It’s Time To Stop Pushing The Label ‘Feminist’ On People


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, “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.

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    • Lucia

      The reason why many women don’t consider themselves feminists is because the movement is hostile towards men. I don’t think they hate men but there are are aspects of masculinity they don’t like. Truth be told, the vast majority of women like men just the way they are. Of coarse there are little things that annoy us about them but for the most part we like them.

      • Sam

        I think that the ever-necessary movement is stereotyped as being anti-male, but that feels twisted. A significant reason why women have been oppressed throughout history is that men are seen as superior somehow. Criticizing these views and declaring that men are not, indeed, superior doesn’t make the movement anti male; it just makes it anti-ignorance and anti-patriarchy.

      • Niki

        What about feminism is hostile for men? How is fighting the objectification of women an affront to men? How is fighting for equal wages hostile to men? I don’t get it.

      • Sarah Grif

        Feminists are NOT anti-male. I love men and know plenty of male feminists. I hate the patriarchy — ignorant PEOPLE (women too) create structures that keep women down, whether intentionally or unintentionally. That is what feminists are against — the structure, not men.

        Often we repeat conventions that we’ve come to think of as natural, but are really a result of years of stereotypes and traditions that have kept women down for centuries (think about all the stereotypes you heard about Hillary Clinton being “too emotional” during the 2008 presidential race). Feminism is about revealing and questioning these conventions, and hopefully correcting them someday.

    • MM

      Ugh, that article was really obnoxious. Let people define themselves how they want to. Also, according to the radical feminists, feminism is specifically about *the movement to end patriarchy* rather than an inherent belief in gender equality.

      • Amy

        The defintion of patriarchy is a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded. So, yes, feminists want to end patriarchy. So should anyone who is human.

        A feminist is a person who supports feminism. Feminism is a doctrine advocating the definition, establishment, and defence of equal political, economic, and social rights for women. It’s pretty simple. If you exploit the advantages that feminism brings you but declare that you’re not a feminist you’re not a very nice person.

        There are millions of women who don’t have rights and are literally dying to get them. It’s so first-world obnoxious to act as though those rights are nothing and you don’t even have to acknowledge the people who fought for you to have them and continue to fight so you can keep them.

      • Niki

        Defining feminism by the actions of a tiny, minority sect of radfems is like defining organized religion by the Westboro Baptist Church. Its a strawman at best.

      • Jess

        Amy, I couldn’t like your comment more if it brought me a mug of hot chocolate and told me I was looking particularly pretty today.

    • Cee

      I remember reading the article and agreed at some points, but found myself annoyed by it too. I have this love hate relationship with Jezebel, though. I like their articles because they do expose a lot of injustices towards women, racial/ethnic minorities and the lgbtq community. However, reading their discussion boards is very nauseating and the very reason why I understand women not wanting to be feminists. They tear each other to pieces, are hostile and you MUST agree with them to a T (feeding the angry feminist stereotype). They use “dude bro” to describe men (feeding the man hating stereotype)
      Also when a successful person such as Beyonce or Mayer say they are not feminist, feminists seem to immediately hate the person which then adds to the reason why they and many other women shy away from the label. Instead they should ask why rather than shame them for saying they aren’t.

    • Lo

      We need a new word. ‘Feminism’ sounds as misleading as calling the equality movement ‘masculinism’. Suggestions for a suitable non-gendered name?

      • Gab

        I’ve always preferred the term “humanist”.

    • Emily

      It’s not so much the word feminism, because a rose is a rose is a rose, but the message. Women today do not care. It’s not their war. We did not get jailed for going to the polls. We did not cover stations during WWI or II, only to be told to get back in the kitchen when the men returned from battle. We don’t have a soldier in this battle anymore. We feel like we’ve gotten enough- we’re meh. This article on the gloss right now, it proves this. There is a small number of us still pissed- but the first wave and second wave of feminism has passed in the US.

      BTW- feminism is not anti male- it’s for EQUALITY. Anti-glass ceiling. It’s making sure our daughters will not fear walking down the street alone, and that they won’t be paid 2/3 of what a man would get for the same job. It’s a fight to end sexism, and level the playing field. Not being blamed for being sexually assaulted. Assisting other women. Better assistance after childbirth, and childcare- which helps everyone. Ending domestic violence, in all countries. Promoting the female. Really, changing the word doesn’t change the game. Hairy armpits don’t even come into play. And yes, we really all should be into feminism- our men included- shouldn’t we all be treated equally?

    • Emily

      I guess what I missed in my last comment was education. We need to better educate. Calling feminism some other fancy name doesn’t do diddly squat, if education isn’t there. 1 out of 4 college girls will be sexually assaulted. if we educate them, then they may be better equipped to avoid that. I think those kinds of things are where our energies are better spent.

    • Maggie

      While you don’t want to force anyone to be something they don’t want, I think the point of articles such as Jezebel’s is that many women don’t realize what the definition of feminism actually is. Because women are still not equal to men, the idea of feminism is still readily mocked and misconstrued to keep women down. For example, the stereotypical idea of a bra burning? Never happened. Just a joke played by a radio show years ago.

      The point of those articles is to explain that most of the stereotypes you know about feminism are blatantly untrue OR are true for only a minority. That feminism in and of itself is just equal rights for the genders, and as men still have better rights, obviously the movement is going to be geared toward helping women right now.

      Changing the name won’t change anything. We need to change the way women are treated when they’re trying to fight for their rights.

      • Jamie Peck

        You are so very right.

      • Lisa

        I totally agree, only I would include men in the fight. I know roughly as many male as female feminists, and roughly as many male as female “assholes” (as defined by Lindy West).

      • Sarah Grif

        Right on, sister. There is nothing wrong with the word feminism. So what if it’s been ridiculed by the men and women who intentionally or unintentionally support the patriarchy? That’s no surprise.

        And sorry, Beyonce. I don’t think changing “feminism” to the objectifying “bootylicious” is really going to benefit the movement.

    • Jamie Peck

      I’m sorry, but if someone is stupid enough to believe all the bullshit that’s been slung at feminism by its enemies, I don’t want them anyway. And I doubt the CEO of Yahoo has much in common with the anarcha-feminism I’m interested in these days. Which, yes, is humanism also, by definition. Just because a woman has benefitted from the fruits of feminism doesn’t make her a feminist, or a humanist for that matter.

      • Holden

        What is anarcha-feminism exactly?