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.

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.

In a 2013 national poll on modern parenthood, the Pew Research Center asked mothers and fathers to identify their "ideal" working arrangement. Sixty-one percent of mothers said they would prefer to work part-time--or not at all. Fathers answered differently: 75 percent preferred full-time work. Catherine Hakim, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, got similar results when she studied the preferences of women and men in Western Europe.

According to many in the contemporary women's lobby, these conventional choices are evidence of entrenched sexism and internalized oppression. "Women's personal choices are fraught with inequities," says the American Association of University Women. The National Organization for Women points to "persistent stereotypes" and "myriad forms of sexism" that "steer" women to particular career paths and family roles. But American women are among the most self-determining in the history of humanity. Why not respect their choices?

You can ask this same question about the type of careers men and women pursue. After 40 years of consciousness-raising, women remain far more likely to enter fields like teaching, child care, social work, nursing, and pediatrics. Men are far more likely to be engineers, auto mechanics, metallurgists, and construction workers. Are these trends the result of sex discrimination, hostile environments, or invisible barriers--as gender activists never tire of saying? They could be. But isn't it possible that in the pursuit of happiness, men and women take somewhat different paths? Freedom feminism respects abiding human aspiration.

Women are various. Despite several decades of warnings and denunciations of traditional gender roles, domestic life remains a vital priority for millions of women. And no amount of cajoling has discouraged women from pursuing pink-collar jobs in the helping and caring professions. Although British comedic writer Caitlin Moran calls herself a "strident feminist," many passages in her funny book How to be a Woman capture the spirit of freedom feminism. What is feminism? she asks. "Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy, and smug they might be."

How would the women's movement change if freedom feminism were its guiding philosophy?

First, gender gaps in wages, political leadership, and the professions would not automatically be taken as proof of discrimination. Freedom feminists allow that there could be innocent explanations for disparities. Instead, its focus would be on genuine injustice.

Second, the women's lobby would muster the courage to address a root cause of poverty in America: missing fathers. Freedom feminists may well join their more progressive sisters in supporting initiatives to assist poverty-stricken single mothers; but the primary focus would be on combatting male-averse educational and social policies that have helped create a dysfunctional culture of fatherlessness.

Third, the geographic focus would shift from the United States to the developing world. Throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, there are modern-day Elizabeth Cady Stantons and Frances Willards fighting valiantly to improve the lives of women. They are asking for our help. History suggests that a coalition of conservative and progressive women could be powerful force for change. In welcoming women from across the ideological spectrum, freedom feminism would build that formidable coalition.

My advice to today's young women: Reform feminism. Give moderate and conservative women a voice. Most of all, make common cause with women across the globe who are struggling for their basic freedoms. Supporting truly oppressed women would give today's Western feminism something it has lacked for many years: a contemporary purpose worthy of its illustrious past.