Web Only / Culture » November 3, 2011
Why Are Youngsters Afraid of the Word ‘Feminist’?
Answer: Young women (and men) are too busy fighting sexism.
To ask why young people aren't identifying or acting as 'feminist' in ways that look like mid-20th-century feminism is, essentially, like asking a Facebook user why she doesn't mail letters to her friends.
Ladies and gentlemen: I have been writing about women’s issues for In These Times for an entire month. I’ve covered activism against sexual harassment; I’ve covered anti-rape activism; I’ve covered reproductive justice. I have spoken to, read, and listened to speeches by a multitude of young women. And yet I have been remiss: I’ve made it through four entire web columns without once asking why young people today are not feminists.
Pieces about how the young folks just don’t appreciate feminist gains (or, alternately, are stepping with disdain over the decaying, useless corpse of feminism) are a standby of opinion journalism, as common as dandelions in summer, and just about as hard to kill. Each piece comes with a leading question, a pre-packaged answer, and a lingering, unpleasant aftertaste. Consider the headline of this recent USA Today piece, by Sharon Jayson: “As NOW marks 45 years, is feminism over the hill?”
Get it? “Over the hill!” Much like a 45-year-old woman would be! Because, God knows, they are also useless. Too bad for you, Feminism: No one will marry you now! Perhaps you should have been less demanding in your younger years! Regardless, the only option now is to get into your rocking chair and wait for death.
Jayson’s article is more reasonable than that headline. (Granted, slapping someone with a live squirrel is more reasonable than that headline.) It quotes several young women, discussing the fact that to identify as “feminist” is to be seen as troublesome or “unattractive”; it even contains the words “race” and “class.” But, ultimately, this is irrelevant. The quotes are empty calories, meant to tide us over until the inevitable publication of the next article about how young women don’t appreciate, don’t embrace, or are terrible at feminism.
Still: Journalism is a service to the public. And if there’s one thing we know about the public, it’s that they will continue to be exposed to articles about how young people today are not feminist – often containing leading questions. And so, we present the answers to those questions. There are answers, it turns out. Specifically, there are four. Please feel free to respond to journalists who wonder why young people aren’t feminist with any or all of the following:
1. Because They’re In Disguise
My first stop, in answering this question, was Twitter. Anyone who followed me on Twitter, I reasoned, had both good taste and an interest in gender politics. If they weren’t identifying as feminist, they probably had reasons.
Twitter user Wurrwilf, for example, had a very specific reason for not using the term “feminist” in conversation: “I prefer when people actually listen to me.” Dana Contreras, of Twitter, concurs; the word, she says, “tends to turn people’s brains off to what comes next.” Several others chimed in along the same lines–forgoing the word, they said, meant forgoing its baggage, and being able to make their points without fear.
This is the most widely cited reason that young people don’t use the f-word; after decades of backlash, it tends to inflict damage on its users. And the desire not to be seen as a fringe case or a fanatic does apparently affect people’s willingness to identify publicly as feminist.
However, none of the people who gave this answer cited problems with feminism itself. In fact, most said that they were comfortable identifying as feminist when their companions were friendly to the concept. Their concerns were not ideological, but rhetorical; they feared that using the word “feminist” with certain people would prevent them from being taken seriously when they challenged sexism. In other words, they found that saying “feminist” kept them from efficiently doing feminist work. Which leads us to the second answer.
2. Because They’re Not Shitbaps
If the first set of respondents were concerned that identifying as “feminists” would mark them as irredeemably out-there, another, larger set of respondents believed that “feminism,” as it’s popularly understood, is not radical enough.
“I’d like a word that makes clear I’m not a shitbap [feminist] who only cares about middle-class white cis women,” said one Twitter user, adding that “disabled women have been driven away from & alienated from the feminist movement.” This was a concern I heard more than once.
I also heard concerns such as the one raised by TomHead: “There’s some idolatry surrounding the word [‘feminist’] that excludes many women of color.” Several people identified as womanists, a movement begun by Alice Walker to center black women’s experience. One woman noted that she was comfortable with calling herself a feminist, but “my mom, though feminist, identifies less, as a WOC [woman of color].”
An exclusive focus on sexism tends to grate on younger activists, who understand privilege as complex and multifaceted. For many, the term “feminism” is entangled with an ugly history – radical feminism’s violent hatred of transgender women; liberal feminism’s exclusive focus on the plight of the white middle-class housewife, who became the white middle-class career woman – and therefore a conflicted term, even if they identify with many of its goals, or sometimes identify as feminist. And, of course, contemporary demonstrations of privilege within the movement continue to drive people away.
As far as these people are concerned, a movement that only works for some people is not a movement that works. “Feminism” was seen not as the philosophy of anti-sexism, but as a specific movement which addressed sexism in a specific, flawed way. Once again, people were backing away from “feminism” not because they supported sexism, but because they wanted to do a better job of opposing it.
3. Because They’re Men
Of course, no discussion is complete without a bit of liberal guilt. Hence the three or four people who told me that they felt uncomfortable or “guilty” identifying as feminists, and classified themselves as “allies” – “to avoid offense as needed,” one said.
These people, of course, were men. Which is another lacuna in the articles about young people today identifying, or not identifying, as feminist; we tend to assume that these young people will be women. After decades of activism, we still haven’t gotten used to the idea that men might trouble themselves with our concerns.
The aim of this article, of course, is to be sensitive to all people. It is in service to this aim that we say: Get over it, gentlemen. Use the word freely. If the rest of us have to deal with a bit of stink-eye, so do you.
4. Because You Don’t Know How To Use Google
This answer was given to me via e-mail by feminist writer Nona Willis Aronowitz–and may cut closest to the truth.
“People whose native language isn’t Internet (i.e. people over 40) can very easily ignore a lot of the work that’s going on,” she writes. “In ‘their day,’ they were used to seeing Gloria Steinem on Dick Clark and the Miss America protest on national TV. They figure if feminism existed, they’d see it in the same mainstream spaces.”
In fact, a tremendous amount of anti-sexist and feminist work is done online. Blogs provide free public education on history and theory, as well as calls to current action; comment sections provide community. Contemporary feminists have developed an enormous canon of theory and practice that is simply not available in print.
As Aronowitz notes, this is “not the best way to have an intergenerational conversation.” It can also create its own forms of elitism. Expecting everyone interested in feminism to magically find the right websites is unrealistic, and staying attuned to the latest language and theory requires no small amount of time. But hugely popular sites such as Jezebel and Feministing demonstrate that there are, indeed, young feminists – and that they are not a small group.
It’s also particularly strange to ask where the young feminists are in the year of SlutWalk – a movement that, though undeniably flawed, has mobilized thousands of women, most of them very young, to fight sexual violence. It’s also strange that young feminists doing organizational work were not sought out for interview: They’re distinctly easy to find. In the process of reporting this column, I’ve spoken to Jamia Wilson of the Women’s Media Center, Eesha Pandit of the National Network of Abortion Funds and the New York Abortion Access Fund, Amy Klein of the Permanent Wave collective, and, well, Nona Willis Aronowitz.
Outside of reporting, I’ve relied on other feminist or anti-sexist activists including Vanessa Valenti (who helped to organize the “Anita Hill 20 Years Later” conference), Steph Herold, and Sarah Jaffe, to illuminate the complexities of reproductive justice or the Occupy movement. When I don’t work with In These Times, I write for Rookie Magazine, one of the bigger launches of this year, founded by 15-year-old feminist Tavi Gevinson.
None of these people entered feminism during its second wave. But I didn’t speak to them because I was looking for “young feminists” – I spoke to them because I was looking for women doing feminist work. Any article that asks where the feminists are will seem out of touch, and irrelevant, if it’s clear that its writer has skipped certain key forms of research.
There you have it: Four reasons why young people today aren’t calling themselves feminists. They are, in order, (1) to fight sexism, (2) to fight sexism, (3) to fight sexism, and (4) you don’t know what you’re talking about. But, should you do some research, you might notice that young people are fighting sexism–and are doing so more publicly, with more nuance, and in larger numbers than ever before.
“Feminism” is an important concept – largely because it incites such a strong response. No one fears a term without resonance. But to ask why young people aren’t identifying or acting as “feminist” in ways that look like mid-20th-century feminism is, essentially, like asking a Facebook user why she doesn’t mail letters to her friends. To find out where a movement is, and how it’s working, you have to pay attention to the ground that movement covers and how that ground has changed.
There are young feminists – plenty of them. And yes, there are young people who are still afraid of the term. But to talk about the contemporary gender revolution, one has to start by looking in the right places. You’ll notice something bigger than a handful of skittish students; you’ll notice, among other things, thousands of people working to make the term “feminist” something that those students will want to use.
Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributor. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady