The Wednesday Weigh-In: Does it matter if people don’t identify as feminists?

Guess what? I'm a f*minist

Ed. note: This is a joint post by Maya and Sesali. (Photo via)

Earlier this week Policymic released a list of 5 male closet feminists in government. The article pointed out that “publicly labeling oneself a feminist still seems to be a dangerous game for male lawmakers.” But it’s not just men. In recent weeks, well-known women from Katy Perry to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy have disavowed the feminist label. It must be time for another round of hand-wringing about why people don’t identify as feminists!

Maya: I really appreciated this chat between Nona Willis-Aronowitz and Amanda Hess about the criticism celebrities who say they aren’t feminists–particularly pop stars like Perry and Taylor Swift–receive in the feminist blogoshere.

Sure, I think it’d be cool if someone like Katy Perry declared herself a feminist, but it’s not like I’m surprised that she doesn’t. A lot of people don’t. And I’m not sure why she should be any more likely to just because she’s a “successful” woman? That’s what I find so weird about the harsh condemnation folks like Perry and Swift receive. We all know that feminism has gotten a bad rap and we’re up against some persistent myths about feminists being angry, man-hating, boner-killers. (And hey, sometimes we are!) That’s backlash; that’s part of what we’re fighting against. Yet, when a young pop singer doesn’t claim the label suddenly we’re shocked? “It’s like she doesn’t understand what a feminist is,” Jezebel wrote of Swift. Well, yeah, maybe not. That’s supposed to be surprising how?

Also, as Nona points out, there are many flavors of “I’m not a feminist” women. The fact that Carla Bruni-Sarkozy claims feminism is no longer needed is way more concerning to me since she’s more likely to be considered an authority on the matter. Similarly, Marissa Mayer’s refusal of the label was more disappointing because she’s in a position to actually speak to the challenges she’s surely aware women face in a male-dominated field. But Swift and Perry are famous for singing really great pop songs–seriously, listening to Swift’s new Red album on repeat right now–and I don’t think we should expect them to be feminist role models any more than we should expect them be any other kind of role model.

And, of course, there are plenty of people who are very well-informed about what feminism is all about–and still don’t identify as feminists because the movement hasn’t been all that great for them.

Sesali: Right. Many men and women from different backgrounds don’t align themselves with a feminist identity, even if they support a feminist agenda. Truth be told, I was one of those women for years, and I have always held feminist values. I didn’t see the “work” of feminism relevant to my life as a 19-year-old black girl trying to be valued and find a space for myself at a predominantly white university. I had that Goldie Locks moment where I couldn’t find the space for me that was just right. I have since been introduced to other schools of feminist though that suit me, and now I’m a proud hip hop feminist. 

Reflecting on it now, I realize that the term feminist as a self-identifier implies a unified vision and shared value system that not even all people under the feminist umbrella share. Even today, I don’t identify as a feminist because I feel included and represented by the entire movement. I have taken use of the term to embark on my own journey to liberation and self-definition.

Maya: Yeah, that’s why it’s so much more important–and interesting–to look at what someone is doing rather than how they’re labeling themselves. And, I mean, if Katy Perry is not a feminist–if she doesn’t have that gender awareness and commitment to fighting for equality–then I don’t really want her to go around saying she is just so we can feel like we’ve got a high-profile star on the home team. Frankly, there are some self-identified feminists that I wish weren’t seen as representatives of the movement.

So what do you think we need to do so that more people both understand what feminism is all about and identify with the label?

Sesali: Somehow, we have to take intersectionality out of the fine print and bring it to the forefront so that more men, people of color, LGBTQ folks, religious followers, politicians, and everyone else who supports equity can see themselves reflected in feminism. We have to be able to describe it as more than just a women’s movement, but one for the human rights and personal autonomy of all people. There are as many kinds of feminism as there are feminists because everyone has a different relationship with systems of oppression.

I don’t expect everyone to get in line to join the feminist movement, but bell hooks said it best: “Feminism is for everyone.” And we have to acknowledge that within the movement before others can join us. Feminism is not a bad word.

What do you think? If you consider yourself a feminist, how did you come to identify with the movement? What will it take for more people to adopt the label?


St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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