I realised there was a problem when someone I was meeting for the first time asked me if I was a feminist. The answer was obvious, but I hesitated. Why? Because the person asking me was male, and I was worried that he would make fun, or think less, of me. I eventually answered “yes”, but I still felt guilty for pausing. Later on reflection, I realised this reflex to deny being a feminist is not uncommon.
I thought of Katy Perry (who is, however unfortunately, a role model), who accepted her 2012 Woman of the Year award from Billboard with the words: “I am not a feminist, but I believe in the strength of women”, and still appeared confused this year when she changed her mind on the matter by saying that “[feminism] just means that I love myself as a female and I also love men.” I thought also of Julie Bishop, Australia’s foreign minister and the only female member of Tony Abbott’s cabinet, who seemed afraid even of saying the word when insisting that she didn’t “find the need to self-describe” as a feminist.
Both of them are important women who owe much to the work of feminists. Katy Perry probably owes them any degree of autonomy she has regarding her career, and for Bishop the debt is the same as it is for any female politician in a developed country who holds a position of power. But for some reason, they have issues with describing themselves as a feminist. I cannot bring myself to believe that they could possibly disagree with the notion of gender equality, so I don’t think the issue comes down to ideology or belief. The reluctance must be caused by something else, and I think it’s the word feminism itself.
For whatever reason, feminism has come to mean, and to represent, something other than the dictionary definition in the minds of many. The idea that feminists are angry, dogmatic man-haters seems tired to me, but it appears to be worryingly prevalent amongst people across all demographics. The somewhat unpleasant online reaction to Emma Watson’s speech at the UN HQ in New York may not have been shocking, because things will always get out of hand on social media, but it shows how the word feminism triggers unsolicited anger.
The word feminism is having a negative impact on the struggle for gender equality itself: it stops some women from identifying with the movement and incites hysteria in the many young men who have been taught that a woman’s worth is determined by what she can do for a man, and this is a problem. Ultimately it means that people (those with an appropriate definition of the word and those without) approach the subject from entirely different directions, and this harms the proliferation of good ideas.
I thought for a while that perhaps the word needed to be phased out of the general discussion, replaced by a word or phrase without as much baggage. However, regardless of the fact that I haven’t been able to come up with a good replacement (it would be hard to describe yourself as a gender egalitarian without seeming pompous), this still feels like it would be a defeat and it isn’t an idea we should be willing to entertain.
It seems the only option would be to forcibly change the common conception of the word feminism. The precedent here is actually somewhat positive, as the LGBT community was able to ‘reclaim’ the word queer, turning a slur into a term used today with pride. It won’t solve all the problems at once, but if it helps meaningful discussion take place it can only help.
Redefining or renaming feminism would help the gender equality movement.