When She Says She’s Not A Feminist

Let’s talk about this conversation:

– Are you a feminist?

– No, feminists are (against men/too angry/pick your poison). But I believe in equality.

Variations of this conversation occur in lots of venues: classrooms, media outlets, social settings. But no matter the specifics, it often becomes a psychic wedgie to those women who do identify as feminist. Many will respond with, well, actually feminism is about equality — so you are a feminist. But is that useful? I argue not, and here’s why.

  • Self-definition is an important principle of a modern women’s movement.
    What often passes for “equality” in mainstream venues including corporations, media, and politics these days is one white woman who will represent “women.” This is insulting and troubling for many reasons, not least of which that not all women are the same. Not all feminisms are the same either. If a woman says she is not feminist because feminism means something negative to her, insisting that she is in fact feminist either replaces or piles on the negative view of feminism she had just articulated with one that includes people who don’t respect her authority to speak for herself. It certainly doesn’t communicate that feminism is about respecting autonomy.
  • This gotcha game is largely targeted at women, not men in power, and that sucks.
    Are the 476 men who serve as CEOS of the Fortune 500 routinely asked if they are feminist? What about the male actors and musicians who get magazine profiles? No, they are not. Instead this question is largely directed at those few women who hold power. This sucks so much. Do we really want to give all the men who hold the bulk of the power in our society a free pass to ignore the advancement of women? If a commitment to equality belongs solely to those who hold less privilege, we’re not going to move near fast enough.
  • It’s not safe for everyone to identify as feminist.
    I define feminism as a political/social movement calling for equality and justice for all people, starting with women at the center. It is much more a cultural and political agenda than a form of identity. It is an agenda that requires calling for changes in society, many of which are quite controversial. I have in the course of my career working with women’s rights advocates around the country met women who consider themselves feminists but would never let their colleagues or neighbors know. Simply put, they don’t want to get fired or penalized. Saying you are a feminist can come with real and negative social consequences, and a feminist thing to do would be to respect that.
  • Feminism is not experienced equally by everyone.
    Feminism is a loaded term for many women who do very much care about equality, especially women of color, transgender women, and others whose perspectives are not often centered by the mainstream white feminist-driven bus. Some quite thoughtfully choose to use the term “womanist” rather than “feminist” to describe themselves. It just might be the case that listening to (rather than refuting) the reasons behind one person’s rejection of the term feminist offers a large opportunity for you to grow your own feminist practice.
  • And to my fellow feminists (especially those of you who are women): It’s okay for others to disagree with you, or dislike you.
    Women are especially socialized to think we are awful if others disagree with something we have to say, or dislike who we are. Happiness rarely comes from posturing to please others. In this way, traditional gender scripts work hard against women, our potential, our happiness, and our self-esteem by insisting that we put the perceptions of others before what we find important for ourselves. If a woman says feminists are something you don’t think you are, you can simply say (out loud and/or to yourself) that doesn’t apply to you. And you can move on to fighting for equality. And that’s okay.

The radical right has for decades worked to redefine feminism as a negative identity rather than the positive social and political agenda it is. It’s disingenuous, derailing, and would be better fought not by insisting that individuals define themselves as feminists but rather by holding institutions accountable for treating everyone with equality and justice.

12 thoughts on “When She Says She’s Not A Feminist

  1. Thanks for this post. I’ve been mulling over the question, “Am I a feminist?” I pretty much don’t know and don’t feel the need to identify with that term. I care just as much about race equality as gender equality, but I’ve personally experienced the extremes of a male-privilaged and rape-culture society, so I can talk from the heart about the challenges women face. At the same time, I know men also face their own challenges and I don’t want to end up in this “I’m more oppressed than you!” argument. Do I agree with and advocate feminist ideas? Usually. Am I a feminist? Still don’t know.

  2. Great post! I often forget these points when talking to someone who does not identify as a feminist. I especially like how you talked about how this question is not aimed at men in power! So interesting!

  3. Are you a feminist? How do you define the word? If the definition of a feminist is someone working toward equality (not someone who hates men), how can any woman not be a feminist? The Right has created a backlash against feminism by focusing on groups that hate men in general. The press has not helped advertise mainstream feminism (the bit about equality) either. And men’s rights groups tend to dismiss feminism. Are we afraid to call ourselves feminists because the men’s rights groups are offended by the term? We can change the terminology to “womanist” but someone is bound to come along and corrupt that term too. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this and I hope I have not offended.

  4. I don’t hate men, but I do believe that equality is very important. You can’t just disregard as a lesser 50% of the population based on gender.

  5. Excellent post. For a while, I would tell people, “I’m not a feminist. I’m a humanist.” Though these days I tend to not be too attached to the labels, since I understand that feminism and other labels tend to be socially complicated from different points of view. I don’t mind being labeled a feminist, and will accept the term, though I understand why others don’t like the label for themselves.

  6. Emma Snyder

    The right wing is notorious for redefining words to suit their agenda. Corporations are people. Embryos are babies. Welfare recipients are freeloaders. And feminists are man-haters who want to destroy tradition and create a world in which women rule.

    Feminism is a word with an established meaning. It is someone who believes in the “political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” It’s really not that complicated.

    If people drop the word “feminist” in favor or “humanist” or “womanist,” the right wing will target those words. Are we going to spend the next fifty years haggling over labels and semantics? The word is already there. It has meaning, and that meaning holds great virtue.

    Of course there are many variations of feminists just like there are variations of Christians or Democrats. If someone says they’re a Christian, you actually know very little about what they believe. The same is true of someone who identifies as a Democrat. We understand these labels to be broad rather than specific, and feminism is no different.

    People should call themselves whatever they are comfortable with. Personally, whenever this issue comes up in conversation, I simply say, “Do you believe in political, economic, and social equality of the sexes?” If the person says, “Yes,” I say, “Then you are, by definition, a feminist.”

    1. I wanted to thank you for this comment. It is like you have taken the thoughts directly from my mind and put them into words. This is my view of feminism also, and by definition something very positive, and a label that I personally wear proudly. I believe in equality for all, not just women, all people, and my pursuit to this cause begins with women of all races, views and beliefs. Equality for all is a beautiful idea and something all people deserve. If that means I’m a feminist, which I believe I am, I will embrace it and stand up for all others who do also, as they fight to turn the negative ideas now linked with such a beautiful word.

  7. clb72

    Maybe it’s more important that people support feminist goals than whether they are willing to label themselves feminists. It’s a leap to conclude that because you support certain political views, you have to accept the group’s label as part of your self-concept. A lot of folks just don’t think of themselves in this way.

  8. Maya

    Great post! I’ve been trying to figure out what the word ‘feminist’ means to me for quite some time now. I’ve noticed that everybody has such a different definition of it and to be honest, I’ve gotten quite confused as to which definition I should ‘like’ and which I should ‘dislike’. You make great points and have helped me look at feminism from another view 🙂

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