Why Are Young Women So Afraid To Call Themselves Feminists?

Jessica’s post about Beyoncé’s weirdness about the word “feminism” sparked a lot of interesting debate. In her interview with Harper’s Bazaar U.K., Queen B expressed a dislike of “defining it” (“it” being feminism), and then turned around and said that if we’re going to put a word on it, it should be a catchy new one, like “bootylicious.”

As catchy a word as “bootylicious” is, I’m having trouble understanding why anyone who believes men, women, and trans people should have equal rights under the law and in society would not call herself a feminist. Because “feminism” has a definition, and it is this:

1: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.
2: organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.


For someone to say that they believe in these things, and then turn around and say “but I’m not a feminist,” seems about as absurd as someone who eats pasta for breakfast, lunch and dinner refusing to turn around and identify as someone who likes pasta. What is it with this bizarre discomfort with “labels”? Every word in the English language is a “label” for something. That’s how we communicate with each other and form rational thoughts. I can see why people might want to resist labeling something that they consider fluid or ambiguous, like their gender or sexuality. But it’s not like you can sort of believe that women and men are equal. Either you do, or you don’t. (I realize these ideas’ application might not always be very clear cut; more on that later.)

Jessica noted, quite correctly, that B’s desire not to be labeled a feminist might come from a place of fear of what the word has been twisted around by various opponents of feminism to mean. Feminists hate men! Feminists don’t shave their legs! Feminists hate make-up and want to teach little boys that they’re inferior to little girls! But these are ridiculous straw-man (woman?) arguments that have been spread by people who want to hurt our cause, like Rush Limbaugh (originator of the loathsome term “feminazi”). No matter what we call it, people are going to find a way to make “feminism,” “bootylicious-ism,” or what have you, mean something negative, something it doesn’t actually mean. By abandoning the word, we are letting opponents dictate the terms of our fight, and that sounds like a bad strategy to me.

You might be wondering right now why it matters to me what people decide to call “it.” It matters because when fighting for a group’s interests, say women’s (although feminism helps men as well), it helps to have some kind of organized movement. Our opponents certainly do. How do you think women got the right to vote? They didn’t sit around talking about their esoteric weirdness about labels, they fucking had meetings and organized. The obstacles we’re up against right now are too great to fuck around with. Our right to control what happens to our own bodies, our right not to be discriminated against at work, and our right to bring our rapists to justice are just a few real, concrete issues that we’re currently dealing with. An organized strategy is essential to winning these battles.

Then there is the argument that feminism has become tainted from within. For many people, the fact that various (in my opinion misguided) branches of the feminist movement oppose women’s right to, say, engage in sex work, makes them not want to come under the same umbrella. I understand this objection, I really do. I have spent quite a bit of time arguing with feminists who, whether due to naivete, neurosis, or simple difference of philosophy, believe that there’s no way an adult woman could make a fully consensual choice to, say, work in a BDSM dungeon or be a housewife. This can be frustrating. But I don’t think it’s a reason to say “fuck you guys, I’m going home.” I think that’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Intra-movement debate can be healthy. If everyone who disagreed with Andrea Dworkin had just up and left the feminist movement, it wouldn’t have morphed into the (largely) sex-positive movement it is today. Feminism has grown and improved because people stuck around and debated. Us third-wavers still have a lot of goals in common with older generations of feminists, and from a practical point of view, it behooves us to stay united in trying to accomplish said goals while we’re still debating about the other stuff. Is it a perfect solution? Hell no. Do I wish everyone could agree on everything? Of course. But in the end, I think the value of a united front is too great to give up because you disagree with other feminists on some things. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best thing we’ve come up with so far.

But if you think you have a better idea about how to accomplish our goals, I think a lot of feminists would be sincerely interested to hear it. No matter what you call yourself.

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    • lindsey

      i am17 and very proud to call myself a feminist, but yes most girls in my grade shy away from the term beceause of the ugly steriotypes that are accosiated with it (bra burning being hairy and such) but most women(from what i can gather) do support the ideas and are feminists they just don’t know it so i think we just need to get awarness out there we dont hate men, we just dont think they are better than us….

    • Adriana

      I think the cultural understanding of the term “Feminism” is clouded by negative connotation–a primo example of this is Rush Limbaugh using the term “Feminazi,” which is stupid, overblown, hyperbolic, and just inaccurate. But if our culture relies on misogynists to define the term, well, there you have it. I wish there were some kind of marketing campaign for the Feminist movement that focused on the denotative meaning because–no matter where they fall on the political spectrum–most women *are* comfortable with the notion of egalitarianism. And the REAL definition is much broader than most folks understand. I proudly self-identify as a Feminist and have probably since I was 12–twenty years going strong!

    • Jun

      I got to a women college, one of the most feminist institution in the country, and I’m proud to call myself a feminist.

    • Laura

      I often shy away from the term feminism as well. I have a sociology degree and am working on a social work degree and am a full support of human rights. I am the person who sides with the idea that a woman should have the right to work in a male-dominated field, a BDSM dungeon or as a housewife. I come from Canada where equality amongst all is a common ideal amongst people my age. I however shy away from the term because I tend to hesitate to call feminism an ideology (despite what professors tell me) equality is a human right, like the environment I believe it is an issue that should transcend politics. Further, the origins of feminism are also questionable to me. Feminism started as a largely white, christian, middle to upper class women thing, not an all women thing. Thus in Beyonce’s case perhaps a more learned reason on why she might hesitate to label herself as a feminist. As well, feminism in North America was propagated by a poor translation of the second sex, the French have a different idea of feminism than we do yet still a country where people are concerned for equal rights. I think when feminism can find equality amongst its members and we realise that equal rights should not be an election issue we can look back on feminism and then remember it fondly.

      • Jamie Peck

        Here’s the thing, though: neither equal rights nor the environment currently do transcend politics. There are a lot of people actively working to destroy them. Whether or not they should be, these actually ARE election issues, and we are losing said elections. How are we supposed to fight back against those people in any practical way without some semblance of unity? (I am sincerely interested in any practical solutions you have to offer.) If we wait until the feminist movement is perfect, we’ll be waiting forever. Meanwhile, we will be stripped of our rights by people like Michele Bachmann.

      • Steve P

        Jamie: The irony is that Michele Bachmann wouldn’t be running, wouldn’t stand a chance, if it were not for the feiminst movement. The same goes for Sarah Palin.

    • Lo

      I think it’s the ‘fem’ bit. It’s not an equal-sounding word. Beside that, I’d like a label that encompasses all the other equalities I support. ‘Notjerkism’ is the best I can come up with right now.

    • andrea dunlop

      This is a well thought out piece Jamie. I wouldn’t ever back down from calling myself a feminist. Among other things, telling people you are one gives you a chance to disabuse them of any misguided notions they may have about what that means.

    • Stacie

      I would never in a million years call myself a feminist! I’m 18 & wish we could go back to the 50′s where women were housewives & the men earn the money. My boyfriend would die if we were married & I tried getting a job. I cook & clean, that’s my job. 100% old fashion & proud!

      • Amanda

        How’s that going for you?

      • Niki

        Well aren’t you lucky then? Part of feminism means if you want to be a homemaker and take care of the kids, then that is your right. It also means if your husband wants to be the homemaker and you want to focus on your career, thats fine too. It doesnt mean forcing that choice upon everyone else.

    • Caitlin

      THANK YOU. There are so many more fights to be won, and it doesn’t help the cause when people are ashamed to even lump themselves in with the people who are fighting for the rights of women, men, and trans people. The only reason it is such a fear-inducing term is because people made it that way. I think it says something about you if you fear the fight for the rights of people.

      Bonus points for the South Park reference.

    • Not a feminist

      This is precisely part of the problem. Calling myself anti-sexist and acting upon it as well, JUST ISN’T FUCKING ENOUGH. But no, the world won’t be perfect until everyone calls themselves feminist.

      It’s that when people act like that, it can create an impression like the label is some kind of community that accepts you instantly upon taking upon the label. And not many want to be associated with that sort of community so fucking obsessed with how people label themselves.

      Labels are fine, but not when taken to the extent of when you judge someone as ‘bad’ because they might be reluctant to accept a label, even if they might agree with the ‘good’ aspects of that label’s ideas. And it’s that arrogance that turns people off.

    • Not a feminist

      You should also read this piece about how black women just don’t feel comfortable in (mostly white) feminist circles: http://www.womanist-musings.com/2010/06/dear-white-feminists-stop-erasing-my.html

      As for diversity, the problem is when sex-positive feminists consider Dworkinites to be feminist despite disagreeing with them (simply because the Dworkinites believe they want equality), while they won’t consider arch-conservatives (who also think they’re for equality just because they don’t believe women should wear burkas, or that women have a right to work but are ‘hard-wired’ to want to stay at home anyway) to be feminist as well. It’s allll about a simple desire for equality, apparently.

      Here’s another thing to consider about labels. ‘Aryan’ was originally used to refer to Indo-European and North Indian (though there is technically no racial distinction), but over time the term went to mean well, Hitler’s definition. Am I really being unreasonable if I’m not interested in ‘bringing it back’ to refer to north Indians in a non-racist sense?

      Also I’m not interested in most of the modern political feminist agenda. I DON’T want more women in power – I want the power structures abolished. I don’t want government-subsidized birth control, I of course want birth control to be common but not through the government. Etc. So I’m not interested in being ‘accepted’ by or working with 98% of feminists today. And I’m not going to call myself a label when only about 2% of people going by it, have ideas I agree with.

      • Not a feminist

        Slight correction needed on “Indo-European and North Indian (though there is technically no racial distinction”. I meant that there’s technically no racial distinction between North and South Indians. Indo-European is pretty different.

    • Cassieleigh

      I think my main discomfort at calling myself a feminist is that I see too much judgement (from both sides) of the movement. If you agree that everyone is equal but are willing to get less pay than a man just to have a job, you’re judged by the feminists. If you pronounce that you’re a feminist, some people will (wrongfully) judge that you’re a man-hating, liberal lesbian.

      By definition, I’m a feminist. I think people should be treated fairly and have the right to do what they will as long as they don’t infringe on others rights. But I don’t wear an “I <3 Feminism" t-shirt because lets face it, regardless of the fact that it may be a "straw-man" argument that feminism means something other than the definition, people will think of you a certain way if you claim it. I'd rather not be identified at all than to be identified by someone else's misconceptions.

    • Ted Dirbity

      Maybe modern society’s just not ready for being able to accept it.

      And by it, I mean “this jelly.”

    • Steve P

      Would you believe that some people actually claim that reactionaries like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are the real feminists today. Read on:
      This isn’t the Boston Tea Party; this is the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party!

    • Not a feminist

      “How do you think women got the right to vote? They didn’t sit around talking about their esoteric weirdness about labels, they fucking had meetings and organized.”

      This is the kind of thing that makes me want to fucking bitch-slap feminists. How the fuck do you think it makes a black woman feel when white feminists talk about how suffragism was a victory, when suffragists were racist against blacks, and black women didn’t get the right to vote in some states until the 60s?

      Then when you imply that say, nonwhite women are simply ‘afraid’… Read some fucking history and examine your privilege.

      Feminism appeals primarily to white, Western, middle-class cisgender women, and there’s a reason for that.

      • Robert

        I don’t think feminism appeals primarily to cisgender women. Most of the lesbians I know identify at least somewhat with feminism. The only female radical feminist I know is a lesbian.

        There are far fewer lesbians than cisgender women though so if by “primarily” you mean absolute number instead of ratio, I agree.

    • Eileen

      I’ve had this question posed to me by way too many women (mostly second-wavers) to count, and my answer is always…because people don’t like to label themselves. How many of your facebook friends, for example, list their “political views” as “moderate” or “independent”? Excuse me, but what the fuck does that mean? It means that they want to give a nuanced, personal explanation of who they are. We are the “snowflake” generation, after all…

      …and “feminism” IS a tricky word because it has meant drastically different things throughout history and means drastically different things throughout the world. For a comparison, let’s try the word “liberal.” Now, in the nineteenth century, “liberal” meant that you opposed barriers to trade, supported free-market economics, and thought that most men should be allowed to vote. In the US today, “liberal” is more likely to mean that you support government control of markets, at least to some degree – which is in complete opposition to the previous definition. And then in other countries…who knows?

      Additionally, the word “feminism” centers on the idea that there is such a thing, definably, as a “woman,” which if you go far enough into feminist theory (“Women as the Object of Feminism,” Judith Butler) is debatable in itself.

      I’m not “afraid” to call myself a feminist, but why do we have to be attached to the word itself? I think the goals of feminism are more important than the word, and if it’s reached a point where enough women are uncomfortable with it, why not come up with a new word? Who is it really hurting?