Sunday, August 18, 2013

"I'm Not a Feminist, but...": Conflicting (?) Notions of Feminism and Femininity

Grrls, we need to talk. 

I don't know if you've noticed, but we've got a serious problem on our hands. I don't know whose fault this is, or even where it began, but something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. Brace yourselves, what I have to say is not pretty. 

<dramatic pause>

The majority of American women don't consider themselves feminists. 

Here is where I found this image.
I know, I know. I'm upset too. Don't worry, though, we are going to figure this out together. Let's start by taking a deep breath and looking at some numbers. According to a recent HuffPost/YouGov poll, 5% of women consider themselves "a strong feminist," and 18% considers themselves "a feminist." (Interestingly enough, 7% of men polled identified as "a strong feminist." Nicely done, sirs.)

What the fuck, ladies? What the hell is going with the 77% of women who are not feminists? It seems crazy. I mean, there is no way that the majority of U.S. women actually think that women should be second class citizens, right? RIGHT?! Well, grrls, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that no, it seems that the majority of women DO agree that women and men should have equal social, political, and economic rights. The bad news is that women (and men too) no longer see this as what it means to be a feminist. 

Does anybody else remember this

What about this cringe-inducing moment brought to us courtesy of Taylor Swift? In case you missed it, an interviewer asked Ms. Swift if she is a feminist and her response sent palms flying into faces across the nation:  "I don't really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life." 

Okay, so maybe we shouldn't be too surprised by these comments, considering that they come from two women who have made more money than I will ever have in my life singing things like:

 "I wanna be a flower/ Not a dirty weed/ I wanna smell like roses/ Not a baseball team/ And I swear maybe one day you're gonna/ Wanna make out, make out, make out with me" (Katy Perry)
"You change your mind/ Like a girl changes clothes/ Yeah, you PMS/ Like a bitch/ I would know," (Katy Perry)
and, (who could forget this timeless slut-shaming classic, loved by little girls everywhere)
"She's not a saint/ And she's not what you think/ She's an actress, whoa/ She's better known/ For the things/ that she does/ On the mattress, whoa" (Taylor Swift)

BTW, you should check out FeministTaylorSwift on twitter. It's pretty fantastic.

Don't misunderstand, it sucks that two powerful, successful young women chose to publicly decline a feminist identity, it's just not all that surprising considering the content of their lyrics. The thing that bugs me the most about this is that both women denied being feminists immediately before saying something that smells more than a little bit feministy. Even though Taylor seems a little confused about what feminism means (it's NOT "guys versus girls" for the record), the sentiment that success should be contingent upon effort and not gender identity is a pretty solidly feminist statement. 

These kind of I'm-not-a-feminist-but-I-think-like-one statements are something that I have seen normal, every-day, not-internationally-famous women do over and over again. On the first day of a Sociology of Gender class at my public university, the professor asked who in the class of 30-something mostly female college students considered themselves a feminist. ONLY TWO PEOPLE RAISED THEIR HANDS! I can't tell you how many times I have heard an otherwise intelligent, independent, and accomplished woman say, "Well, I wouldn't consider myself a feminist, but..." before uttering an entirely feminist statement (such as, "women should be paid equally for doing the same jobs as men," or "sexual harassment is unacceptable.") 

Credit where credit is due

One such woman is Daisy Barringer, a seemingly very intelligent woman who wrote a piece on xojane called "Taylor Swift doesn't Identify as a Feminist and Neither Do I," in which she claims, "I believe in equal political, economical and social rights for women and I wholly support the feminist movement, I just personally don’t define myself as such." She goes on to explain that she doesn't identify as feminist because (1) "At times, feminists come across as angry," (2) "Many feminists come across as self-righteous," (3) "I feel a lot of times like the current feminist movement excludes minorities," (4) "I don’t always believe that women are at a disadvantage," and (5) "I’m not sure that I believe that the “oppression” of women is the fault of men." 
Feel free to shame the idiots responsible for this image.
I have to admit that her criticism about mainstream feminism failing to be inclusive of minorities is completely legit. It's a problem, and we, as feminists and just as decent human beings, need to address it and make serious changes. However, dismissing feminism altogether isn't going to make it any better. And let's face it, all her other reasons are either complete bullshit (as in factually inaccurate) or just plain stupid. By claiming that she can't be a feminist because she doesn't like the connotations attributed to the word by misogynists, anti-feminist assholes, and widespread ignorance, she is affirming the validity of these statements and undermining the tremendous gains achieved by feminists throughout history and in the modern world. 

But, grrls, don't start to gather up the tar and feathers just yet. You see, I hate to say it, but it seems that Daisy is closer to the rule than the exception. On, Brittany Oliver tells it like it is: "Feminists are often stereotyped as hairy-pitted activists who hate men, love women too much, are physically incapable of humor and probably don’t wear bras." Ouch! I don't love it, but it's true. HuffPost agrees: "The gulf between the percentage of people who identify as feminists and the percentage who believe in the equality of the sexes may be partly due to a branding problem for the word "feminism." Thirty-seven percent said they consider "feminist" to be a negative term, compared to only 26 percent who consider it a positive term. Twenty-nine percent said it's a neutral term."

 Holy shit, ladies! It seems we have a real image problem on our hands here. Feminism has become a dirty word, synonymous with bitchy, aggressive, asexual, dyke, whiner, ugly, etc, etc. The modern social connotation of feminism is at odds with western culture’s archetype of idealized femininity. Because gender identity is a fundamental, if not defining, feature of our social and cultural structures, claiming a feminist identity poses an enormous risk for women. For Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and all the women who didn't raise their hands on our first day of class, to identify as a feminist implies that you embody all of those awful stereotypes, that you are unattractive and pushy. In an amazing article from, Patricia Valoy explains her hesitation to identity as feminist as a young woman: "The truth is: I simply didn't understand what feminism was about, let alone how freeing it could be. I had misconceptions that feminism was about usurping men’s power and dominating them...I wanted to be free of constraining gender roles, of course...but I also wanted to be liked." In other words, for many women, identifying as a feminist (or failure to do so) is largely a personally, and not a politically, motivated decision. Furthermore, many western women both engage in and often thoroughly enjoy daily practices that seem at odds with the modern cultural connotation of feminism such as wearing pretty dresses, being the little spoon, and watching "girly" movies and television. As a result of this schism between the individual experiences and preferences of women who believe in gender equality and the man-hating, hairy-legged, Amazonian stereotype of feminism, many women feel further alienated from the feminist ideology of empowerment and equality.

Here's where this came from

It's no wonder that 77% of women do not identify as feminist, yet 82% of those polled said "yes" when asked, "Do you believe that men and women should be social, political, and economic equals?" Even though a large portion of young western women personally believe in the tenets of feminism, they seldom self-identify as ‘feminist’ because of the apparent contradictions between the connotative meaning of feminism in modern western culture and their lived experiences, both in their gendered roles within the larger (macro) community and their individual (micro) habits and practices. When this essentially feminine identity comes into conflict with the feminist ideology accepted by 82% of women, many women choose not to take the risk and simply say “Well, I’m not really a feminist, but…”

This lives here

This shit has got to stop. Seriously. Enough is enough. We MUST stop imagining that femininity and feminism are mutually exclusive. First of all, it's just plain wrong. But don't just take my word for it. Look it up in the dictionary. Meriam-Webster defines feminism as: "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes." Brittany Oliver (the grrl who wrote the exceptional piece from agrees: "In fact, being a feminist simply means you are an advocate of the rights and equality of women. You don’t have to be anti-man to be pro-woman." Our grrl Patricia Valoy (author of the beautiful essay from takes it a step further: "More important than saying 'I am a feminist!' is doing the work necessary for women’s progress, and that is that what truly makes us feminists. And I don’t see anything scary about that." Being a feminist doesn't mean anything more than that you believe that there should be equality between the sexes. That's all. It's okay not agree with everything every feminist says and does. It's okay to be a feminist and wear make-up. It is only by exploring of the role of feminism in our daily lives, whether or not we identity as feminine, that we can empower ourselves and embrace our true, and full, identities as both women and human beings.

This is from here

Another important reason to stop this whole "I'm not a feminist, but..." nonsense is that this phenomenon is actually a little piece of a much larger and more damaging process. Mary Elizabeth Williams explains this really well in this really great article she wrote on

"You can call yourself or not call 
yourself whatever you want, 
but consider this. Nobody enjoys it more 
when a woman says she’s not a
 feminist than a misogynist. Nobody gets more
 gloatingly self-congratulatory 
about it, or happier about what 'real' women
 don’t need than someone who doesn't 
like women very much, especially not the 
uppity, outspoken, wanting pay equity 
and reproductive freedom types. 
Consider that any word that feared and 
derided has incredible power. 
And how beautiful and strong that makes it."

Feminism is the coming together of women to demand and protect our equality. Feminism has done many wonderful things for us throughout history, from securing female suffrage to gaining protection for victims of domestic violence, and will continue to do wonderful things for women all over the world if we just allow it. When we allow external, historically oppressive social structures (aka the patriarchy) to tell us that being a part of this movement is not okay, is somehow shameful, we lose our collective power. Calling yourself a feminist is a powerful, powerful thing because it connects you to an enormous community of women. Though we may not always agree on every detail, and we are not without our flaws both as individuals and as a movement, we have power, we make stuff happen, and we are all working towards the same goal at our core: equality, respect, and autonomy for all people, regardless of their sex. Lend your voice to the chorus of countless women demanding to be heard, to be respected, to be treated as human beings. I promise you won't regret it.

Okay, ladies, let's say it all together now: "I am a feminist." Didn't that feel good?


  1. Yes it did. Thank you!

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you! I'm glad you appreciated my post, and I'm thrilled to see so many other women celebrating feminism!