Feminist radicalism isn’t a “brand problem”

There’s been a lot of recent discussion recently about feminism’s supposed public relations problem. Both Hanna Rosin at Double X and Abigail Rine at the Atlantic have suggested we might want to abandon the “f-word” altogether. People like our ideas, they argue, but have negative associations with feminism.

I appreciated Samhita’s recent intervention about creating a movement open to those who feel excluded by the binary-enforcing “gender equality” platform. As absolutely essential as that work is, I don’t think either of us would claim that the startling statistic Samhita was addressing—that 82% of Americans support equality “between the sexes” but only 20% identify as feminist—is primarily the result of a lingering commitment to the binary within the movement. I’d agree with the Rosins and Rines that most people don’t like us because they’re convinced we’re scary radicals.

Bra burners. Literally.

Bra burners. Literally.

But I don’t think feminism’s radicalism is a superficial brand problem. It’s real, and it’s the source of important ideological conflict. We’re not unpopular despite our beliefs, as others have argued, but rather because of them.

The discussion of the movement’s public relations woes is based on the idea that the movement’s mission is innocuous—that it’s the packaging, not the ideology itself, that’s repelling mainstream America. Yet however reluctant we might be to admit it, feminism at its best is a radical movement. Imagine, for a few moments, what a truly feminist world would look like, down to the mundane details of everyday life. I bet your vision differs tremendously from today’s reality (I know mine does). Anti-sexism might seem like a pretty uncontroversial idea, but patriarchy lives at the foundation of our society. Those who combat this insidious force must necessarily be radical in the literal sense of the world: we need to fight the problem at its roots.

Such an effort will transform much we hold dear, including family, work, government, education, romance, and sex. I’m confident feminism will continue to improve all these institutions and relationships, but it is a disrupting force nonetheless. That’s scary. Naturally, then, so too is the first harbinger of this change: the woman in protest, rejecting her assumed docility and with it our entire gendered world in its current form. I’m unsurprised not everyone is on board. I’m unsurprised some people think “feminism” is a bad word.

I don’t think the answer to the movement’s unpopularity, then, is to soften our public image, since to reshape our message into a noncontroversial form we’d have to abandon our core beliefs. Rather than vainly attempting to repackage our controversial convictions in palatable language, let’s unceasingly confront those who have not yet joined our ranks with the reasons they should.

Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com. During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com.

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