The F-Word: Feminism

We_Can_Do_It!If I asked you if you believed women should have equal rights, that men and women should have the same opportunities regardless of sex, that one’s value should not be associated with one’s gender, you would likely agree (unless you’re an asshole). But what if I asked if you’re a feminist?

Feminism has become the ultimate dirty word, so much so that even people who agree with its values would not go so far as to associate with the term itself. Shailene Woodley, the up-and-coming star of The Fault in Our Stars (read my review of the book here) and the woman-power-celebration movie Divergent, when asked whether she was a feminist, demurred:

“No because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.”

Since when was that contrary to feminist doctrine? A simple scan of the dictionary definition rebuts her assumptions:



adjective Sometimes, fem·i·nis·tic.


advocating social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.


an advocate of such rights.
Equal. It’s right there in the definition. Not superior, not matriarchy in disguise. Feminists are not seeking to rid the world of men, nor are they seeking to rule over them. They simply support women having the same opportunities as men.
Woodley’s comment is akin to Denzel Washington saying that we don’t need more black actors in Hollywood because “I love white people, and there has to be balance.” There is already a disproportionate lack of balance, which is what any equality movement is trying to correct.
Yet, when people are looking to upend power structures, those wielding the power feel threatened. The Civil Rights Movement spawned a resurgence of the KKK, as white men clung desperately to their vanishing domination of society. In the same way, men who feel threatened by gender equality are quick to go on the offensive. Pat Robertson, in his lifelong quest to be more controversial and absurd, employs the slippery slope fallacy:
“The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
Rush Limbaugh termed the ever-so-helpful term “feminazi.” I know men who have flippantly used this term who wouldn’t usually be caught dead using a Rushism, but it has become an ingrained part of the culture, an accepted parody, that feminists are man-haters. I wonder how they would feel bandying about the term if they heard Rush’s own definition of it:
“A feminazi is a woman, a feminist, to whom the most important thing in her life is seeing to it that all abortions possible take place.”
The feminist movement itself may be partly to blame. For one, we stopped fighting the battle assuming the war had been won. As women have gained ground in society, we traded in our vigilance for ennui. Again, we can take guidance from those fighting for racial equality:

Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.

Coretta Scott King
Our generation did not have to fight for women’s suffrage. Economic necessity helped previous generations shoulder their way into the workplace. Accordingly, there is a false notion that there is already equality between men and women. Even though it is undisputed there is STILL a wage gap between the sexes, it took the high-profile ousting of a female editor to bring the issue to the media’s attention. It is unclear whether Jill Abramson was fired because she pushed for equal pay (her publisher vehemently denies the claim), but what is clear is that there is still a glass ceiling, and not just in the corporate world. Women make up half of the U.S. population but only 1/5 of Congress. It’s no wonder male lawmakers feel free to legislate women’s medical decisions, since there are so few female members of Congress to protest. And while Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement has publicized the subtle sexism pervading the language itself, it will take a massive shift in the culture to eradicate these same effects in everyday usage.
There is also a feeling of exclusion on the other side of the gender divide. When asked whether he was a feminist, musician Pharrell responded:
I don’t think it’s possible for me to be that…I’m a man.

The comment, while just as frustrating as Woodley’s, seems at least partly understandable. After all, he follows that up with:

I do support feminists. I do think there’s injustices. There are inequalities that need to be addressed.
As a white, straight woman, I can support the causes of racial and LGBT equality while still feeling somewhat outside of the causes themselves, as if I don’t have the right to assert equality for others, only myself. Logically, it doesn’t make sense, but I understand the inclination.
Obviously, it is an oversimplification to lump more than a century’s worth of women’s rights movements into a single term, and I have likely glossed over several complex issues that deserve their own debate. But that’s just it. People think the debate is over.
I may have wanted to believe it myself, until seeing public figures like Woodley and Pharrell espouse feminist ideologies then shirk from being associated with the word itself. Luckily, there are just as many public figures who aren’t afraid of the word or its connotations.
Lena Dunham sums up the situation beautifully:
“Women saying ‘I’m not a feminist’ is my greatest pet peeve. 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. People think there is something taboo about speaking up for feminism. I know for a long time that I was embarrassed to call out misogyny because I was then going to be that complaining girl who can’t let it go. But the fact is, we can’t let it go – not until we feel like we have been heard.”
It looks likely that the next presidential cycle in the United States may have the first viable female contenders (long after Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, and Bangladesh elected female leaders, by the way), and this issue will come to the forefront. While the media is likely to continue its subtle sexism (Pantsuits! Hairstyles! Makeup! Oh My!), if a woman is to snag the seat, we need to become a lot more comfortable with the F-word. (And if that last sentence had you envisioning women “sleeping their way to the top,” you know we have a lot of work to do.)



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3 Comments on "The F-Word: Feminism"

  1. David
    09/06/2014 at 6:00 pm Permalink

    Great use of the word ” ennui ” ..( had to use dictionary )
    In my humble opinion Misogyny is the root of all the worlds problems .
    Feminism having become the new F word is ridiculous .
    I think we need a new C word ( Ann Coulter ) now that woman scares me .
    Strong smart females are nothing to be afraid of . It’s the strong smart crazy ones that bring out the mistrust in me .
    As men we naturally want to treat a women diferently in the work place but it should come from respect not chauvinism but what do I know I just love women .

  2. Sasha
    09/06/2014 at 6:29 pm Permalink

    I have spent l lot of time thinking about the reason feminism has such a bad reputation. Once having said that I support humanism but not feminism, I was told by a feminist that feminism is merely the belief that women and men should have equal rights. I could not disagree with this, and I openly identified as a feminist.

    Why then, does the “feminism” leave such a bad taste in the mouths of so many people, including humanists and other people with liberal ideas about equal rights? Is it really that so many people have a misunderstanding about the definition of feminism? There does not seem to be the same disconnect among people who believe in equal rights for the LGBT community. Do you ever hear anyone say, “I believe in marriage equality but I’m not an LGBT activist.” I certainly don’t.

    While I identified as a feminist, I started noticing myself disagreeing with some feminist claims, but I could not figure out why. I did some research and found an article (link below) that seemed to shed some light on this. The author of the article makes a distinction between “equity feminism,” the definition you described, and “gender feminism,” a series of claims that have nothing to do with equal rights.

    Although this is something I have not made up my mind about, my best conclusion so far is that the distaste for feminism is a reaction to the series of scientifically-illiterate claims stemming from gender feminists. For example, the idea that gender is exclusively a cultural construct and that sex-linked genes have no influence on behavior is silly. Even if this claim were true, the idea of equal rights for women does not follow and is irrelevant.

    These types of beliefs are deceptively equivocated with those of equity feminism. That is, anytime someone says, “I don’t agree with the ludicrous claims of feminism,” referring to unsubstantiated claims about biology, the feminist response is, “So you don’t believe in equal rights for women?” In this way, it seems that equity feminism, which is entirely justifiable, has had its rhetoric hijacked by gender feminists to accuse rational people of bigotry.

    As I stated previously, I have not made up my mind about this and I’m open to ideas that challenge the conclusion I discussed above. I would love to know what you think about this.

  3. glo
    10/06/2014 at 10:23 am Permalink

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Sasha! I think you’re right on the whole. As with any movement, the extremists hurt the brand. While I do believe gender is at least partially a social construct, there are physical, biological, hormonal differences that can’t help but influence one’s adherence or abhorrence of that construct. You hit the nail on the head with your observation that the term has been “hijacked by gender feminists” and the conflation of very different schools of thought has likely led to the term feminism being seen as pejorative. I still think we can take back the term, though, and re-associate feminist activism with its egalitarian roots.

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