• Thu, Apr 18 - 10:45 am ET

Why Are Women Afraid To Call Themselves Feminists?

taylor swift

I’ve always considered myself a feminist. It surprises me that lately I seem to be in a minority.

We heard a while ago that Beyonce considers herself a “modern day feminist” (she said we needed a new word for it) and Taylor Swift really doesn’t even want you to suggest she’s a feminist. When I was making a list of celebrities who do identify as feminists it… kind of took a while. 

I think when people who dislike feminism think of me, I am probably not the feminist crusader they would expect. I like having doors opened for me, and wearing feminine outfits and telling people how special they are in a weird whispery voice (that’s called being nurturing). And sex-angeling people. I am aware that I would probably have to go a pretty far way back in history (to about 1700) to get to a point where being a woman who liked wearing pretty things, and having sex with men when they’re sad, and had a source of income writing funny pieces for ladies would be a problem. Seriously, I think it would be about 1700 where my lifestyle would start to take a hit.

I am also aware that I am not every single woman in the world.

It’s awesome that I have the freedom to wear pretty dresses and be girly. I have never felt those things were really under attack. Mostly because they’re not. People are always fine with women doing traditionally feminine things. And it’s awesome that I can lead a life that makes me happy. It’s also awesome that women can run Fortune 500 companies and be doctors and astronauts if that makes them happy.

(A lot of the time I think I’d be happy as an astronaut, but then I remember how much I don’t really like high places.)

Feminists believe in allowing people the freedom to pursue their own ambitions, regardless of their gender, and to be compensated for their work in a way that is equal to their other co-workers.

And that is why I will always consider myself a feminist. Because I think every woman should have the same freedom a man does to pursue what makes them happy in life.

So it surprises me when other people feel differently. I talked to a few people, and they had the following explanations on why they don’t consider themselves feminists.

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  • Eileen

    Sometimes I think it’s preemptive. Women who identify as feminists can be pretty harsh to women who also identify as feminists but do not espouse all of the same ideals. Now, partly this is because people on the internet are mean, which is true of feminists and Redditors alike. But women as a general rule are pretty tough on each other in women-y ways. I’ve seen women get torn apart because they are claiming a label that other women claim in a different way. For example, you may say, “I’m a feminist because I believe that men and women are equal and should be treated equally.” Someone else may say, “No, you’re not because you are buying into the gender dichotomy that is holding everyone back.” And no one’s good enough for everyone else. Gloria Steinem spoke at Vassar recently and got heckled for not being feminist enough. We make the definition of “feminist” broad when we want to make fun of women for not identifying as such, but as soon as they do, we attack them for not being feminist enough, or not being feminist in the same way as we are.

    And that’s not even acknowledging the different waves of feminism, which draw lines among people even when they all accept and admit that they are all feminists.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000929752961 Annette Rf

      I have always found feminism boring and unsexy. I don’t want to be political, and I want men to treat me like a lady. Is that too much to ask?

    • lee

      yes you have to be fat,badly dressed hairy and smelly. you know, like we men, the gender you feel unequal to!!!

  • http://poorgoop.com/ Samantha

    Eileen’s point was beautifully put. I’m glad you finally wrote this article, but I still think you have a tendency to oversimplify, Jennifer.

    I think that the reason women are often reluctant to
    identify as feminists is not because of the culture of victimization
    Jennifer talked about, but because of this unspoken culture of
    judgement. You touched on this a bit in point number four, but honestly, that could be expanded to be the whole piece.

    A good case for this would be when Stephenie Meyer
    identified herself as a feminist because she loves the idea of women
    being in charge and loves the strength she sees in her female friends.
    Thematically, her books aren’t feminist, but as an entrepreneur and
    someone who has tried to promote the work of women in the publishing and film industries, she definitely acts the part. And somehow, it became even easier for
    women to pick her apart instead of saying “Hey, this is how a
    conservative Mormon woman does feminism. It may not be perfect, but it’s
    one version of many.” Because feminism is for all women, even conservative Mormons.

    And as far as Beyonce goes, I think it’s great that she even hints at feminism, given how often women of color are ignored in most feminist discussion. Her idea of a new word, some new, more inclusive “branding” isn’t terrible. Feminism holds a lot of historical weight, and not all of it is positive. Beyonce is bringing the idea of female empowerment to a HUGE audience without the alienation of the label, and she’s showing that empowerment can be found in parenting, in business, in marriage, in the arts, and that a woman can do anything. And again, that culture of judgment prevents us from celebrating this and instead causes us to pick her apart.

    We still need feminism, but we also need to remember that equality should involve community and support before judgment. It’s hard enough for women. The negative connotations of feminism shouldn’t be dismissed. They should be examined so we can, together, find solutions so that more women feel comfortable demanding equality for one-another.

    • Tusconian

      I think you make a really great point re: Beyonce. I have no idea what she was thinking as an individual, but I know a lot of nonwhite women, and a fair few white women, who do not claim all of feminism for that exact reason. Most of my friends, who are 100% feminist by the most basic definition, say “I am a modern day feminist/3rd wave feminist/a believer in feminism/some other qualifier” without claiming the term “feminism,” just because feminism, like anything else, cannot separate itself from it’s history or it’s current shortcomings. And especially when it’s a nonwhite woman, the rejection of the feminist label is not always about not actually being a feminist, or fear of the label. Honestly, I am not sure what does more harm to women like me: the patriarchy, or mainstream white feminism. I couldn’t tell you, because neither has any interest in me as a full human being and both do things that actively hurt people like me while vehemently denying it, or claiming it’s “for our own good.” That’s why womanism and black feminism and other women’s movements exist, intersecting with mainstream feminism but not completely the same.

      I’m not going to speak for upper-class white women like Taylor Swift, because I honestly can’t understand what she would have against mainstream feminism, but feminism at this point has to work to be inclusive and respectful of all women. It cannot fail to do that while simultaneously begging the women it hurts, dismisses, and ignores for their unquestioning support.

    • anon

      Re: women of color in feminism; I’ve never had a feminist discussion with an activist or academic or really anyone else without it containing significant references to important WOC, as well as references to QTPOC/reclamation of space/intersectionality in feminism. I think modern, third-wave feminists are really making a huge effort for inclusion and fighting back against the whitewashing of the first and second wave. ALSO, re: WOC refusing to accept elements of feminism, “Womanist” by Alice Walker, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” by Audre Lorde, and the Combahee River Collective Statement are all essential readings on this topic and readily available online if you’re interested :)

    • Tusconian

      You are obscenely lucky. I am not the only one who has made this observation, including a lot of white feminists (who would be paying less attention than me) and nonwhite feminist/womanist/etc. activists. The fact that you are so condescendingly suggesting that a black woman who has mentioned womanism read Alice Walker is not only, uh, CONDESCENDING, even if you put a twee little smiley after it and dressed it up in cutesy niceties, but it is also evidence of exactly why me and many others feel this way. Why do you think those pieces were written? Why do you think those movements exist? Third wave feminism is trying. That’s nice. But while they’re still in the “we’re really, really making an effort, tee hee, I know who Alice Walker is, have you heard of her?” stages, there are real, active changes that nonwhite women and certain marginalized women need NOW that can’t be achieved if mainstream feminism is only just starting to realize that “women” includes more than cisgender, white, middle and upper middle class American nonreligious women. I am not interested in sitting around waiting until I am 80 years old to be seen as a full, complete woman worthy of full, complete acknowledgement by mainstream feminism or mainstream society. Third wave feminism has made great efforts, don’t get me wrong, and that’s great, and I support the work of feminists, and in colloquial discussions I refer to myself as a third-wave feminist. HOWEVER, the tone and content of your response is one of many reasons that so many nonwhite women and others still aren’t totally pleased with the label. Third-wave feminism acknowledges we exist, it has goals that do help up, but we’re still treated as a commodity or a learning experience for white women, or there to be saved by white women, and it’s very rare for these discussions, among mainstream feminists, to take into account things like cultural relativity, or whether the outcomes of certain actions might affect other groups of women differently, or the fact that some groups of women experiencing other layers of oppression might need different resources.

      And honestly, third-wave feminism can be so tiresome. I’d like to have a discussion about feminism with a white feminist once in a while that doesn’t involve eager-wide eyed exclamations about how she “discovered” some black feminist who’s been well-known for years, and don’t I just agree with every word she says (probably not), and what’s MY take on this as a BLACK woman?

  • NeuroNerd

    I completely agree, and I wanted to add something to #5. Historically, most women worked. Feminism hasn’t really made it harder. Rich women and upper middle class women could afford to have the choice (although socially, working was discouraged), but most women worked. I think society forgets this because we learn history from books and sitcoms, and those stories were written to reflect middle-class and rich women. But if you think about it, for every Jane Austen heroine who becomes a gentleman’s wife, there were a ton of female servants running around the manor cleaning, cooking, farming, and raising the master’s children WHILE raising children of their own. For these women, working was not only not optional, but they also didn’t have a lot of options for earning. Feminism opened doors for women who HAD to, or WANTED to work.

    Rant over.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000929752961 Annette Rf

      My grandmother (born in 1898) was very anti-feminist; she never voted even though women got the right to vote the year she married; she worked 3 menial jobs to support a husband disabled in World War One; she had contempt for rich, upper class white women (which is what almost all suffragists were) who wanted to work outside the home. She used to tell me that immigrant women like her HAD to work outside the home. Consequently, my parents generation saw a wife not working outside the home as a goal to strive for, because it meant they had “made it”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/elizabeth.alexander.140 Elizabeth Alexander

    i was really disappointed in this article. I was really hoping to see someone actually tackle the issues and not belittle or condescend those who are not comfortable with the term feminist.
    there are many reasons I do not like the term feminist myself. But the biggest one is because when I read pro-feminist pieces they shame me for not identifying as such. They essentially say that because I have a vagina therefore I must believe everything they do, which is neither true nor fair. I have the right to believe what I want to believe, and if you really want me to join your movement you should make me WANT to join you, not shame me into submission.
    Just once I`d like to see someone address this issue with compassion and understanding that labels are difficult, especially ones that are so broadly defined.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000929752961 Annette Rf

      I deeply detest two things: People who assume because I am female that I MUST be liberal and agree with abortion (I am strongly conservative); and people who assume I MUST be liberal because I’m Jewish.

  • jamiepeck

    I think some people are wary of feminism because it’s become such a big tent, and they don’t like some of the people under it, which is fair. I don’t love having the same label as anti-porn feminists (I’m sure they don’t like sharing a label with me, either), or bourgeois feminists who only care about advancing the careers of the most privileged women in society and saving brown women from brown men. It seems clumsy that a socialist feminist like myself would be painted with the same brush as someone whose beliefs coincide so little with my own. But I guess that’s why we have these different sub-classifications. And personally, I am totally willing to align myself with people whose politics I think are otherwise shitty when we have goals in common, like reproductive freedom.

  • anon

    The argument I’ve heard is, “I’m a HUMANIST! If you’re looking for equality, why is it called FEMinism? OBVIOUSLY you think you’re superior to men and HATE them!!” God, I can’t even think about the number of times I’ve heard that without getting pissed off. Lord.

    • Tusconian

      Interestingly, I hear that more from men who are outwardly supporting of equal rights among the sexes, but are uncomfortable with the idea of laws or actions being taken to to ensure that equality.

    • Eileen

      Pretty much. They want to get laid, and they like the idea of not having to be the sole breadwinner, but they also don’t want to surrender their male privilege.

    • Joel

      Interesting, I hear these arguments about privilege from women who desperatly want to derail any discussion about feminism’s misandry and gyno-supremicism. Cowards who hide behind buzzwords in order to deflect criticism and continue to push for women to have rights without responsibilities.

    • Eileen

      I get sick of the word privilege myself – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I don’t hate men; I don’t think that women are better than men; and I do my best to avoid painting all of any sex or gender with one brush. But I challenge any man who says that male privilege does not exist to try out being a woman.

  • MR

    You know me, I really respect my grandmother (she’s 97 now). She was a trailblazer in her own right, but it’s more on how she catapulted 3 generations of my family. She ran the Medical department at a respected money-center bank (head nurse until she retired in 1980). Through her job she was friends with a lot of the executives in the Bank and literally placed my dad in his first job. My mom comes next, after I reached 1st grade. My grandfather goes to work at 7am at Downstate Medical (a medical photographer), so he could pick my brother and I up at our school at a little after 3pm. My Grams had more important things to do. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Morey-Ladini/100002015653840 Morey Ladini

    Generally, over the years, 2 out of 3 American women have NOT called themselves “Feminists.” The label is now about as diffuse and interpretive as being “Patriotic.”

    It’s one thing to be all about wanting individual liberty, respect and opportunity for all genders.
    It’s quite another thing to assume all men and women must have statistically identical ambitions and proclivities in life – then demanding enforced identical statistical outcomes in every sphere of society.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000929752961 Annette Rf

    I don’t call myself one because a) I’m not one, and b) I don’t want people to have a negative impression of me. I am 100% against abortion, homosexuality, divorce, women working in non-traditional fields that create hazards for them and for men (example: combat), etc.

  • Liese

    I don’t call myself feminist, atheist or anarchist because of the negative stereotyping yet I am all those things. I believe in equity for all and that the only laws needed are those that prevent harm to the very young, old/infirm and vulnerable and that make sure everyone has the necessities of life. Putting a label on it just ends the discussion.