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Don’t Call Them Baby, Sweetheart, Honey… or Feminist

March 21, 2013

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.

Fun fact: the original version of this poster probably had very little to do with female empowerment.

Fun fact: the original version of this poster probably had very little to do with female empowerment.

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.

That's right, I said "all genders". Via anarkismo.net

That’s right, I said “all genders”. Via anarkismo.net

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.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2013 9:18 am

    I wonder sometimes that accepting a label might make one feel that they are a welcome part of a group. Insecurities, I think, can breed the need for labels in a search to feel like one is a part of something important. (Akin to bullying as well.)

    PS. Thanks for giving me something to think about so early in the day! ;-)

    PPS. Love your writing style and subject matter!

    • March 21, 2013 9:28 am

      I agree that this is one reason some people like to identify with a label – and I also understand that labels can be useful in certain ways. I think insecurity can, to some degree, also explain why people who use a label would want others to do the same, because it helps to validate their choice.

      I hope that none of this came across as sounding like I was putting down people who do choose to identify as feminist – it’s not so much that I have a problem with those who adopt the word for themselves, but more that I get annoyed with those who try to push it on others.

      Also, you’re welcome, and thank you for the kind words!

      • March 21, 2013 9:20 pm

        I didn’t think you came across as putting anyone down… I think you’re very good at human observation! :-)

  2. March 21, 2013 9:28 am

    Thanks for the clear, well-written argument. I understand the desire to oppose social labels, but I also wonder whether it’s really a realistic or even desirable goal. It seems that we use social categories to help us navigate an incredibly complex world. In order to have a recognizable identity, I think we need to be able to put forth a label for what/who we are. With that said, I wonder whether in trying to make a strong distinction between the ideology of feminism and the word and the meanings that it expresses, you’ve glossed over the way that ideological battles are often enacted in battles over what we should think words mean. I guess my point is really more of a couple of questions: is there such a clear distinction between language and ideology? Do we in fighting battles over language also simultaneously fight ideological battles?

  3. Jayme permalink
    March 21, 2013 2:21 pm

    Betty Freidan scared the crap out of me when I was first introduced to the ‘Feminine Mystique’. I was, I think, about 15 when I first read some of her work. I totally did not connect with much of her point of view at all! Mind you, she wrote that book in the 60’s… But further research revealed that her thoughts and opinions were only a small, very defensive view of the whole picture. This paragraph really nailed how I feel about this issue:

    ‘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.’

    Excellent read as always. I have yet to watch the TED talk, but I shall this evening.

  4. March 26, 2013 7:45 pm

    Another excellent piece, beautifully outlining something I have struggled to accurately convey myself. I hope one day to be able to express my views as clearly and concisely as you do.

  5. Abigail permalink
    March 29, 2013 10:22 pm

    Hi Chandra,

    Could you please contact me via email (can you see the email address that I put in?)? I’m in the process of creating toolkits on various topics for my school that will serve as introductions to these issues for people who don’t know very much about them. I was wondering if I could use one of your articles (Literacy Privilege) from this blog for a class toolkit. Your article would be attributed to you.

    Thanks! If you have any questions, please feel free to let me know. I hope that you have a good weekend!

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