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To Be or Not to Be Called a Feminist

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Last week I read an article by a 14 year old girl named Anne G., entitled, “Feminism’s Not Dying, But it May be Changing a Little.” She brings a millennial perspective to a recent survey by HuffPost/YouGov which found that a majority of respondents (81%) claim that “women and men should be social, political, and economic equals.” Yet, only 20% embrace the term “feminist.” Notably, CBS polls show this has been true for the past 20 years—around 20% call themselves feminist, with a far higher number when feminism is defined as a belief in equality.

My first reaction to that statistic was pleasant surprise. I never expected that kind of strong minority to identify with such a radical term. “Feminist” is a committed word, like “evangelical.” It implies much more than the definition of feminism as “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.” It brings to mind someone who is willing to apply that theory. Someone willing to make waves, speak up, change rules and laws, make people unhappy if necessary—an activist who is willing to talk about the hard stuff about the way women are treated in society, or in a family, and do something about it.

Alexandra at Feminista.com, notes that people are scared of feminists, because “the first harbinger of change” is “the women in protest, rejecting her assumed docility and with it our entire gendered world in its current form.”

I agree. A lot of men and women do not like the traditional “angry feminist.” These days she might be wearing high heels and lipstick and referring to her “girlfriends,” but it doesn’t matter. And that’s a part of the problem feminists address: men can get angry and still be good men–or not, but good women must exude sweetness and light, with a smiley face after any truth-telling statement. If we do not behave, there is a boat-load of nasty labels waiting for us. One of them might be “feminist.” 

Yet, it is the fighting spirit in women that has brought about the economic, political and social changes we benefit from, over the last 150 years. We act as though these have always been: women’s right to vote; to attend a university; to work outside the home in a variety of professions; to earn a (more) equal wage; to be (more or less) protected by the police when husbands and boyfriends abuse. All of these changes took place through women and men boldly, passionately, and intelligently speaking out in hostile environments. Susan Faludi says, “The meaning of the word ‘feminist’ has not really changed since it first appeared in a book review in the Athenaeum of April 27, 1895, describing a woman who ‘has in her the capacity of fighting her way back to independence.’”

I remember the moment I decided to become a feminist, in college, in 1989. I was sitting by a window in a class called “Music, Poetry and Ideas” taught by a feminist music professor. I knew her mainly as “pro-choice” because I was actively pro-life. As she spoke about the prevalence of husbands abusing wives, young men mistreating girlfriends, I felt deeply moved in a way that only a 20-year old can. I made a conscious decision to become a feminist and take the baggage with the term, which for me included being misunderstood on the issue of abortion and misunderstood by my evangelical community. But when I said “yes” to “feminist,” I said yes to women, to the never-ending discomfort of intentionally making myself aware of injustice against women, and to being sometimes stereotyped. I never expected to be in a majority.

Yet, in a sense, I now am. Another bit of happy news from that poll is that, thanks to feminists, 81% of those surveyed have a new normal when it comes to women–they expect equal rights in all spheres. In a CBS poll from 2009, 77% of women said their opportunities are greater than their mothers’ were, and they credit the women’s movement with that. In fact, 69% said the women’s movement “had improved their lives.” This is remarkable in that, in 1983, only 25% of women said the same.

The women’s movement was and is made of feminist activists. That brilliant 14-year old girl I mentioned in the first paragraph notes that a changing feminism flourishes among the Millennial generation. For example, her high school supports a Young Feminist Club and hosted a SlutWalk. (If you need to understand why feminists feel angry, read the SlutWalk link, an article by a man who walked with his boys.) Though she says that for her the term “feminist” is inconsequential compared to the ideology, for me, the word can be embraced by all who know there is still a lot to be pro-actively compassionate and angry about.

For just one example, the soil of the Internet has unearthed a new men’s movement (Men’s Rights Activists) that is not only about men’s rights, but is often actively misogynist. Woman-hate has in fact become so mainstream that Facebook didn’t object to ads promoting rape and violence against women until companies began removing their own ads in protest. And this is with Sheryl Sandberg in charge.

As Anne G. notes, even within the feminist movement itself, we need women’s voices speaking out, because there are ways to be more inclusive, ways to empower the women who are least likely to be heard, kinder ways to speak to each other. It’s okay for women to notice injustice, be angry about it, and voice it. It is the time-honored role of the prophetess or prophet to speak truth to power, or from places of power.

We need feminist men’s voices, too, as they are still more likely to actually be heard. We respect and honor a male feminist; they surprise and delight us; and they are out there doing the work, too.

Let’s keep the “feminist” label if we can wear it proudly, with an understanding of its amazing history—one that most of us appreciate. Being known as a feminist predictably means being misunderstood, marginalized or even despised, by some men and institutions that do not want the balance of power to change too much. And also, sadly, by some of the women who have benefited from the women’s movement.

That very resistance to us is why society still needs our unrelenting, prophetic—and righteously angry—feminist voices.

What do you think? Do you call yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

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