Reporter's Notebook

What Does Feminism Mean Today?
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Atlantic staffers and readers debate the meaning of “feminism” and how it’s changed over the decades. To join in, send us a note:

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The Myth of the 'Female' Foreign Policy, Cont'd

Sweden's foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom Claudio Bresciani / Reuters

The Atlantic recently did a special project on women in leadership, for which I contributed a modest reflection on women in foreign policy. There aren’t a lot of female leaders on the global stage, but they’re increasing in number, and I wanted to know how, or whether, they do things differently than the men we’re used to having run things. In researching this question, I was struck especially by the approach of Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, who on taking office two years ago articulated a “feminist foreign policy.” (Note that this is not exactly the same as a “woman’s foreign policy”—a man could very well have a feminist foreign policy, and a woman could very well not.) I wrote that beyond promoting gender equality, the implications of such an approach are “not entirely clear.” But the Swedish Foreign Ministry disagrees; here’s a response from Wallstrom:

Sweden’s feminist foreign policy has gained significant international attention, most recently in the renowned publication The Atlantic. For us this proves that Sweden contributes to shaping world politics with smart power and diplomacy. Sadly, it also proves that the simple statement that women’s rights are human rights remains controversial.

Kathy Gilsinan writes that a feminist foreign policy raises questions about female leadership and whether female leaders behave differently. Gilsinan’s framing is problematic, since it suggests leaders should be chosen based on suitability by gendered characteristics assumed to be held by all members of the same sex, not on voter preferences. Men have been in charge of politics for hundreds of years. There have been good leaders and bad leaders. Yet, when women are demanding power, their instrumental value as agents of peace or prosperity, rather than their rights to representation, is put in focus. At a time in history when women are gaining political power, such a discourse is troubling. Political representation is about rights. Not about gendered characteristics or suitability, but about exercising your democratic right to participate in decision-making that affects you and your society. Democracy cannot truly deliver for all of its citizens if half of the population remains underrepresented in the political arena and society denies the full enjoyment of their human rights.

Clare catches up with Carly Fiorina today after writing a piece in February about her exit from the presidential race and her role in carrying the banner of conservative feminism. Clare’s new piece focuses on the conundrum that many Republican women face in the general election: Vote for Trump, who has a long record of sexist statements and behavior, or vote for Clinton, who supports a progressive worldview and set of policies they disagree with—and who, they believe, tries to co-opt feminism only for the political left. Here’s Clare:

The crux of [Fiorina’s] argument is that Clinton deploys feminism as a political weapon in a way that hurts women. “Feminism is no longer a term that’s used to enable or empower women,” Fiorina said at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference. “It turns out to be in so many people’s eyes, in Hillary Clinton’s eyes, kind of a way to bludgeon people into a left-wing litany of causes.” In Fiorina’s telling, liberal feminism has devolved into a noxious political correctness. It is an ideology rooted in partisanship that liberals wield to discredit anyone who disagrees with their agenda—an identity politics that does more to divide than unite.

A reader dissents (followed by a few counterpoints):

There is no such thing as a conservative feminist. If you’re a feminist, it means you want women to have the same rights and opportunities that men do. But if you’re a conservative, it means you want to want men to have all the advantages. Why do conservatives oppose abortion rights, birth control, and equal pay laws? Because they want to exert control over women.

Conservatives should really be called regressives. They want to take us back to the 1950s where women stayed home, cooked and cleaned, and only had sex to produce babies. When Trump talked about punishing women for having abortions, conservatives were upset because he said out loud what many of them say in private. How can you want to make abortion illegal, but not want to punish women who commit what you call murder? Trump has done a great service: On so many issues, he’s exposed the Republican party for what it really is.

Now having said that, Hillary Clinton isn’t exactly a great role model for women either. What does it say about America that of all the female governors, senators, etc. who would make good Presidential candidates, we nominate the one who was married to a former President? I guess the message to little girls is “you too can grow up to be President. Just make sure your husband was one first.”

Clare has a great piece today examining how Carly Fiorina’s departure from the presidential race will diminish the discussion of women’s issues on the Republican side. A conservative feminist reader comments via hello@:

Fighting for female equality, like most things, can be done in 1,000 different ways. Depending on one’s priorities, some ways are better than others, but all of the ways are an attempt to achieve the same basic outcome. If you believe that women (and men) should be able and encouraged to fulfill their highest potential, you are a feminist.  If you think women’s voices are as important as men’s, and that both sexes deserve equal opportunity, you are a feminist.

That does not, however, mean that feminism requires subscribing to the full platform of “pro-choice, let’s-make-it-rain birth control, we need more government mandates and more federal spending on women, etc.”

A reader revives the discussion thread on feminism:

The reason that a lot of people like myself don’t self-identify as “feminist” is because a lot of feminists (not all) self-identify as skeptics of the notion that there are any essential differences between men and women. Given the way these differences have been exploited by men to subjugate women, I have a lot of sympathy for these feminists and their mode of feminism. But my sympathies don’t mean that men and women are not different. They are—not totally different, not fundamentally different, but essentially different—in their essence.

Caitlin Jenner reminds us of this truth.

Via the hello@ address:

The other night my husband sent me a link to your thread on feminism. It sparked a debate between us, which I should thank you for. While we have very different educations (my background is in anthropology, he is a physicist), it had been a few months since we’d challenged each other intellectually, and it’s nice when we do. I feel lucky when I learn something new about him, or when we manage to teach each other about a different worldview.

I am a proud feminist, likely because I’ve studied a fair amount of feminist theory. When I was younger, I’d describe myself, stammering: “I’m a feminist but, I mean, I don’t, like, hate men or anything.” I was terrified that labeling myself a “feminist” would relegate me to the fringes, where nice boys wouldn’t like me or I’d be seen as “difficult.” Yet I wanted to be valued; I wanted to have opportunities.

The tricky thing with feminism is that, so often, we are so close to those who are discriminating against us.

That’s how this reader frames his criticism of contemporary feminism:

Beginning in my late teens and for many years later, I would have called myself a feminist. This was partly due to my passionately left-wing friends, and in part due to the effect of reading literature like Taming of the Shrew and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. I saw the ugliness, the way society had utterly refused to recognize the humanity of women. I saw that gender has been a cage that stunts a woman’s individual life rather than the piece of identity it is and should be. I saw the contempt, the fear, the condescension and repression, and I strongly felt it had to change and has to change more.

So I don’t think Feminism is a dirty word or should be gotten rid of. But I no longer care to describe myself as a feminist. It doesn’t have anything to do with language, and little to do with ideas.  

The feminist movement today has startling similarity to religious fundamentalism. There is the same dogmatism, the same zealous fervor, the same fear, the same clinging to certainty and the absolute conviction in one’s own correctness. Dissenters are marginalized, castigated, even cast out. The psychology is identical; all that differs are the goals.

Another striking similarity is the hostility towards science.

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:

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:

Sophie writes forcefully of the “long list of female celebrities who’ve declined to identify themselves as feminists out of an assumption that the word implies widespread rejection or dislike of men.” She laments, as do I, that many people embrace the ideas of feminism but nevertheless recoil at the label:

Because whatever the history, whatever the nuances, whatever the charged sentiments associated with political activism, being a feminist is very simple: It means believing that women are and should be equal to men in matters political, social, and economic. They should be able to vote. They should have equal protection under the law and equal access to healthcare and education. They should be paid as much as their male counterparts are for doing exactly the same job. Do you believe in these things? Then, you are a feminist.

These seem like the kinds of things that women are likely to support. They also seem like the kinds of things that men are likely to support.

And I’d like to know when men do. It’s a shame that famous men (not only entertainers, but CEOs and politicians too) are so rarely asked whether they are feminists.

The French actress Marion Cotillard recently gave an interview to Porter magazine in which she said, “I don’t qualify myself as a feminist.”

We need to fight for women’s rights, but I don’t want to separate women from men. We’re separated already because we’re not made the same, and it’s the difference that creates this energy in creation and love. Sometimes in the word ‘feminism’ there’s too much separation.

Cotillard joins a long list of female celebrities who’ve declined to identify themselves as feminists out of an assumption that the word implies widespread rejection or dislike of men.

Shailene Woodley: