Feminism's Identity Crisis

The most effective backlash against feminism comes from within

My favorite political moment of the 1960s was a Black Panther rally in a quadrangle of Smith College on a luxuriant spring day. Ramboesgue in berets and ammunition belts, several young black males exhorted hundreds of young white females to contribute money to Bobby Seale's defense fund. I stood at the back of the crowd watching yarn ties on blonde ponytails bobbing up and down while the daughters of CEOs nodded in agreement with the Panthers' attack on the ruling class.

It was all so girlish—or boyish, depending on your point of view. Whatever revolution was fomenting posed no apparent threat to gender roles. Still, women who were not particularly sensitive to chauvinism in the counterculture or the typical fraternity planned to attend graduate or professional school and pursue careers that would have been practically unthinkable for them ten years earlier. Feminism was altering their lives as much as draft avoidance was altering the lives of their male counterparts.

Today, three decades of feminism and one Year of the Woman later, a majority of American women agree that feminism has altered their lives for the better. In general, polls conducted over the past three years indicate strong majority support for feminist ideals. But the same polls suggest that a majority of women hesitate to associate themselves with the movement. As Karlyn Keene, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has observed, more than three quarters of American women support efforts to "strengthen and change women's status in society," yet only a minority, a third at most, identify themselves as feminists.

Many feminists take comfort in these polls, inferring substantial public support for economic and political equality, and dismissing women's wariness of the feminist label as a mere image problem (attributed to unfair media portrayals of feminists as a strident minority of frustrated women). But the polls may also adumbrate unarticulated ambivalence about feminist ideals, particularly with respect to private life. If widespread support for some measure of equality reflects the way women see, or wish to see, society, their unwillingness to identify with feminism reflects the way they see themselves, or wish to be seen by others.

To the extent that it challenges discrimination and the political exclusion of women, feminism is relatively easy for many women to embrace. It appeals to fundamental notions of fairness; it suggests that social structures must change but that individuals, particularly women, may remain the same. For many women, feminism is simply a matter of mommy-tracking, making sure that institutions accommodate women's familial roles, which are presumed to be essentially immutable. But to the extent that feminism questions those roles and the underlying assumptions about sexuality, it requires profound individual change as well, posing an unsettling challenge that well-adjusted people instinctively avoid. Why question norms of sex and character to which you've more or less successfully adapted?

Of course, the social and individual changes demanded by feminism are not exactly divisible. Of course, the expansion of women's professional roles and political power affects women's personality development. Still, many people manage to separate who they are in the workplace from who they are in bed, which is why feminism generates so much cognitive dissonance. As it addresses and internalizes this dissonance and women's anxiety about the label "feminism," as it embarks on a "third wave," the feminist movement today may suffer less from a mere image problem than from a major identity crisis.

It's difficult, of course, to generalize about how millions of American women imagine feminism and what role it plays in their lives. All one can say with certitude is that different women define and relate to feminism differently. The rest—much of this essay—is speculation, informed by conversations with editors of women's magazines (among the most reliable speculators about what women want), polling data, and ten years of experience studying feminist issues.

Resistance to the Label

Robin Morgan, the editor in chief of Ms., and Ellen Levine, the editor in chief of Redbook, two veterans of women's magazines and feminism, offer different views of feminism's appeal, each of which seems true, in the context of their different constituencies. Morgan sees a resurgent feminist movement and points to the formation of new feminist groups on campus and intensified grass-roots activity by women addressing a range of issues, from domestic violence to economic revitalization. Ellen Levine, however, believes that for the middle-class family women who read Redbook (the average reader is a thirty-nine-year-old wage-earning mother), feminism is "a non-issue." She says, "They don't think about it; they don't talk about it." They may not even be familiar with the feminist term of art "glass ceiling," which feminists believe has passed into the vernacular. And they seem not to be particularly interested in politics. The surest way not to sell Redbook is to put a woman politician on the cover: the January, 1993, issue of Good Housekeeping, with Hillary Clinton on the cover, did poorly at the newsstands, according to Levine.

Editors at more upscale magazines—Mirabella, Harper's Bazaar, and Glamour—are more upbeat about their readers' interest in feminism, or at least their identification with feminist perspectives. Gay Bryant, Mirabella's editor in chief, says, "We assume our readers are feminists with a small 'f.' We think of them as strong, independent, smart women; we think of them as pro-woman, although not all of them would define themselves as feminists politically." Betsy Carter, the executive editor of Harper's Bazaar, suggests that feminism has been assimilated into the culture of the magazine: "Feminism is a word that has been so absorbed in our consciousness that I don't isolate it. Asking me if I believe in feminism is like asking me if I believe in integration." Carter says, however, that women tend to be interested in the same stories that interest men: "Except for subjects like fly-fishing, it's hard to label something a man's story or a woman's story." In fact, she adds, "it seems almost obsolete to talk about women's magazines." Carter, a former editor at Esquire, recalls that Esquire's readership was 40 percent female, which indicated to her that "women weren't getting what they needed from the women's magazines."

Ruth Whitney, the editor in chief of Glamour might disagree. She points out that Glamour runs monthly editorials with a decidedly "feminist" voice that infuses the magazine. Glamour readers may or may not call themselves feminists, she says, but "I would call Glamour a mainstream feminist magazine, in its editorials, features, fashions, and consumerism." Glamour is also a pro-choice magazine; as Whitney stresses, it has long published pro-choice articles—more than any other mainstream women's magazine, according to her. And it is a magazine for which women seem to constitute the norm: "We use the pronoun 'she' when referring to a doctor, lawyer, whomever, and that does not go unnoticed by our readers."

Presented by

Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In