Last week, writer Lindy West posted an article on Jezebel called “What No One Else Will Tell You About Feminism.” In it, she set out to explain that you are likely a feminist, because otherwise you suck.
“Guess what? You’re a feminist,” she wrote. “If you are not a feminist (or something blamelessly ignorant, like a baby or a ferret or a college freshman), then you are a bad person.”
West listed a number of the feminist movement’s accomplishments, from securing voting rights to promoting women’s self-actualization, and by the end of the post, she drove her point home thusly: “Unless you’re a total asshat who thinks people are unequal, you are a feminist. YOU are a feminist. You ARE a feminist. YOU ARE A FEMINIST. Welcome aboard!”
But as she was cajoling her readers into agreeing that they are, in fact, feminists, another possibility began to creep into mind: Maybe it’s time to stop pushing the label “feminist” on people who don’t want it.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that we deter people from believing in gender equality, or that we hang up our picket signs and declare victory over all things sexist. But over the years (as we all know), the word “feminist” has accumulated all sorts of negative connotations — feminists are ugly and mean! Feminists hate men! They’re untrue and unfair, but they’ve stuck, and unfortunately, they’ve cost the movement some supporters.
Because of that, plenty of us have wondered aloud whether it might not be time to reconsider the word “feminism.” In her seminal 2005 article on Salon.com, “The F-Word,” Rebecca Traister posed that very question:
“What do we do about “feminism”?” she wrote. “Do we replace it, phase it out? Or do we embrace it with renewed vigor and a spruced-up, all-inclusive definition?”
Jessica Valenti, who was quoted in Traister’s article, went on to publish a book in 2007 that sought, in part, to keep the word alive. “Full Frontal Feminism” opened with a chapter called “You’re A Hardcore Feminist, I Swear.”
Since then, the question of whether women who believe in gender equality must identify as feminist has come up again and again, mostly in response to ladies who continue to distance themselves from the movement. Like when Beyoncé told Harper’s Bazaar last year, “I need to find a catchy new word for feminism, right? Like Bootylicious.” Or when, in July of this year, Marissa Meyer, the 37-year-old CEO of Yahoo, was widely quoted as telling PBS-AOL that “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist.”
Each of these ladies received snide side-eyes from the internet, side-eyes that asked if they really understood the impact of their words, and if perhaps they just didn’t realize that they were feminists, or if, maybe, they wanted to rethink what they said and try again, given everything that feminism has done for them.
And in some ways, it’s hard to understand why strong, independent and successful women wouldn’t want to align themselves with other strong, independent women (as we all like to think of ourselves), or why, alternately, they would seemingly succumb to middle school lunchroom insults (you have hairy armpits!!!).
But at a certain point, the “why” of anyone deciding to distance themselves from feminism doesn’t matter if we want to move forward, and particularly if we want to move forward together. Because “feminist” or not, we certainly seem to share some of the same values: Mayer, once again, is the CEO of Yahoo. In a world where we’d all like to see women better represented in technology, it would be safe to say that she’s doing her part to change things.
Even when it comes to people who aren’t the Mayers of the world – the college girls, for instance, who want to volunteer at the rape crisis center but are afraid (brace yourselves) that boys won’t like them if they call themselves feminists – it’s not our job to tell them that they ARE feminists anyway, it’s our job to tell them that we hope they work their own identity out on their own time, and hand them a volunteer application.
Look, philosophically, I have a problem with slapping the label “feminist” on people who don’t self-identify as such because there’s something inherently uncomfortable about a movement that purports to free women from labels that other people put on them doing exactly that. But the real danger of this whole business isn’t that we’re breaking our own rules; it’s that trying to force any label on anyone for any reason is a lot more likely to drive them away than it is to get them involved.
And at a time when we still have so much to accomplish – equal pay, better childcare, better division of labor at home, basic human rights in various parts of the world, and so forth – turning people off to the movement rather than focusing on how they can actually help seems like it might not be in anyone’s best interest.