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.