Archive for Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Rejecting feminist label doesn’t change values

February 6, 2008


Brace yourself. I'm going to use a word that offends folks. I'm talking the "F" word.


This woman sent me an e-mail Monday and it got me thinking. See, in describing herself, she assured me she was not "a 'women's libber"' - the late 1960s equivalent of feminist. She also said she was retired from the U.S. Navy. There was, it seemed to me, a disconnect there: She doesn't believe in women's liberation, yet she is retired from a position that liberation made possible.

Intrigued, I asked my 17-year-old daughter whether she considers herself a feminist. She responded with a mildly horrified no. This, by the way, is the daughter with the 3.75 GPA who is presently pondering possible college majors including political science, psychology and ... women's studies. I asked her to define "feminist."

There began a halting explanation that seemed to suggest shrillness wrapped around obnoxiousness. Abruptly, she stopped. "It's hard to explain," she said.

Actually, it's not. Jessica Valenti, author of "Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters," calls it the I'm-Not-A-Feminist-But syndrome. As in the woman who says, "I'm not a feminist, but ..." and then "goes on to espouse completely feminist values. I think most women believe in access to birth control, they want equal pay for equal work, they want to fight against rape and violence against women."

"Feminist," it seems, has ended up in the same syntactical purgatory as another once-useful, now-reviled term: liberal. Most people endorse what that word has historically stood for - integration, child labor laws, product safety - yet they treat the word itself like anthrax. Similarly, while it's hard to imagine any young woman really wants to return to the days of barefoot, pregnant and making meatloaf, many now disdain the banner under which their gender fought for freedom. They scorn feminism even as they feast at a table feminism prepared.

Says Valenti, "The word has been so effectively misused and so effectively mischaracterized by conservatives for so long that women are afraid to identify with it. They'll say everything under the sun that's feminist, but they won't identify with it because they've been taught feminists are anti-men, feminists are ugly."

Dr. Deborah Tannen agrees. She is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of a number of books on gender and communication, including: "You're Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation." "The reason, I believe, is that meanings of words come from how they're used. And since the word 'feminist' is used as a negative term rather than a positive one, people don't want to be associated with it."

With apologies to Malcolm X, they've been had, they've been hoodwinked, they've been bamboozled. And it's sad. I've lost track of how many times, visiting high schools or teaching college classes, I have met bright girls juggling options and freedoms that would've been unthinkable a generation ago, smart young women preparing for lives and careers their foremothers could not have dreamed of, yet if you use the "F" word, they recoil.

We have, I think, lost collective memory of how things were before the F-word. Of the casual beatings. Of casual rape. Of words like "old maid" and "spinster." Of abortion by coat hanger. Of going to school to find a man. Of getting an allowance and needing a husband's permission. Of taking all your spirit, all your dreams, all your ambition, aspiration, creativity, and pounding them down until they fit a space no larger than a casserole dish.

"I'm not a feminist, but ...?" That's a fraud. It's intellectually dishonest. And it's a slap to the feminists who prepared the table at which today's young women sup.

So for the record, I am a feminist. My daughter is, too.

She doesn't know it yet.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.


jonas 10 years, 2 months ago

It is interesting, though, and I hadn't actually thought that much about it. When I hear "feminism" its not so bad, but "feminist" immediately does conjure the man hating bull-dyke lesbian in my head at this point, a demographic that I've personally only met two, maybe three members of in my life. I suppose that I should rethink things.

It was nice to see Pitts write about a different marginalized demographic for a change, though.

Kathy Theis-Getto 10 years, 2 months ago

Feminism is about choices, not labels. Do feminists hate men? I know I don't. They can be loving wives or strong independent single mothers. It's about choices. Do feminists want to be independent, equal, safe, and self-supporting? Most definitely.

Feminism is the "radical" notion that women (all women, not just middle-class, white women) are people, too.

"Ain't I A Woman?" Sojourner Truth

Godot 10 years, 2 months ago

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet...."

classclown 10 years, 2 months ago

Remember when a woman would chew a guy out for holding a door open for her?

Also remember when they demanded to go dutch on a date? Whatever happened to that? That was a good part of feminism.

davidnta 10 years, 2 months ago

I like the word feminist to describe people who don't subscribe to the patriarchal norms that society oppresses upon them. I look at the term as people being equal to each other in terms of having the same rights and same equal access.

The feminist-haters have successfully made feminist and feminism out to be horrible people who hate men and want to burn their bras, and all the other cliche that are typically inscribe upon them by those people. Women have to realize that the agency they receive today was because of the women in the feminist movement who stood up against societal norms and took the brunt of the beating by their oppressors.

Kathy Theis-Getto 10 years, 2 months ago


You are so correct, a good example of extremism at its best (worst). Unfortunately the extremists are the ones usually with the loudest voice.

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 10 years, 2 months ago

I blame the people who don't like independent women on making the term feminist something bad. They are the people who either treat women like sex objects, and secretly think that the Arab society has the right idea about women. I tell my students constantly about the dress codes girls used to have, how we had to play girls basketball (dribble 3 times, then pass, a lady doesn't run across the court) and we never played except in gym class, and how teachers had to leave their jobs when they started showing their pregnancy. These teachers were married and they weren't expected to return, so their jobs weren't guaranteed. If you aren't a feminist, then you would want a return to these practices. Did the feminist of the 60's and 70's have to be "shrill witches" to make these changes? Of course, no one would have listened to them otherwise.

Ralph Reed 10 years, 2 months ago

rt - Interesting article. However, after a brief look through the rest of the online issue of Newsmax, I can't shake the feeling that the magazine is radical right in its slant. I could be wrong tho.

I do find it amazing that the article quoted Jane Fonda. Isn't she an anethema to the Reps and all things conservative?

Now, about this feminism "thing". I've never really liked it. My wife doesn't vote for whom I tell her. She said we may have two different signs in our yard this year - perish the thought. I don't have a beer or my slippers waiting when I get home from work (no pipe, as I don't smoke). All this because of feminism. What am I gonna do?

KU_cynic 10 years, 2 months ago

I think I'm a feminist.

I believe in equal rights -- to jobs, careers, equal-pay-for-equal-work, political access, etc.

I also believe that men and women are different in some fundamental ways, and at times require different societal resources without anyone doing any explicit accounting about whether the male-female split comes out equal. For instance, I believe that some work-related parental benefits disproportionately benefit women -- access to daycare, accomodating maternity, etc. -- but I believe in extending such benefits regardless.

I don't believe in comparable worth. Differential pay for male-dominated vs. female-dominated professions is an equilibrium labor market phenomenon, not a vast patriarchal conspiracy. Court-mandated remedies mess up the labor markets.

I think paternal rights (and responsibilities) in custody disputes are equally important to maternal rights (and responsibilities).

I am also pro-life. I think abortion stops a human heart.

Am I a feminist. Will they have me?

staff04 10 years, 2 months ago

Jeez, allateup, if I didn't have class, I would have knocked that one out of the park...what a set-up!

jonas 10 years, 2 months ago

"Interesting article. However, after a brief look through the rest of the online issue of Newsmax, I can't shake the feeling that the magazine is radical right in its slant. I could be wrong tho."

Newsmax? Right wing slant? Nah.

Kookamooka 10 years, 2 months ago

I agree with Pitts. The young women of today have no idea how long and hard their GRANDMOTHERS fought to change the consciousness of America. They called themselves Feminists. Today, a new word is needed. I don't know what that word would be and I can guarantee the conservatives would try to recast it negatively. Young women know they have it better and they squander their liberation. Feminists value themselves and their "sisters".

February Sisters, UNITE.

kansascrone 10 years, 2 months ago

real men aren't afraid of feminists and real feminists don't hate men

allateup 10 years, 2 months ago

If a feminist means being independent than I would consider myself one. I can be very independent. But, I believe there are things men should still do for you, such as, open the door, pay for a date and etc. There are men "jobs" just as there are women "jobs"!!!

denak 10 years, 2 months ago

Holding the door open for a woman has nothing to do with feminism.

It is simply good manners! I've made my son open doors for women since he was a little boy.

As for Hillary, I find it kind of ironic that some people criticize her because she has "learned to play the system." Do people really believe that she would have ever gotten as far as she has if she hadn't. There is a time to be confrontational and there is a time to be sweet (read devious). You will get a lot farther if some people don't preceive you as a threat. If you enter a meeting with a chip on your shoulder, others around you will instantly have their defenses up, you will alienate any potential allies and nothing will get accomplish.

I think the fact that she is able to successfully move within the political structure and get things done is to her advantage not to her detriment and I really can't understand why some people (like some of the ladies' quoted) don't understand that.


moo 10 years, 2 months ago

This is one area in which the Lawrence Public Schools have served me well. I was lucky enough to take a Women's Studies course in 9th grade, an opportunity most young men and women (in this school district and across the nation) never get. I had a wonderful teacher who helped us understand women's struggles for equality in the past as well as how they are continuing today. I learned at 14 that "Feminism" is a beautiful word. A word that means self-respect and the knowledge that you can also demand respect from others. A course like this should be part of every student's education, boys and girls.

Sure, feminism has its extremists, just like any -ism, but in essence it just means thinking that women deserve and equal chance in this world: equal protection under the law, equal pay for equal work, and equal opportunities in life. Feminism does not mean pressing your choices on others or hating men. The "I'm not a feminist but..." syndrome is very sad, and I think exposes a need for education beyond the obligatory one-paragraph description of suffrage in a history textbook.

Feminism means respect for yourself and others.

Thank you Mrs. Savage, from West Junior High.

allateup 10 years, 2 months ago

women jobs = a lot of different things but in my situation it's making sure I have dinner ready when my husband has worked hard all day. He has clean close to wear when he goes to work and on and get the point! btw, your comment was cute staff.

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