Are You a Feminist? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader responds to our previous reader roundup, which emphasized poll numbers showing that the vast majority of Americans say they believe in “equality for women” but only a small percentage of Americans identify as “feminist”:

I’m rather surprised you didn’t mention Christina Hoff Sommers’s useful, if controversial, distinction between “equity feminism” and “gender feminism.” (Her 1994 book Who Stole Feminism? goes into great detail, but here’s Wikipedia’s synopsis.) Most everyone is an equity feminist and believes that men and women should have (and do have) equal rights under American law. However, very few are gender feminists—who believe that men and women are physically, psychologically, and mentally equivalent in every way (and if they’re not, then that’s a result of evil patriarchal heterosexist culture, not nature). Very, very few women and almost no men (outside of academia, anyway) are gender feminists.

Another reader also mentions Sommers:

She was recently invited to speak at Oberlin, an event which was vigorously protested. Sommers is very critical of the last 30 years of feminism in general, but her primary critique is that feminism has relied on statistics that are misleading, such as the study that found one in five female college students have been raped.

I remember how shocked I was when I read that statistic, and I had no reason at the time to question its findings. But on further inspection, the study engineered its own results by expanding the definition of rape to include stuff like sex that was later regretted, or even a guy attempting an unsolicited kiss at a drunken party. Some of those interviewed in the study did not think they’d been raped or abused, but that didn’t matter; the imperative was to stir up outrage over the genuinely serious problem of campus rape, and in this it was successful.

Sommers included that rape statistic in a video on “the top five feminist myths of all time.” (Slate’s Emily Yoffe, who is to the left of Sommers, tackled that statistic in greater depth.) However, it’s important to note in the context of this discussion that Sommers still considers herself a feminist. Watch the video embedded above for her lengthy response to the “Are you a feminist?” question.

Unlike Sommers, another reader—a “credentialed teacher and homemaker with a Stanford B.A.”—no longer considers herself a feminist. Here she addresses Sophie’s note directly:

If your goal is to engage those who think differently, quoting a woman, Caitlin Moran, who accuses her fellow females of being too drunk to respond to a survey in the manner she would prefer is not, perhaps, the best strategy.

In college I identified as a feminist for the simple reason you state:

I know that women have historically had fewer rights than men, and I believe that they are absolutely deserving of equal rights and opportunities (as opposed to outcomes). Now, I don’t identify as a feminist, and in a nutshell, the reason is that the feminist movement espouses a particular set of leftist political beliefs that I don't share. If feminism could accommodate multiple political viewpoints, perhaps I could rejoin the bandwagon.  

I don’t know any women who oppose the right to vote, equal access to healthcare (distinct from “my employer must pay for my abortion or contraceptives”), or greater freedom to make whatever sort of life choice she should so desire. I know plenty of women who don’t want to have to pay (with tax dollars) for the lifestyle choices of others (particularly wealthy others with plenty of life opportunities anyway). That would result in a greater tax burden on my family, which would jeopardize my ability to stay home and have the quiet domestic life I desire at this juncture. I take no issue with women making their own choices about careers, sex, or anything else; I just don’t wish to subsidize it, and all too often “feminism,” on this score, seems to call for public funding, or at least expensive regulation.

I also know women who are somewhat weary of being called names because they want to be free to choose conventional lifestyles that prioritize marriage and family, or because they value the lives of unborn children over the license to have no-strings-attached, consequence-free sex. Getting married and staying home to raise children is as valid an option as becoming a CEO. Yet much of the rhetoric I’ve read from self-labeled feminists seems intent on making women the same as men, rather than equal to them.

Worse, some of the proudest “feminists” I know are quite vocal about their disdain for partnership with men. I quite enjoy the complementary features and qualities of the sexes, and whether feminism claims misandry as its own or not, there is a definite correlation between the two in my acquaintance.

So no, I don’t identify as a feminist anymore. If feminism means I have to support a particular political platform that includes permitting the murder of unborn children and paying for universal childcare at the expense of raising my own child, count me out. This isn’t a matter of “misinformation,” as you say, but a matter of experience.

The dictionary definition may be simple, but this is what I have seen from the movement. We may agree on points, and I thank the movement for some of its historical legacy, but its core values and methods differ from my own. As a believer in women’s equality, I will continue to work toward acceptance of women as equals, but I will do so on my own terms, with my own solutions in mind, and not those of the feminist brand.

On the other hand, this female reader declares, “I’m an ardent feminist”:

When I say that out loud, or write it in a comment, I know how it sounds to most people: harsh and persistent. It implies that I might be, in some abstract way in the distant future of a conversation, a difficult woman. I want that harshness to sink it, because my propositions are so reasonable.

What better way to prove that sexism truly exists than to self-identify as someone who is adamant in the fight against its tangible harms (for both men and women) and have that self-identification make most people uncomfortable, if not downright angry? What is up with that cognitive dissonance? I want people to push back against it and examine why they feel it, so I drop this “F word” as much as do the other “F word,” as often as I can without being opportunistic.

Truly great feminism requires an emphasis on the “equality” part. It’s not always that women have to “catch up” in some way to men; it’s that those tangible harms I previously mentioned hurt both sexes, all genders, and feminism aims to make sure that no male, female, or agendered person is hurt because of a set of hate-inspired beliefs.

More of your emails soon. If there’s an aspect of this debate you haven’t seen addressed yet, let me know.