Is “Feminism” a Self-Defeating Label?

I’m a pretty slow learner when it comes to social media. I feel like I just mastered Facebook when it started going out of style. Unfortunately for me, social media sites are important tools when it comes to blogging. I’ve been making an effort to expand my horizons, starting with Twitter. So far, my favourite thing about Twitter is the hashtags.

Even before I started posting on Twitter, I would check to see what was trending and to follow conversations about race and gender that unfolded around hashtags like #WhyIStayed, #BringBackOurGirls, #GamerGate, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, etc. Recently, when I went to tag a comment with “#feminist”, I noticed that the first two tags to show up were “#FeminismIsAwful” and “#FeministsAreUgly”. When I decided to make a comment about it, it wasn’t long before I got a response.

I’d like to consider what Jacob is saying. First, let’s set aside the long history of smearing feminism by calling feminists ugly for a second here.

Let’s also ignore the way many many political and religious groups have been dismissed based on their extremists and, for the moment, set aside the examples of radical feminists that have, indeed, expressed hatred for white cis-gender men.

Instead, let’s focus on the term itself. Specifically, I want to consider if the feminist label is getting in the way of the work we are trying to accomplish. One of the first times I openly called myself a feminist was in my first post for this blog, almost two years ago. That prompted several conversations with friends and loved ones who all associated feminism with hating men. The conversations usually went like this, “Why do you call yourself a feminist?” “Because I believe in equality and want to be part of a movement that promotes that equality.” “Then why don’t you just call yourself an equalist.” It’s the “fem” in feminist that always does it. Because the root connotes the female gender, critics automatically assume that feminism is a movement that can only advocate for women. It doesn’t matter how often you point out how feminists are working to break down the restrictions that patriarchy enforces on all genders, some people just can’t get past the word itself. In her article on the “Pros and Cons of Abandoning the Word ‘Feminist'” Gender Studies professor Abigail Rein admits that,

“In my experience, using the feminist label is an asset only when preaching to the feminist choir. My ambivalence disappears in those contexts; I feel as though we are all speaking the same language, so we can relax and high-five each other in our feminist t-shirts, because, yes, we get it. But when I step beyond that insular crowd, the term has a consistently alienating effect. In conversations with non-feminists—which are arguably the most important—using the word ‘feminism’ rarely opens doors to deeper dialogue. Instead, it often acts as a barrier to the very ideas that word represents. This is a serious problem, one that I wish more feminists were talking candidly about.

I believe that change happens on a one-on-one level, not through debates between opposing teams. Labels can cause division. Once you put on a label, you become associated with whatever other people project onto that label. For that reason, I find it tempting to move on from the term “feminism” and instead, discuss feminist issues merely as one human to another. However, there are a few reasons why I cannot bring myself to dismiss the term altogether.

1) It Still Makes People Angry

The angry backlash to feminism is one of the reasons I still find the term valuable. Why is a movement that uses the position of women in society as a jumping point to reexamine all gender roles so deeply offensive? Many political parties and interest groups were originally founded to address men’s issues, then later expanded to include women, yet we rarely attribute problems with those organization to a gender bias. There is something about the centrality of women in the feminist movement that provokes a surprising level of rage. That’s something worth provoking, even if only to discover where that anger stems.

2) “Feminist” is Becoming a Less Stigmatized Label

If the increase in celebrity feminists is anything to go by, feminism is slowly losing its status as a dirty word.

While feminists debate whether or not trendy feminism is actually helping change policies, the decreasing stigma has opened up conversations about gender, race, class, etc. As these issues become points of discussion on a public stage, people are also beginning to realize that feminists have a wide range of opinions.

Because of disagreements between groups of feminists, Men’s Rights Activists accuse feminists of “never being happy about anything”. However, these disagreements also allowed laywomen, like me, to realize that we don’t have to ascribe to a certain set of feminist rules in order to advocate for important changes. Instead, we can join the discussion about what equal opportunity looks like.

 As Thomas Dollar points out in his article on the term,

“Feminism is not Freemasonry; it is a set of related social values, not a fraternity or a religion to which one can belong. People are feminists because they hold certain principles; they do not hold these principles because they are feminists. There is no entrance exam to feminism, no initiation, and no Nicene Creed.”

3) Equality Means Different Things to Different People

Will dropping the term “feminism” allow “equalists” to join feminists in their battle for equality? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Different people have different ideas of what equality looks like. By identifying yourself as a feminist you are ascribing to the belief that we do not live in a meritocracy where equal opportunities are offered to everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Feminism acknowledges the way our cultural context affects the way decisions are made, and it advocates for different, more just approaches.

One part of me feels compelled to reject “feminist” as a title in order to avoid putting up barriers in conversations with individuals who hate or fear feminism. However, I also feel encouraged about the way feminism is slowly breaking free from stigma, and I feel unwilling to give up on a label that has been so hard won.

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7 responses to “Is “Feminism” a Self-Defeating Label?

  1. Great article Kat! I think that all of us fourth (?) generation feminists have struggled with the label at some point or another. I take pride in calling myself a feminist loud and often, although I present as traditionally “girly” (probably because I enjoy wrecking havoc with expectations).

    I think the “fem” in “feminism” turns people off because it implies that the movement is inherently PRO-woman (which is something that of course both men and women can be and does not necessitate anti-man). That pro-woman element (as opposed to simple ‘equality’) rubs people the wrong way because our world still views men as the standard. There’s an assumption that “equality” should mean that women learn to act more like men and compete on men’s terms, rather than expressing our own awesome power as women.

    Additionally, there’s a cultural expectation for men to speak up in favor of themselves and women to speak up in favor of others, so the feminist is seen as selfish (or man-hating, or cold, or…)

    I think those expectations (and the fact that it rubs people the wrong way) is exactly why we SHOULD continue to refer to ourselves as feminists, until one day we live in a society in which a woman who expresses pride in her gender isn’t met with revulsion.

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  4. I don’t know if changing to a different term would change the reputation. Social Justice Activist is a pretty neutral term but for a lot of people it has a horrible reputation, so I don’t think it’s the name people are rejecting but the ideas behind the name. I’ve also noticed that most people who have a problem with the word feminist also have the problem with the idea that we are not living in meritocracy and even though the patriarchy may harm men it harms women more (I think you covered this idea in your last point) which is kind of a central idea to feminism so I don’t thinking changing the name will work

    • That’s a great point. I’d have to agree. Changing the name wouldn’t change anything. People would still want to scrap the concept regardless.

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