Pondering feminist identification


[image source: lism.’s flickr]

In a recent post at Musings of an Inappropriate Woman, Rachel Hills asks why feminism still has such a bad reputation: “You say ‘feminist’ like it’s a bad thing”

Hills writes:

As an older teenager and young adult, it became interesting to me because it provided a social and cultural framework through which I could make sense of my experiences, and the experiences of the people around me. These days, feminism and other intersectionalist discussions around gender, race, sexuality, class and disability, provide the building blocks to think about what it means to lead an ethical life.

But while I’ve never been uncomfortable with identifying myself as a feminist, I have found myself growing uncomfortable with other people identifying me as such. Mostly because they so often say it like it’s a bad thing – like it makes me silly, or ideologically rigid, or batshit insane. They turn what to me says “yes, I’m interested in gender from a critical perspective” and “no, I’m not an asshole”, into an insult.

Georgina Isbister in a piece in the National Times in December last year, wrote “Feminism is not a dirty word”

Isbister writes:

The denial of feminist identification seems to be based not in resistance to feminism’s goals of gender equality, but in the replication of outdated and exaggerated feminist stereotypes. What I find when I gently scratch the surface of these stereotypical assumptions is that most of my students, both female and male, support gender equality. Actually, they demand it.

I found similar things in my interviews with young women. Often their first response to feminism was to talk about the widely perpetuated negative stereotypes about feminists, but once they got talking about issues that feminism deals with, many acknowledged that their beliefs were feminist.

As I wrote in the comments on Rachel Hills’ post:

One thing I found that makes a difference in terms of feminist identification is how someone defines feminism. If you define it as a belief system (eg. a belief in gender equality) then you are more likely to say you’re a feminist than if you define it as activism. I spoke to quite a few women who said they believed in feminist ideals but were hesitant to call themselves feminists because they weren’t actively involved in fighting for women’s rights. One participant gave a great analogy…She said she cares about the environment, but wouldn’t call herself an environmentalist because she doesn’t go out and chain herself to trees, and so on.

Interestingly, I got different responses to the questions, “what do you think of when you hear the word feminist”, compared with “how do you define feminism?”. The former elicited many more of the negative stereotypes about feminism (man-hating, hairy armpits/legs, angry, humourless – which interestingly most recognised as media stereotypes), whereas the latter allowed the women to describe what they thought feminism means. Once they got talking about it, many were more likely to switch from ambivalnece to saying “Actually, I suppose I am a feminist really”.

Only a couple of my participants were openly hostile to feminism (it’s likely that my recruitment posters which mentioned ‘feminism’ attracted participants who were symathetic towards feminism) and this was because they blamed feminism for women having to do everything – have a full time job and then come home and still do all the childcare and housework.

I’ve written lots about this topic. Not surprising since I wrote my thesis on it! I’ll leave it there for now, but I’ll share more of my thesis findings soon, especially since I have a journal article in the works based on this aspect of my research.

What about you? Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

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6 Responses to “Pondering feminist identification”

  1. Deborah Says:

    I’ve considered myself a feminist since I was in my mid-teens. But it was perhaps a little easier to identify as feminist in the early 1980s, when women were making huge gains. Like many bloggers, early on in my blogging I wrote about why I am feminist. Re-reading that post, the reasons still stand. If I push for some overall connection between the various strands of my feminism, I am feminist because women are adults, and yet everywhere, they are treated as subordinates.

    I love Mary Astell’s incredibly tart comment about the status of women.

    If all men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves? as they must be if the being subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary Will of Men, be the perfect Condition of Slavery? and if the Essence of Freedom consists, as our Masters say it does, in having a standing Rule to live by?

    • doctorpen Says:

      Thanks Deborah – great quote! 🙂

      I have considered myself a feminist since about my mid-teens as well. And once I encountered feminist theory at university it just cemented things and gave me a way of articulating the things I’d noticed about gender but couldn’t quite make sense of.

  2. Nicholas Says:

    I think “do you consider yourself a feminist?” is asking the wrong question. Here’s why.

    The definition of “feminist” is “a person who supports feminism”. “feminism” is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men”.

    I am, of course, a feminist, and I would be very upset to learn that any of my friends were not, by the actual definition of “feminist”. However, a few people might say they were not a feminist because they were using their own, private definition, or because, as you write, they didn’t really have a “definition” at all, but rather a collection of stereotypes.

    So by asking people “do you consider yourself a feminist?” you are really asking “what is your definition of the word ‘feminist’?” because it seems quite unlikely that anybody you interviewed would actually wish for fewer rights for women than for men.

    But that doesn’t actually tell you much. It gives you a few interesting examples of localised language evolution, and it might (if you interviewed thousands of people) give you some indication of actual language change. But it doesn’t really allow you to extrapolate any cultural attitudes towards feminism, because as a question it covers too much ground. If you want to know what women think of “equal work for equal pay” or “state-paid maternity leave” or any other *issue* related to the feminist movement, then you could ask that and get some meaningful results. But there is too much inherent in “do you consider yourself a feminist?” to get much out of it.

    Think about it in terms of some other words which may not necessarily sound contentious. “Do you consider yourself a woman?” Well, the concept of gender is quite fluid too, and while many people might make that judgement on the basis of biological femininity, many others would probably make the judgement on the basis of gender identity — biological females who feel like they are male, and vice versa. I suspect this latter category is due to strong activism from a small portion of the community, and it’s by no means bad to make people think about the way they use seemingly innocuous words. It’s an interesting insight into the acceptance being gained by the transgender community. But does it tell you much about the role of, or position of, women? No, not much.

    • doctorpen Says:

      I think asking “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” can tell us a lot about the reputation of feminism, people’s understanding of the term, and many other things. It was almost like the starting point in my thesis because there’s a lot of literature asking “why don’t young women call themselves feminists?”.

      Obviously in this post it was used to generate some discussion. In my thesis interviews I had a range of questions, not just “do you consider yourself a feminist?”. I think it’s an interesting question because there are lots of people who hold beliefs that I define as feminist, and which fit your definition above, but who don’t identify themselves as feminists. I find this intriguing.

      Of course it’s not the only question to ask, but I don’t think it’s the “wrong question”.

  3. alexandrajeancoffey Says:

    Where’s the little subscribe icon?

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