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?


Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

Read more about Maya

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/lisasolod/ Lisa Solod

    Although I write about feminism and have been writing about it for many years (most recently here:http://middleagedfeminist.com/2012/07/25/why-feminism-still-matters/) , and although I have BEEN a feminist for 40 years, I am kind of sick of this particular issue: Yes, I care whether women call themselves feminists or not but I really don’t give a damn of celebrities do… because they have always gotten the kind of special treatment that makes it almost irrelevant what they call themselves. Carla, Melissa, Katy and their ilk have lives that the average woman cannot even begin to imagine. Do they do a huge disservice to those women when they eschew the title of feminist? Of course. But does that really matter to the lives of most of us? No.

    It is pretty annoying when women who have clearly benefited from those women (including my entire generation) who have gone before them. Katy Perry would not exist without Madonna, for example, nor Melissa Mayer without the millions of women who have bumped their heads against the glass ceiling–even if she doesn’t think so. It pisses me off that they are so quick to say they aren’t feminists but in the long run it is meaningless. What is meaningFUL is that that the rest of us don’t get sidetracked by celebrity nonsense and keep up the hard work of true equality.

    It took very little for me to adopt the “label” when I was 15…. everything I had seen up until that moment was lodged in my consciousness. As for others, it would be nice if they would embrace the concept and work for it without worrying about the label.

  • lyra1389

    This isn’t exactly a happy story. I have identified as a feminist since I was a little kid. I never had a click moment, I was just raised to treat people equally, and when I found the word feminist I liked it and started identifying as one. But now, at 23, I reject the feminist label. As a working class woman who also studies Women’s Studies in college, I feel that the movement has done little for myself or other working women. Class is largely left out of the intersectional dialogue. Further, after my roommate was brutally raped, hers being the 5th rape in a matter of months at our school, there was NO response whatsoever from the feminist community. So while I believe in equality, I no longer identify as a feminist because I feel the movement is largely hypocritical. It’s all well and good to bitch about a politician making a stupid and terrible remark about rape, but when it’s happening at a disturbing rate in a community and the feminists do nothing, they lose all of my respect.

  • http://feministing.com/members/corydeburd/ Cory

    As a male reader of feministing, I’d like to say thanks for a great post. I don’t need to see “male issues” at the core of feminism to share its outlook and agenda, but it’s always validating to know that feminism can (and should) encompass questions about my identity.

  • http://feministing.com/members/feminist101/ Norm Sutter

    I no longer consider myself a feminist because of organized embarrassments like this. Until feminists are more willing to call out hate within their community as they are to criticize and assault others, my heart has no place for feminism or feminists.

  • http://feministing.com/members/patrick/ Patrick

    My own reasons for not identifying as a feminist are summed up by Ally Fogg in a blog post, “Why I am Not a Feminist”. I think I’m a feminist ally, as best I can be, but a feminist? No. It’s not my place to insist I be included in a movement that has nothing to do with me. It’s neatly summed up in a quote from the blog:

    “To be a full participant in the movement, one needs to be able to take sides in those disputes. That puts a man in the impossible position of either telling half the feminists that you’re wrong and I know better, or else smiling and saying “well you both make very good points” like a liberal vicar trying to intervene in a pub fight.”


  • http://feministing.com/members/stephanie13/ Stephanie

    As long as there remains in this country gender gaps in employment and wages; as long as women experience sexual and gender based violence and continue to be blamed for such crimes; as long as women are forced to choose between a career and motherhood because maternity leave is short and there are limited resources for childcare (that are not expensive); as long as single mothers continue to be vilified; as long as women remain under-represented in government; as long as our reproductive health rights continue to be infringed upon, I will be a feminist. I think the movement needs to break the stereotype that we are bitter and angry women who blame men for our status in American society. Just because Kate Perry doesn’t identify herself as a feminist or Carla Bruni-Sarkozy thinks the need for a women’s movement has ended, doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of accomplished celebrities who do. We also really need to get more male gender champions actively engaged on the issues. One of my favourite images is a man wearing the “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt.

  • http://feministing.com/members/fennedy/ Jess

    I agree that it’s more important to look at the actions of what these celebrities are doing rather than what they’re calling themselves, but I also think it gives people comfort knowing who’s pro-women. When I came out as a lesbian, I searched for out LGBTQ celebrities and people in leadership positions because it was comforting just KNOWING that they were out and supported me.

    When I think about the absence and the limited number of celebrity feminists, my mind flashes to the scores of young, disenfranchised, disillusioned young people clustering together trying to have their voices heard, only to realize that their supporters are few and far between. And as these young dissidents stand in defiance with their arms outstretched in front trying to gain a sense of power and control, I think about the lack of powerful people they can identify and fight with.

    It’s crucial that women (and men) celebrities in the media come out as feminists and fight with the young women and men who don’t know how to fight on their own or who are still caught up in thinking that feminism is bad and gross.

    Not having these powerful members of our society come out and claim their voices as feminists, only belies our tendency to look for simple answers where genuine support and community is required for any real substantial change.

  • http://feministing.com/members/mikesh713/ Sepp

    I can see why feminists would claim that all women should call themselves feminists, especially those who are already influential, successful and powerful – and gaining more of that is what this is all about.

    The article subtly suggests that some women don’t call themselves feminists only because of the bad rap that feminism has gotten. But what about other reasons?

    What about the possibility that they don’t agree with the feminist agenda or even reject it? The answer to this questions is also provided: Katy Perry can’t be a feminist because if she only knew what it meant, she would of course be one.

  • http://feministing.com/members/mcr700/ Molly Rothschild

    I think it is important for people to identify as feminists because it becomes normalized. If it is not normalized, then instead it is normal for people to reject feminist ideas for being too “feminist.” I find that the media is a common perpetrator of this. Please check out this petition if you agree!

  • http://feministing.com/members/muffysimba711/ Kate

    It has become a joke. I swear it’s a cult now and the only people who are members are militant hypocritical white women who bitch about everything. The ones who do not agree with them are called many names. The movement is very tainted. Yes, that includes this site. I would advise young girls to not take this current movement seriously and do what makes them feel happy. I see a lot of hate coming my way. I’m new to this site, so I don’t know how much censorship happens here.

  • http://feministing.com/members/fistdeep/ Nancy

    its a personal choice in my opinion