Sunday, May 18, 2008

Does Feminism Have a Marketing Problem?

Merriam-Webster defines feminism as:
1 : the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
2 : organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests

By this commonly accepted definition, it is hard to imagine why any woman would not be a feminist. Yet, I'm continually surprised (and disheartened) by the number of women who distance themselves from the word 'feminist.' Women I respect consistently give tons of excuses for why they don't consider themselves to be feminists, often immediately after learning that I write for a feminist blog. The reasons they give always baffle me.

Here are five popular reasons people give for 'not being feminists':
1. I'm married
2. I have/ want kids
3. I wish I could be able to spend more time with my children
4. I'm not voting for Hillary Clinton in the primaries
5. I like to wear make-up/ shave my legs/ wear dresses

All of the women who mentioned the above as reasons to renounce feminism were women who have benefited tremendously from the feminist movement. They are well-educated. Most have careers they genuinely enjoy. All would like to see certain things change about our society to help women more easily balance the demands of career and family. All want fair pay for the work they do, all expect their opinions to be valued in the work place, and all have enjoyed the freedom to choose whom they love and spend their lives with. They include scientists and lawyers, teachers and business women. They are all, by my definition, the epitome of feminist women.

The reasons they give for not being feminists also seem, to me, to be reasons why feminism is still important. The feminists I admire seek to ensure rights and choices for women. They fight for any woman's right to choose who she will marry. They seek to ensure that women will be able to make their own choices about having children; and that women be given the fair pay, affordable childcare, and health care for families that make motherhood a joy rather than a hardship. Feminists have earned women the right to vote, and continue to push for policies and candidates that have women's best interests at heart- so that we have someone worth voting for. Feminists also fight the too common notion that victims of sexual assault might somehow be responsible for their attacker's actions by looking too feminine or attractive, and feminists actively work to protect women from violence.

So, what is the disconnect? Do we somehow have a marketing problem - is it that people simply don't understand what feminism is?

If you consider yourself to be a feminist, I am curious to know if you've run across these same attitudes, and what you do about them. If you don't consider yourself to be a feminist, I'd like to know what keeps you from embracing the term.

UPDATE: There is a really informative post about this same issue at Oh, You're a FEMINIST!? Besides providing readers with a feminist quiz that neatly lays out many of the issues most central to feminism, feministgal also discusses the research of Alyssa N. Zucker, which explores the relationship between the feminist label, and the attitudes and actions of women.


Casmall said...

Great Post!! I'm Really frustrated by this attitude myself. I can't figure out how women start thnking this way.

Todd said...

Starting from the top, it's a reality in any situation that the most obnoxious examples are the most noticeable. Ten shrill entitled harpies are more likely to draw attention to themselves as feminists, and more likely to be remembered as such, than ninety reasonably courteous gender-aware people.

That said, there's often too much of a siege mentality around the hardcore feminists as well. People who admittedly hypersensitize themselves to slights against women and then enter a community of people who similarly hypersensitize themselves will, not surprisingly, find themselves surrounded by evidence that women are set upon at all times. Granted that being a feminist is all about being aware of and wanting to change unfair -isms in society, but a siege mentality outlook leaves one likely to feel under attack at the slightest hint of disagreement. And likely to unproductively lash out rather than engage in productive dialogue.

Related to the above, feminists steeped in feminist culture are prone to assume that everybody else is immersed in the same, and treat ignorance of arcane points as general stupidity. I have seen very vocally self-identified feminists unleash torrents of abuse on someone for describing a woman as "nice and pretty". I've seen discussions where feminists insisted that any act of courtesy to a woman was "sexist", only to turn around and insist that words like "oversensitive" were inappropriate dog whistles. And most of my disagreements with feminists in other forums revolved around them attacking my grammar or self rather than the issue at hand. (Providing links or ignoring a statement aren't a problem. Debate fallacies that wouldn't pass muster in a high school debate team are.)

So with the most involved giving an impression like that and the moderates so far unwilling to challenge them, it's not at all unlike the problem moderate christians have wrestling their PR out of the hands of the whackjobs. Wish I had a solution, but if it were easy it would have happened for several other issues by now.

Julia Barry @ In Her Image said...

I love the way you break that down so sensibly! I often find myself in the situation of defending feminism, because of the bad (and incorrect) rap it gets.

Do you have an RSS feed of your blog? I couldn't find it and would love to subscribe.

Creator, In Her Image
Online Editor, New Moon

La Pobre Habladora said...

Hi, Todd. Thanks for the detailed comment. You know I'm going to have to disagree with most of it, though. Here are my objections.

"Ten shrill entitled harpies" - Perhaps these harpies do exist, although I've never met one. I have occasionally heard this label (or ones similar) get used by men who resent giving up some of the traditional trapping of the patriarchy (yeah, now it's my hearsay against yours). Men not having the right to chase a favorite female employee around the desk every evening (unless she clearly agrees to it first) and having women in positions of power seem to be feminist advances that really bug a lot of men of the Bill O'Reilly ilk and cause them to label feminists as harpies (there are a couple of good early The Office episodes that illustrate this phenomenon). But all of this is beside the point, since I've never heard a woman use that type of terminology, and the question is about why many ostensibly feminist women don't identify as feminists. I think I get why many men don't. Of course, if we let the old white men do all the talking, I guess we might be prone to internalize their sexist world-view and see any willingness to assert an opinion as being obnoxious, entitled, and harpy-like. And that's a shame.

Who are these "hardcore feminists"? It sounds like a skinamax film.

Define 'siege mentality.' Because what you describe sounds like just women pointing out that there is a lot of sexism in our society, and men feeling somehow attacked by that. I fear that there is no way to point out evidence of sexism without it seeming to some as 'lashing out.' The choice seems to be to either remain quite, or be perceived as aggressive.

As for the 'torrents of abuse' because someone was called nice a pretty, I can't speak to it because I wasn't there. I'll give you that commenting on someone's looks can either be appropriate or inappropriate, depending on the setting.

You are totally right, though, that this is a problem that a lot of movements have. I've heard liberal people shy away from the term liberal, and (as you say) Christians reluctant to claim the title of their faith. I'm not quite ready to resign myself though.

*Please note, none of the above was intended as an attack, lashing, torrent of abuse, or bird-like swoop from above in the manner of a Greek mythological creature.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Julia - thanks for the compliment! I'm blushing! As for the RSS feed, pushing the orange square in the navigation bar (within the space where you'd type a url - perhaps my terminology is faulty) should allow you to subscribe. Drop a line if it doesn't work!

FeministGal said...

i used to think, "i don't care if people don't identify as feminists as long as they endorse feminist values" but then i read an article a couple years back that really changed my mind.

George Washington University’s Dr. Zucker (2004) published a study addressing - her research explores women disavowing social identities when they said “I’m not a feminist, but…” Zucker notes that even if women embrace feminist principles, they strongly disassociate from the feminist label. Zucker found that in the 272 women surveyed, self-identifying as feminists was a predictor of feminist activism. Herein lies my concern. On one hand, I don’t care if you identity as a feminist or not, as long as you retain feminist beliefs. On the other hand, if self-identifying as a feminist is going to make you more of an activist then of course I want you on my side because then we could work together for common goals, not just dream big about a world of peace and equality.

Since research shows that feminist self-identity directly and significantly relates to collective action, I think it’s super important.

I wrote about all this a few months ago (i don't mean to self-promote on your blog, i just wanted to share the post :) feel free not to display this comment if you don't want links on your post) :)

Great post!!! :)

La Pobre Habladora said...

Feministgal, I'd love to read the post you mention, but cutting and pasting the link isn't working for me. Could you give a date or the tag it's filed under? Or, link using the html - just make sure you link to an extraneous word (like 'here') since Blogger sometimes chokes on the a href= /a code in the comments section.

Zucker's research sounds really interesting, I can't wait to track it down.

FeministGal said...

sorry, not sure why it didn't work. i'll try again:

or just check out the "Teachable Moments..." tab on the right side of my blog and it's the third one down :)

thanks for your interest :)

La Pobre Habladora said...

Here is a shortcut to feministgal's interesting and informative post, where she dares to ask "If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, but doesn’t identify as a duck, is it a duck?"

Lindsay said...

I want to comment deeper on this later but I'm busy today and just taking a break from my work, but what I've found helps me with links is writing the comment up in the blog window like you would a post, then switching it over to html and copying and pasting it.

FeministGal said...

thanks so much for linking to me, i swear i didn't include my post for link love, just thought you'd be interested :) thanks though for including some of my stuff... :) you rock and your blog rocks...

i think this in general is a really interesting topic, esp in modern America where women are encouraged to be independent, work for their own money, succeed in school, etc. They're told to be powerful on their own terms but also to make sure they stay feminine while doing it. (e.g. via feministing: current WNBA women being made more "marketable" by wearing makeup and getting tips on their appearance) These mixed messages are really confusing and make it difficult for women and young girls to understand how they're "supposed" to act. it's being caught between a rock and a hard place.

That's why i love feminism. I can be feminine and powerful. i can also be "butch" if i want. I can not shave my legs if i want to or i can dress up and where lipstick, it doesn't matter mostly because it isn't the point. the point is regardless of whether i chose to look or act "ladylike" i deserve rights and should be valued equally as a human being.

i think you said it best when you wrote, "Feminists have earned women the right to vote, and continue to push for policies and candidates that have women's best interests at heart" because frankly, that's what matters - not how we look, how much we weigh, who/if we chose to date, etc.

I love talking about this subject because it's always such a shock to me when i meet strong women who don't identify as feminists - i am so confused by it, i wonder "where's the disconnect and what can we, as feminists, do to bridge that gap?"

Lindsay said...

I think the problem was started by people who wanted to hold up the status quo smearing feminism and they did it enough that people internalized those thoughts. Now people who believe in gender equality aren't necessarily going to self-identify as feminist because of that stigma.

Personally, I take pride in calling myself a feminist and by doing so, hope to counteract that backlash some. People who say, "I'm not a feminist but I believe in xx feminist issue because feminists are feminazis and I don't want to be one of them" can see that feminists often spread over the political schema - not just extreme radicalism.

I can say, "yes, I'm a feminist," walk through a door that's being held open by a man, and then hold open the next door for him in return.

La Pobre Habladora said...

"the point is regardless of whether i chose to look or act "ladylike" i deserve rights and should be valued equally as a human being."

"I can say, "yes, I'm a feminist," walk through a door that's being held open by a man, and then hold open the next door for him in return."

These are two great examples- there really is a misconception that feminism killed chivalry somehow (as though a woman holding a door wasn't polite), or that there is a 'feminist uniform.' I think you are right that there has been an active campaign to promote these ideas, and that lots of different types of people identifying as feminists helps to erase the stereotypes.

Not having to wear heels and getting to wear pants, though, I really appreciate those two things about the women's movement.