Don’t Call Them Baby, Sweetheart, Honey… or Feminist
In recent months, certain women in the public eye have been falling all over themselves to make sure nobody mistakes them for feminists. And predictably, people who have a strong investment in the word ‘feminism’ have been falling all over themselves to condemn them.
This is what I see: two groups of people who more or less share an ideology, but who are locked in battle over a word. In its essence, this isn’t really a debate about whether modern women benefit from past activism, or have achieved full equality, or should still be striving for it; it’s a spat over a label. It’s one group of people trying to tell another group of people that they are betraying this shared ideology if they refuse to apply a certain label to themselves. Those of you who have been following my blog for an extended length of time can probably guess who I’m mostly going to side with.
Certainly, by its strict dictionary definition, people who believe in equal rights for women are de facto feminist. But anybody who uses languge to communicate should be aware that words have these things called connotations that don’t always line up with their dictionary entries. When some of a word’s connotations are negative, as is the case with ‘feminist’, it is perfectly natural that people might hesitate to use said word to refer to themselves. Like it or not, feminism has become associated with misandry and militancy. Dismissing people’s discomfort with these connotations will not fix the problem.
Personally, I’m not bothered if people call me a feminist; minus the connotations it’s accurate enough, though I am ambivalent about labels in general. But I definitely feel that people have well-founded reasons for rejecting it outright. The word is problematic in several ways.
First, a lot of people on the I’m-not-a-feminist bandwagon feel that a term like ‘humanist’ or ‘equalist’ would more accurately reflect their views. To some degree, I can understand why self-declared feminists get upset about this; it’s nice to say that you just want everyone to be equal, but women are in fact still the ones getting the short end of the stick here. And I absolutely do see the need for things like women-only spaces, where voices that are too often silenced can feel safe to speak. But in another way, the ‘fem-‘ part of the term does fall short – not because we need to shift our focus away from improving the status of women, but because the ultimate goals of feminism do in fact benefit everyone. Rigid gender roles are harmful to people of all genders. Tony Porter eloquently illuminates this fact from a man’s point of view in his moving TED Talk:
Second, the word ‘feminism’ does not refer to one clear and unified movement. It is, like most all human institutions, splintered, fractious and messy. And some parts of it are not exactly commendable. Certain viewpoints espoused by certain feminist groups at certain times have been downright awful. First-wave feminism was rife with racist and classist ideology, and many argue that these origins continue to taint the movement today. The current “radfem” community is awash in blatant and unabashed transphobia. And frankly, if someone like Sarah Palin can call herself a feminist, I don’t blame anyone who wants to run in the other direction.
Finally, the feminist movement is full of people trying to tell other people what kind of feminist they should or shouldn’t be. You should try to be funnier, or you should stop trying to be so funny! You are too overtly sexy, or you should embrace your overt sexiness! You are too angry, or you are not angry enough! (Sidenote on the latter: I personally reject the notion that approaching debate in non-aggressive ways equates with giving in to the patriarchy. Becoming equal shouldn’t have to mean “acting like a stereotypical alpha male”.) Here’s a word of advice: You aren’t going to sell people on your label if you can’t even agree on what it should mean. And you certainly aren’t going to do it by policing people’s individual personality traits.
One opinion I’ve heard frequently expressed that bothers me a whole lot is the idea that women who reject the ‘feminist’ label are undeserving of their rights because they are not adequately respectful of their feminist predecessors. Really? I mean, really? Isn’t the point of civil rights that they are natural, inalienable rights, and not something to be “deserved”? I thought the idea was that women are entitled to women’s rights simply by existing as women. I thought that was what this fight was all about. It may well be unfortunate that younger women today are not as enlightened about, or interested in, the origins of the movement that has liberated them, but to imply that this somehow means they have no right to their rights? Just no.
There seems to be a great fear that if women turn away from the word ‘feminism’, the misogynists will win. I disagree. If women were to turn away en masse from the ideology itself, perhaps. But if a woman is actively making strides in creating visible change – like, oh I don’t know, becoming CEO of a major tech company while six months pregnant – does it really matter what she calls herself? I doubt the misogynists are jumping for joy.
Here’s a thought: how about everyone, misogynists and feminists alike, stop telling women what we should do, how we should be, and what words we should use to describe our identities.