How to Get More Women (and Men) to Call Themselves Feminists

Focus on injustice, poverty, and women in parts of the world beyond the United States.
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Library of Congress

When asked "Are you a feminist?" most Americans say no. A recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll is typical: Only 23 percent of women and 16 percent of men identified as "feminist." Accomplished women as diverse as Taylor Swift, Sandra Day O'Connor, Marissa Mayer, and Beyoncé object to the designation.

The emancipation of women is one of the glories of Western civilization and one of the great chapters in the history of freedom. Why is the term that describes that heritage in such disrepute?

Some will say the movement is receding because it has achieved its essential goals. So why not let it fade from the scene? That is an understandable but mistaken conclusion. Though the major battles for equality and opportunity in the United States have been fought and largely won, the work of feminism remains unfinished. Across the globe, fledgling women's groups struggle to survive in the face of genuine and often violent oppression. In the West, popular culture contains strong elements of misogyny. Women, far more than men, struggle with the challenge of combining work and family. Despite women's immense progress, poverty rolls are disproportionately filled with women with children.

Who needs feminism? We do. The world does. But an effective women's movement needs to be rescued from its current outcast state. Anyone who cares about improving the status of women around the world should be working to create a women's movement that resonates with women. A reality-based, male-respecting, judicious feminism could greatly help women both in the United States and throughout the world. I call it "freedom feminism."

Freedom feminism stands for the moral, social, and legal equality of the sexes--and the freedom of women to employ their equal status to pursue happiness in their own distinctive ways. Freedom feminism is not at war with femininity or masculinity and it does not view men and women as opposing tribes. Theories of universal patriarchal oppression are not in its founding tablets. Nor are partisan litmus tests: It welcomes women and men from across the political spectrum. Put simply, freedom feminism affirms for women what it affirms for everyone: dignity, fairness, and personal liberty.

I developed this moderate alternative by studying the history of the women's movement. Since its beginning in the 18th century, reformers have taken distinct positions on gender roles. "Egalitarians" stressed the essential sameness of the sexes and sought to liberate women from conventional roles. By contrast, "maternal feminists" were not opposed to gender roles. They celebrated women's contributions as wives and mothers. At the same time, they looked for ways to give women greater respect and influence in the public sphere, as well as more protection from abuse and exploitation in the home.

Nineteenth-century suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were egalitarians; their rival and indispensable ally in the fight for the suffrage was the temperance leader Frances Willard, a staunch maternal feminist. Eleanor Roosevelt was also a life-long maternal feminist who saw men and women as equal but decidedly different. She referred to domestic life as women's "first field of activity," but when asked if a woman's place is in the home, she responded "it certainly is, but if she really cares about her home, that caring will take her far and wide."

History suggests women fare the best when the two movements--progressive and conservative--work together. What do we have today? In the eyes of many, the current women's movement has devolved into a narrow, left-of-center special interest group. The majority of women have been left behind.

Freedom feminism combines aspects of both the egalitarian and maternal traditions. It shares with egalitarianism an aversion to prescribed gender roles: Women should be free to defect from the stereotypes of femininity if they so choose. At the same time, it respects the choices of free and self-determining women when they choose to embrace conventional feminine roles. Freedom feminism stands for equality of opportunity but does not insist on equality of results.

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Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is author of The War Against Boys and Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History–and Why it Matters.

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