On my last birthday, one of the presents I received from my parents was a t-shirt that said “this is what a feminist looks like” on the front. It was a sweet and thoughtful gift—when I first became passionate about feminism, it took my family some time to get on board, and this t-shirt was like an affirmation of their support. But for the last several months, I’ve had more and more questions about this term. What does it mean for me to identify as a feminist? What is the function of the word; what do we hope to accomplish when we deploy it? What does the word ‘feminism’ do for feminism?
These issues came up for me when I noticed the frequency of attacks on female celebrities for not identifying publicly as feminists, Katy Perry being a recent example. During her acceptance speech for the 2012 Woman of the Year Award, the singer said, “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.” Jezebel, often called a feminist blog, immediately pounced, calling Perry’s comments ignorant and ridiculous—despite the fact that she had also expressed her belief in the “strength of women,” and, as the author notes, is “a successful woman in a previously male dominated industry.” It seems, in this case, that Perry’s rejection of the word ‘feminist’ completely cancelled out what was otherwise an empowering comment about women. How one identifies, in this case, is more important than one’s beliefs.
As Dumbledore of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series said, “fear of a name only increases fear of a thing itself.” The more people that identify openly as feminists, the higher the chances that is has of losing its association with angry, man-hating extremists and of becoming more accepted by society at large. So while I do view identifying as feminist as something positive, I find it troublesome that the flipside of that seems to be publicly scolding women who do not, or, even more condescendingly, telling women that they are feminists and just don’t know it yet. In an interview with Metro, Girls director, writer and actress Lena Dunham said, “Do you believe that women should be paid the same for doing the same jobs? Do you believe that women should be allowed to leave the house? Do you think that women and men both deserve equal rights? Great, then you’re a feminist.”
Here, Dunham implies that it isn’t enough to hold certain views or beliefs on gender equality; you have to prove your beliefs by identifying as a feminist. Ironically, then, within a movement for women’s agency and empowerment, there are individuals who find it appropriate to police the identity of women and shame them into conforming to certain standards—in this case, if you’re a woman, you have to be a feminist. Ultimately, is this so different from telling someone, for example, that by virtue of being a woman, she must be a mother? Women have been told for long enough how they should dress, behave, interact—is it necessary or helpful for a so-called women’s movement to regulate how women identify?
In some cases, there are historic political reasons for why a woman might choose not to adopt the term ‘feminist.’ The women’s movement in the United States was begun and has continued to be dominated by White, upper-class, educated women, often at the expense of other demographics. While fighting for the right to vote, suffragettes used the argument that they (White women) should receive suffrage before Black Americans (including Black women). The ‘second wave’ feminism movement, including main players like Betty Freidan, excluded gay women out of fear that it would damage the movement’s reputation and prohibit progress. And radical feminists, who viewed gender roles as the root of women’s oppression, sometimes developed transphobic theories, like Janice Raymond who wrote in her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire that transsexuality was a myth; the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, founded in 1976, maintains its policy of allowing only “women-born women” onto the festival grounds. So while some of the racism, homophobia and transphobia of feminism has been eradicated, enough remains to deter some women from identifying with the movement. Even today, I read and hear individuals involved in feminism say that women make 77 cents to the man’s dollar, when this is only true for White women—Black women make less than white women on average, and Hispanic women even less.
Even for cisgender, heterosexual White women, it should be acceptable not to identify as a feminist. When president and CEO of Yahoo! Marissa Mayer said she did not consider herself a feminist, there were several feminist media outlets, like Feministing and Ms. Magazine, quick to criticize. As with Katy Perry, the rest of her statement (“I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions”) was ignored.
Should we be focusing on Mayer’s relationship to a specific word instead of celebrating her presence and achievement in such a male-dominated sphere? As one blogger at The Peach wrote in a post about feminist rhetoric, “Every woman’s success is a contribution, in some form or another (whether it’s your preferred way or not), towards strengthening the collective understanding that women are just as awesome as men. Each time a woman achieves success on her own terms, she’s re-enforcing capability of the gender and she should be met with a round of applause.” [emphasis not mine]
I’ve spoken to many people who were reluctant to call themselves feminists because they didn’t think they fit the ‘definition’—they were too feminine, they didn’t ‘hate men,’ they shaved their legs, they liked rom-coms. In these cases, I think it’s a shame that the perceived criteria of feminism holds people back, and I will often respond by telling that person that calling yourself a feminist doesn’t require meeting any criteria, that it’s—in my opinion—a fluid and inclusive term for anyone who recognizes and wishes to rectify gender inequality. But forcing an identity on someone who understands what it entails and still does not desire to adopt it is, I would argue, antithetical to principles of feminism. In response to criticism of singer Taylor Swift’s comments about feminism, a blogger for xoJane.com wrote the article ‘Don’t Call Me a Feminist,’ concluding that, “Feminism is about equal rights, is it not? Then respect that idea. Respect the fact that not every woman has to conform to what you think is best. Respect a woman’s right to call herself whatever the hell she wants.”
Is feminism still relevant, important, even crucial? Of course. But are the issues that make it crucial—lack of access to education, wage gaps, maternity leave, sexual harassment and abuse, representation in the media, participation in the political sphere, reproductive healthcare, and the feminization of poverty, to name a few—at all mitigated by the number of people who call themselves feminists? No. Let’s focus on the issues instead of the semantics, and listen to our inner middle-school selves: labels are for soup cans, not people.
-Sophia Seawell, Contributor
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