Ever since I found out what feminism was, I’ve been into it. After a series of early encounters with cooler, older girls, indie movies and college radio, I leaned hard into its promising newness, and became deeply influenced by that era’s teen-feminist pulpits, such as Sassy magazine and Riot Grrrl and punk rock and second-hand women’s studies books, and by painful and enduring questions about why everything was different for guys.
It’s only been fifteen years, but so much about what feminism is and means has changed. Despite the severe sociocultural swing to the right that made rape, abortion and birth control—basically, whether or not women should be in control of their bodies—actual issues in this year’s U.S. presidential campaign, there is right now a mainstream, confident and evident feminist sensibility imbuing politics, family life and popular culture. Amy Poehler and Louis C.K. are feminists; Barack Obama is a feminist; my 72-year-old dad is a feminist. The distinct roles that men and women have occupied for so long are mutating quickly, unrecognizably. It should be so much easier now than it was before for anyone, especially women, to believe in and identify with feminism. Right?
It isn’t. At 31, I’ve fallen in with a lot of girls like me, who have long resolved our interests in feminism and in fashion, sex, relationships, work and fun, and include feminism in our values and ethics. I mean, the world expects different things from me than from my guy friends and boyfriends. My face, body, sexuality and life choices are regulated in ways that theirs aren’t. Men are paid more for the same work; women are demeaned, punished, abused and killed around the world. None of these facts are particularly new or complicated or controversial, they just are, and so to me being a feminist is synonymous with being humane, being sensible, being normal. Still, a lot of women I know or sort-of know—educated, successful, even cool women—either actively or passively disassociate themselves from feminism, as an idea, and from calling themselves “feminists.” It feels like an illogical, self-hating and frankly nai¨ve, ignorant and heartless position, and it’s something that I can’t let go.
British author Caitlin Moran (whose latest book, Moranthology, is out now) wrote in her bestseller, How To be a Woman: “So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your underpants. A. Do you have a vagina? and B. Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.” For many feminists—me, Moran, most of my friends—it seems so obvious, so natural, that any woman would have noticed that the world is a lot harder on her than her little brother. It seems especially absurd that feminism might have escaped another 30-year-old’s notice when, in the past several decades, so much (so much!) has changed in women’s lives. My definition, quicker than Moran’s, is that if you like being a “person,” you’re a feminist.
None of that means, of course, that young women necessarily relate to the word or what it suggests. Carly*, a 30-year-old graphic designer, says that to her, a “feminist” is connoted with “a mean, aggressive woman; she doesn’t smile, she’s entitled, and she puts men down or is a ‘man hater’…I know this is a skewed image, and feminism is about the equality of women and women’s rights, which I totally agree with.” While to me, identifying as a feminist is as basic as knowing that, as Rachael*, a 26-year-old nurse says, “history has always favoured men,” she also notes “having a title for the movement is a bit stupid.” When women seem to agree with me about reality but not what it’s called, is when my latent mean-girl-ness emerges. It’s true-ish that something as elemental as equality shouldn’t require a specific, gendered name, but it’s women, not men, who have been subjugated all this time. “Equalist,” in its smiling non-specificity, could also be applied to racism and homophobia and everything else; women’s rights have entirely unique foundations and circumstances, and the fact that women hesitate to claim the “fem” is pretty much why feminism remains totally necessary. When Rachael says, “I would like equal rights for all women, in all societies and cultures. I just don’t feel like I relate to the feminist cause,” it makes me think some very not-me, not-feminist stuff about the intelligence of the average female. It makes me want to flip a table.
I do, though, understand why both the word and idea could invoke some- thing unattractive, unkind, and ironically, unfeminine. All of us were, and are, indoctrinated, subtly or otherwise, with the same ideals of what a woman is supposed to be like, sound like, and look like, and transgressing those ideals can be hard. (I don’t know where I’d be in terms of calling myself a feminist with- out the crucial teenage alchemy of utter alienation, encouraging parents and chill boyfriends.) Venturing past the perceived safety of a certain paradigm—like, the one that requires a woman to be hot, yielding and mostly silent—is intimidating and scary like almost nothing else in a woman’s life. Because, why participate, if it means being called a bitch? Rebecca Traister, the author of Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women, told me “It’s comfortable for us to think of men being combative… We just accept it as a way they communicate.” The same isn’t true for women, and so while feminism starts to feel less peripheral, it remains a tough sell for women who prefer to deal with a still overwhelmingly sexist culture by blending in, rather than pushing back, or not acknowledging it at all. My friend Stephanie Guthrie, a feminist community organizer, puts it lightly, saying she’s “often surprised by the lack of nuance and empathy in some women’s understandings of things like sexual violence and rape culture.”
And, sometimes, women feel like they don’t need feminism anymore. Alice* is a 32-year-old stay-at-home mom of two girls, and she says, “I’ve never in my life felt like I wasn’t able to do something because I am a girl, ever…So feminism has always been unnecessary, a non-issue, because it was ingrained in the culture. I don’t call myself a feminist, but maybe I am? Like a natural-born feminist.” There is, too, the appeal of what feminism might seem to exclude, such as engaging in traditionally female roles. “As a kid in the Prairies, it seems like all the best times were when there was a group of women together doing ‘women’s work,’” says Alice. “Most of the women were farmers’ wives, and there was a lot of pride taken in doing that domestic job well…I’ve never thought of that being man’s way or society’s way of bringing me down.” Although any of that would definitely fit into my definition of a feminist life, it doesn’t feel that way to everyone: the feminist movement has never been great at including all (transsexual; poor; not-white; porn-loving; conservative; stay-at-home) women.
Whatever the reason for not claiming feminism for themselves, I find it almost impossible to really discuss it with my not-feminist friends; self-righteously, I think that women who are disinclined to stand up for themselves or other women are also disinclined to think or talk about it, and I find myself disregarding them entirely. Judging each other like this, for being the “wrong” kind of woman, is a powerful, poisonous tradition that snakes through everything from dieting to prom dresses to marriage to breastfeeding to work. I’m aware of this tendency, in the media and in myself and in other women, and thus careful not to evaluate other women for their overall politics (except around contraception and abortion, which are non-negotiables), their bodies, their looks, their clothes, their boyfriends or their choices. Instead, I channel all of my swarming, angry judgments toward women who I feel aren’t with me in this fight, who are letting me do the hard, socially awkward, threatening work of feminism for them, who are letting themselves get away with something, and who are, ultimately, wrong. My feminism doesn’t include being in any kind of “sisterhood” (women are people, and some people are just the worst), but it’s as though I’m mad at them on behalf of “the cause,” or something. I’ve worked out my own version of fourth-ish-wave feminism, and can’t believe that not everyone else has.
So, when I deliver a sarcastic or cutting judgment, or more likely, send a tweet or Facebook post undermining something a woman has said about feminism, I feel like I’m maybe having some legitimate, vigilante effect through smoke-blowing bitchiness. Maybe that makes me a “feminist chauvinist”? I agree with my friend Sarah Nicole Prickett, who says, “It can’t not annoy me when women adamantly refuse to be feminists, even or especially after knowing what it means, and experiencing why it’s needed.” The instinct to educate or include is simply absent in these moments, when I rush in to criticize and condescend instead. In high school, when I was bored and frustrated that none of the pretty, fun girls that I spent half my time with (I spent the other half in semi-secret with a pack of older boy-nerds) knew or cared about feminism, I would subtly and unconsciously shame them about it. Ten years later, as the simplest and worst truths of misogyny have clarified my own feminist values, I’m not nicer: My judgments come faster, and steel-sharpened.
This kind of judgment can be galvanizing, too. While it’s not specifically productive, I do like feeling as though I have devoted myself to something so clearly necessary, which is affirmed every time I hear a woman (inevitably a woman with a great job, her own apartment and a prescription for the pill) say “I’m not a feminist.” And, I like having discussions online or in real life with girls who really get it, who can talk Paglia and patriarchy and paternalism at highway speeds, like me. Because feminism is much more personal and much more urgent than anything else could be (partly because I’m a straight, white, biologically born-woman, cosseted by every other kind of privilege), and because I’m so aware that there is little else to agree on, I know—or, I insist—that it has to be acknowledged. And, I know that I’m free to be a total bitch about this stuff because of the women before me who risked calling themselves feminists. The women I know who have a problem with the word—or with what it means— might want to consider what it was like being a woman in previous generations, or what it’s like now in the parts of the world where women don’t have voices at all. See if you like that any better.