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.

Many readers are emailing about Sophie’s frustration that a growing number of female celebrities are shirking the “feminist” label:

I’m male, and I used to think feminism was outdated, since women already achieved the right to vote and work. As time passed I came to realize feminism is still important, particularly in fighting sexual assault and slut-shaming … but am I a feminist?

There are some people who think, as Sophie implied in her note, that being a feminist just means general support of gender equality in the home, the workplace, the public sphere—so it would be crazy not to identify as one. But some other feminists believe that feminism requires commitment to a pretty specific political agenda, and I can’t honestly say I agree with all those policies. For instance, while it’s ideal for women and men to be paid the same for the same work, I don’t believe the government should police salary negotiations.

So whether or not I’m a feminist depends on your definition. I would like to be, but I’m not ultimately the one who gets to define the word.

Another reader doesn’t want anyone to define it:

The reason why everybody opposes feminism isn’t because of its message; it’s because it’s akin to a religious ideology. You do not decide for me, or anybody, that they are a feminist if they agree with a certain ideal or ideals.

Another is on the same page:

How words are defined is fluid and quite individualistic. It is part of the reason why there is so much miscommunication. Clearly there is something to the definitions these various female celebrities have offered if so many of them share similar views.

Several more readers sound off:

One of the main barriers to more people identifying themselves as feminists is a lack of clarity on what the term actually means. Not all feminists agree that gender equality is the ultimate aim of Feminism. Charlotte Proudman, the British barrister at the centre of the recent LinkedIn sexism controversy [which Sophie covered here], is a self-identified radical feminist who strives for liberation, not equality. She explains her rationale as follows:

The equalist debate is one way of preserving patriarchy, whereas feminism seeks to give power to women on their own terms—not mens. This is why I am a feminist, not an equalist. Equality is harmful to women and most men, as they are required to replicate behaviours that are degrading and dehumanising. Once women buy into the masculine terms of society, our civilization will become crueler than ever expected.

Another issue for many is the persistent infighting. Today, the prevailing feminist ideology is Intersectionality. Those who call themselves feminists but do not demonstrate sufficient familiarity with this concept are branded apostates. High profile examples include Lena Dunham, Caitlin Moran, and Taylor Swift.

And then of course, we have the accusations of misandry. Even when it’s claimed to be ironic, the tone doesn’t sit well with many women.

These are some of the reasons why I do not identify myself as a feminist, despite supporting gender equality and being pro-choice.

Another reader:

When a large share of your natural allies—younger educated women in particular—reject what they perceive the term has come to mean, and you tell them that they’re wrong because it means only this other thing (that you know they support), you have to realize that the word no longer means only what you’d like it to mean.

It has also come to mean which side you’re on in the war of men vs. women, especially in an online context. (At least “feminism” hasn’t accrued a penumbra anywhere near as toxic as the equally innocuously-named opposition, “Men’s Rights Advocates”!) This idea, that language is not rule-bound but is inseparable from its lived use, is basically the realization Ludwig Wittgenstein came to later in his career. As I’m not a Wittgenstein scholar, I’ll just drop a quote from someone who (readably) is:

...Wittgenstein pioneered the controversial linguistic conception of meaning-as-use, or the idea that the meanings of words, relative or not, cannot be specified in isolation from the life practices in which they are used. Instead, language should be studied from the starting point of its practices, rather from abstractions to syntax and semantics. As Wittgenstein put it, “Speaking a language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.”

This reader firmly sides with Sophie:

I read her piece and I died a bit inside. I’m emphatically a feminist and I hate to see other women, who have a platform, denounce feminism. They do so because they worry they will be targeted by those who have co-opted the term and turned into code for “I hate men.” Just as “Black Lives Matter” does not mean that those are the ONLY lives who matter, advocating for equality between men and women does not make one a “man hater.”

I have considered myself a feminist since I learned what the word meant, and I know I have benefitted from the generations of feminists who came before me.

Does feminism have problems? Absolutely—the biggest being the exclusion of women of color by mainstream white feminists. But I will always proudly wear the title of feminist as a badge of honor.

To throw some statistics into the mix, the above chart from the Public Religion Research Institute finds that, in 2015, “Less than half of millennial women identify as ‘feminist.’” And from a Vox poll, also this year:

[C]onducted by research and communications firm PerryUndem, [it] shows that a strong majority of Americans agree on gender equality. Eighty-five percent, for example, say they believe in “equality for women.” But many fewer want to put the feminist label on their beliefs. Eighteen percent of poll respondents said they consider themselves feminist.

A 2013 HuffPo/YouGov poll basically says the same:

[J]ust 20 percent of Americans -- including 23 percent of women and 16 percent of men -- consider themselves feminists. Another 8 percent consider themselves anti-feminists, while 63 percent said they are neither. … But asked if they believe that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals,” 82 percent of the survey respondents said they did, and just 9 percent said they did not.

And a Gallup poll from 2002 provides a slice of a historical trend:

You have to wonder if that 3 percent bump in 1992 was due to Hillary Clinton coming on the national scene and winning the White House with her husband.

More of your emails to come. If you’d like to counter any of these readers, email hello@theatlantic.com. Also be sure to check out Becca’s note wishing more male politicians and other powerful figures would get asked the “are you a feminist?” question. If you know of any examples of the press doing so, please email the hello@ address.