Shying away from the title “feminist” has a bigger impact than you think

I was recently texting a male friend of mine about my involvement with the F-Word and decided to ask him if he considers himself to be a feminist. Unwittingly, I had initiated a quite extensive conversation, one which highlights much of what frustrates me about the way many people discuss feminism today.

Him: “I mean, I don’t even know how to answer that. I’ve never called myself a feminist.”
Me: “Well, it’s a yes or no question. Would you consider yourself a feminist?”
Him: “As far as men and women should be equal, sure.”
Me: “Do you believe that’s what feminism is?”
Him: “I don’t know what feminism ‘is,’ that’s why I wouldn’t say I’m a feminist.”
Me: “What has given you the impression that it might not mean the advocacy of equality between men and women?”
Him: “I think different people define feminism differently.”

At its core, there’s nothing really wrong with his responses. He agreed that he believes men and women should be equal. He predicated his hesitancy to claim an identity as a feminist on the fact that he is unsure of what feminism is, which makes sense. He pointed out that different people define feminism differently, which is true. Throughout the conversation, he continued to make valid points. He presented perspectives that are widely held—and are quite understandable—but nevertheless warrant further discussion.

What bothers me about his response, however, one which I find to be very typical of the way many people today—especially men, but women and non-binary individuals definitely not exempted—discuss feminism, is that it indicates he feels he has no personal stake in feminism’s goal. What his uncertainty regarding the meaning of feminism suggests to me is that he has not really spent much time considering how he defines feminism, or if he thinks of himself as one. The larger message there? Feminism isn’t his fight to fight, so these questions have simply not crossed his mind.

This indifference, in and of itself, is a signal of privilege. In regards to any social movement, to be in a position in which you can be disengaged from discussions about issues of inequality is a privilege. My point? It’s a responsibility to recognize that privilege and engage, even though those issues may not apply to you.

By denotation, feminism is the advocacy of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. Though I agree, not everybody carries the same connotations of the word, in its purest form, that is the purpose of the movement. In line with this, I then responded:

Me: “You say you wouldn’t call yourself a feminist because you aren’t sure what it is, but if you think it’s something that’s defined on a more personal basis, why don’t you just define it as equality between the sexes and call yourself a feminist?”
Him: “That’s not how things like that work.”

He then revealed that his hesitancy to call himself a feminist is the result of having “seen things so-called feminists say” that he disagrees with. Well… duh!

In any movement, people are going to express their personal views, which have been shaped by their own experiences, backgrounds, and belief systems. No social movement is clean-cut; it would be naive to suggest that all of the individuals who choose to take part in a movement as large as the “feminist movement” are in consensus as to their primary goals and perspectives on all of the issues that movement might encompass. There are going to be people who are extreme and will misconstrue its true intentions.

There are undoubtedly things that self-proclaimed feminists have said and done that I myself disagree with, but that does not affect my personal identity as a feminist because I know what feminism means to me, and I present myself and my views accordingly. Here are just a few perceptions stemming from things self-proclaimed feminists have said and done:

  • “Feminists think all compliments and sexual advances from men are sexual assault” (As some have suggested in the wake of the #MeToo movement). No, that’s illogical. Humans are sexual beings and romance tends to be a large part of our lives. The issue here simply lies in lackluster understandings of boundaries and consent. And no, not all men are culprits.
  • “Feminists think differences between genders are solely the result of social constructs.” No. There are still biological differences between men and women as sexes. Feminist advocacy for fair and equal treatment does not indicate a naive dismissal of science, and does not equate to advocacy for “sameness.” It does acknowledge, however, other fields of science that provide evidence of the profound effects of gender socialization on behavior and attitudes, personality, mental health, occupational attainment, and so on.
  • “Feminists seek to elevate women’s interests/status over men’s.” Let’s not forget that feminism is not just for the benefit of women. Along with true equality between the sexes comes liberation of the socio-cultural constraints of gender roles and socialization on men.
  • “Feminists hate men.” Get real. We hate the shitty things that some men say and do, and the culture we live in (constructed and contributed to by all types of people), which tends to hold men and women to different standards, and degrade and dismiss women. Misandry has no role in the advancement of gender equality—we need, and want, to work together.
  • “Feminism is just for [white] women.” Though a lot of feminists still struggle to be inclusive in their activism, many support the perspective that “if it isn’t intersectional, it isn’t feminism”—and this is how we at the F-Word define feminism. Feminism is a movement that intends to achieve equality between the sexes by challenging rigid and oppressive views on sex, gender, and sexuality. As such, it is a movement for all humans, regardless of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, or religion.

These are just a few of the negative perceptions widely associated with feminism. According to a recent poll and analysis from CBS News and Refinery29, these types of misconceptions are to blame for the fact that 54% of millenial women do not identify as feminists, a number which has actually increased from the 37% reported in a 2016 poll published by the Washington Post. This percentage is also heavily influenced by political partisanship, with 63% of Democrats compared to just 29% of Republicans identifying as feminists.

Though most of these women, across party lines, report supporting equality between the sexes, follow-up interviews suggested that they have become disillusioned with feminism because they do not see their views reflected in the movement, which seems to have been “taken over by far-left wing activists.”

I am aware that their concerns have valid underpinnings. What I think is important to take note of, however, is that extreme entities who say and do the most controversial things will always gain the most prominence thanks to official news sources and social media alike. To reduce a movement—thousands of people whose views fall on a spectrum—to those entities is to do an injustice to the multi-faceted nature of the issues in reality.

So to all of those women (and others) for whom the associations with the term “feminist” are too heavy to bear, I ask you to consider what has contributed to the formation of those associations in the first place. As a feminist whose goal is equality and nothing further, I ask you to consider helping moderate views on the movement by taking part in it. Feel free to call yourself a feminist because you do want equality, and discuss your views with others so they understand you don’t qualify as a “radical feminist.”

The movement won’t reflect your views unless you are open to finding, and maybe forging, the parts of it that does.

Later in our conversation, my friend said he didn’t feel comfortable calling himself a feminist because he doesn’t “feel like having the argument about it with people.”

I honestly sympathize with that concern. However, the assumption that conflict would arise as a result of supporting feminism, and thus hesitancy to do so, perpetuates the negative views that have become associated with it. I’d wager to bet that in reality, very few people would argue with you for stating that you believe men and women should be equal. If you present your feminist identity as advocating for that, there should be no issues. That’s what I told him.  

Him: “I’ve never perpetuated any sort of thinking regarding feminism”
Me: “Well … that’s part of the problem. Being a bystander might not be actively contributing to the problem, but it’s certainly not helping.”
Him: “If there are untrue perceptions about feminism, it’s unfair for feminists to blame people like me or your average person instead of the pseudo-feminists who are causing that confusion.”

In response I explained that though of course I agree that misleading perceptions about feminism arise from the people who do and say things to create them in the first place, the only reason that they come to be associated with the actual movement is precisely because of the “average people”—and media sources—who give weight to them. It is up to those people to acknowledge that in the discourse on a topic, and differentiate between those extreme few and the movement at large.

That’s why I suggest that any hesitancy to say that you support feminism perpetuates the perception that those few people who have poor intentions and claim that they are feminists are thus representative of all people who call themselves feminists. As I told him, if you were actually a feminist, you would want to help in dispelling those perceptions rather than being passive and furthering them by acknowledging them in how you define your own ideologies.

Him: “Ok so I guess I’m not an active feminist then based on that. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
Me: “No! *hand in face emoji* I am just trying to raise your awareness about the impact that your perceptions and words can have. Your attitude that what you think and say doesn’t matter and that things are how they are and can’t be changed is what leads those problems to remain in society.”
Him: “I haven’t been to a feminist march, so I guess I’m not a real feminist.”
*another hand in face emoji — I’ve heard that way too many times*
Him: “I agree that men and women should be equal and I’ve always said that, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t normally go out of my way to fight that fight.”

My response to him, and everyone who holds his all-too-common opinions on feminism:

You don’t need to have gone to a march or constantly bring up discussions about gender inequality in your free time to be a feminist. My point is that feminism (and all social movements) is about contributing to a change in social consciousness about important issues. Most people—men, women, and non-binary individuals alike, across the globe—have implicit gender biases, which have important implications in professional and everyday realms.

An ultimate goal, of course, is to see real change in policy, but the true challenge—and arguably more valuable goal—lies in changing the perceptions of “average people,” changing fundamental human dynamics in our culture. To be a part of that mission, you do not have to be on the forefront of political advocacy and stamp the title “feminist” in your twitter bio.

It’s the small things that count. Namely: engage in discussion. Have an opinion. Be conscious of the words you use to discuss men and women, gender and sexuality, they matter (even if you’re “just joking”). Think critically about the media you consume. No, you don’t have to condemn all problematic TV shows—God knows you’d have quite a small selection after that. But maybe take a minute to think about the underlying implications of what you’re watching, reading, and listening to.

Lastly, of course, don’t shy away from the word feminist. We are all responsible for defining what it means and how it is perceived. Contribute to that in a positive way.

Illustration: Sophie Lee

Posted by:Sarah Fendrich

Sarah is the Managing Director for the F-Word. She is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying Cognitive Neuroscience.

One thought on “Why Your Words Matter

  1. These types of discussions really are so important. People need to empathize with each other and truly engage in discussion in order for the real big picture of movements like feminism to become apparent. Without a willingness to seek other perspectives it is too easy to become misinformed or to misunderstand even something as fundamentally human as seeking equality. People too often like to watch the world around them go by and think just because they are not part of a demographic fighting for change that its ok not to care. Ultimately, people just need to listen to each other so much more.

    This is so well written and approachable, I’m proud of you as always for making your voice heard in the way you do & helping others to see the big picture.

    Liked by 1 person

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