “help”? Help is not condescending if you aren’t telling women what they need or how they need it.
    I really disagree with the example that white people involved in voter registration drives in majority black neighborhoods is condescending, especially if done as part of a diverse group of people working for the same goal.
    It does require a lot of education to advocate for another community, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done with respect. Women DO need men to act just like Hispanics need white people to do more than say “yes, there is descrimination and I’m against that.” Because otherwise members of the privileged group are complicit in the racism or sexism of the dominant culture.