I am currently teaching an upper-division undergraduate course on the history of women in the modern United States. Because I’ve been teaching for several years now, and because my courses have almost always included some kind of study of women and gender, I was not surprised when, during the very first class, one of my students raised her hand and began her response to one of my questions with that ubiquitous disclaimer: “I’m not a feminist, but . . .”
Like many women who do consider themselves feminists, I am appalled by the “I’m not a feminist, but” phenomenon. I especially hate the way the first half of the sentence is so often followed by something fundamentally feminist: “I’m not a feminist, but I do think men and women should have equal rights” or “I’m not a feminist, but it’s so unfair that women had to give up their jobs after World War II” or “I’m not a feminist, but how can these politicians really be suggesting that women shouldn’t have birth control? What decade is this?” My first instinct, whenever a student says “I’m not a feminist, but” is to jump in and say – perhaps too loudly – “YES YOU ARE!”
For the record, in a classroom setting, this response does not generally accomplish much. Students are human beings (despite what I might mutter about them under my breath when I’m grading their exams). They don’t like being contradicted in front of their peers, and they don’t enjoy having labels forced upon them by their instructors. Therefore, the “YES YOU ARE!” approach tends to shut down productive discussion. One might as well add “SO THERE!” (Outside of the classroom, this tactic can sometimes be more effective – and hilarious. See, for example, “What No One Else Will Tell You about Feminism,” Lindy West’s new piece on Jezebel.)
Nevertheless, I feel compelled to do something to challenge my students’ “I’m not a feminist, but” mentality. I always introduce a definition of feminism at appropriate points in my classes, generally something quite basic, like “the movement for women to have rights equal to those of men.” Sometimes I’ll even add, “so, if you think women should have equal rights, congratulations, you’re a feminist! Even if you happen to be a guy!” I’ll point them to the growing online collections of “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” images.
“Look! Even Patrick Stewart is a feminist,” I’ll say. Frankly, I’m not sure I’m convincing anyone.
On the positive side, a course devoted specifically to women’s history does offer interesting opportunities. Students frequently recognize the parallels between historical moments and present ones; they will sometimes even note these parallels independently, without me jumping up and down and waving my hands in the air and yelling, “See! Just like today!” For example, when I recently covered Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement, several students compared the 1910s controversy with the current “war on women.” When I covered the 1920s, one of my students raised her hand to connect the idealized flapper with current patterns of consumer culture and body image. I count these moments as victories, even if they are small ones, because often students will move from identifying historical parallels to recognizing political or philosophical ones. They will see that if the personal was political in 1969, then it may remain political in 2012. Incidentally, feminism is not the only cause that can potentially benefit from this sort of recognition – see, for example, this take on the current Chick-fil-A controversy:
I want these moments to matter. As ridiculously cheesy as it sounds (I know, seriously, just shoot me), I want to make a difference here. I think it’s important. The “I’m not a feminist, but” perspective is not confined to the college classroom. Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, openly rejects feminism:
“I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don’t, I think have, sort of, the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that.”
Comments like Mayer’s reinforce some of the popular misconceptions about who feminists really are – that they are angry, combative, bitter, ugly, and negative, that they’re no fun to be around, that, as Louis C.K. suggested recently, they “can’t take a joke.” These ideas, I suspect, play a crucial role in my students’ resistance to identifying themselves as feminists. They can’t be feminists because feminists are sour and sulky and humorless.
Just as problematically, feminists are also physically unattractive and sexually unappealing. Were you unaware of this apparent fact? Google “ugly feminists” and spend five minutes browsing through the results – it’s disgusting. You’ll find all kinds of lovely pieces, like this one, stating that “most feminists are ugly” and speculating that feminist convictions stem from insecurity about one’s lack of attractiveness. So my students also can’t be feminists because feminists are gross and fat and repellant to the opposite sex.
These erroneous notions about feminism are nothing new. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, suffragists were commonly depicted as humorless and quarrelsome and unattractive:
In my women’s history class, I like to assign Dorothy Dunbar Bromley’s 1927 article, “Feminist: New Style,” which suggested that already, in the 1920s, the word “feminism” connoted stuffy, disapproving women with “very little feminine charm” and angry, militant women “who antagonize men with their constant clamor.” Bromley saw a “New Style” emerging, though, one that centered on independence and personal fulfillment. In other words, she recognized that the image of “the feminist” was, in 1927, a contested one.
Bromley’s article came out forty years before the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s gave us Title IX and NOW and Roe v. Wade and the EXISTENCE of women’s history courses and a thousand other things. Most of my students see that at that time, feminism still had so much purpose, so much left to accomplish – even if some people were persistently associating it with mean, ugly, man-hating harpies. “Well,” I ask them, “what about now?”
I’m hoping, as a teacher, to keep drawing my students attention to these parallels. I’m not delusional; I realize that many of my students will never identify as feminists. But I am trying to do my part to change some of those “I’m not a feminist, but” statements to “I am a feminist, and” assertions.
I always denied being a feminist till a lecturer gave a non-compulsory lecture on feminism and said if you believe in gender equality, you’re a feminist. She explained bout all the different types of feminsim, that you don’t have to hate men or be militant. Then I knew I was a feminist. So I went to the uni library and started reading, including Mary Wollstonecraft’s book and Pat/rick Califia’s writing about many issues. Before, I disliked feminists because I felt we already have equality so they’re making noise about nothing and should direct attention to, say, crime or poverty. But now I realise that many issues of crime and poverty are feminist issues. And most importantly, I thought you had to hate men, sex and marriage and not shave your legs, wear make-up or dress nice and hate porn to be a feminist. But I respect my male friends as much as my female ones and have no objection to pornography and no desire to be lesbian or celibate; worst of all, I fantasised constantly about BDSM -including being a sub as well as a domme – and prostitution, so I thought I was anti-feminism if anything! Of course now I realise that most feminists don’t fit the stereotype, even those who are anti-pornography or don’t shave won’t be all of those things! The stereotype was made up to harm the cause of feminism, as this blog has pointed out consistently.
Thanks for your really insightful comments (they always are). I am curious if you’ve had a chance to read Caitlan Moran’s, How to Be a Woman, yet? I know she’s made quite a splash over there and her book has just been released here in the states. We are thinking of doing a roundtable piece on it.
And yes, you can be quite sex-positive and still be a feminist!
Thank you!…Well, I try! And I haven’t yet, unfortunately, but it’s on my reading list 🙂 Yes, I’m glad liberal feminists especially Jessica Valenti and the organisers of SlutWalks are taking a sex positive stance. I always felt that women are barred by social attitudes from making sexual and reproductive choices, with words and discourses such as ‘slut’, ‘unwed teen mom/teenage pregnancy’, ‘lone mother’, ‘sex addiction/nymphomania’ etc controlling women’s sexual autonomy and arbitrarily labelling families. I wrote a few posts about it. Sometimes I think it is the more radical Dworkin-esque feminist position that enforces this sexual control, too! Especially in relation to sex work.
Yes, thanks for your comments! I agree with Jacki that “you can be quite sex-positive and still be a feminist” — in fact, I’d go even further and say that this is a major component OF feminism for many women.
Thanks 🙂 And me too! It seems to be one of the most contested issues for women, if not THE most contested!
Like it or not a lot of that baggage does go with feminism.
In the case of Marissa Mayer she denied feminism because of that implied baggage. She did not want to send these implied messages like “I am a victim of patriarchy and can’t get a fair shake because I am a woman” and “I have two types of employees; ‘oppressed’ and ‘privileged’ and I’m going to let them know which class they belong to”.
That reminds me of a well-written, topical blog on wordpress started as a writing excercise by an Irish girl. She wrote about sexual harassment, rape awareness/issues, and lots of other feminist stuff, then told me she wasn’t a feminist because she didn’t hate men! I replied that she was probably best described as a liberal feminist, and she then accepted that she’s be “happy to call myself a liberal non-man hating, feminist” if I remember her phrasing correctly. And I’ve heard people say they can’t be feminists because akthough they really care about equality, they have a boyfriend! I really hope this image of feminists changes with media coverage of the SlutWalks etc. I think a lot of women think – just as I did – that if you don’t hate sex you can’t be feminist.
Thanks for mentioning Margaret Sanger. Her promotion as feminist icon is exactly the reason some people reject the feminist label. Personally, I’m interested in advancing gender equality, for certain, but not at the expense of promoting other forms of oppression (such as racism and ableism in Sanger’s case). I’m interested in battling *all* forms of oppression, in equal measure, not just gender-specific ones. Yet so many prominent feminists seem to believe the only oppression that exists is gender-specific, or that other forms of oppression simply aren’t important, and that turns away a lot of potential allies. Many comments on Jezebel in response to the Lindy West article are a testament to that.
Christina, your comment reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. I apologize that I don’t have the citation handy — the quote is just written down on a little notecard by my desk. “Feminism is the political theory and practice to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women, as well as white economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything less than this is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.” (Barbara Smith)
I love the Barbara Smith quote, and I totally agree. On the Margaret Sanger point, Christina — yes, she’s absolutely a complicated figure, and I make sure my students know about her promotion of eugenics, etc. It tends to surprise some students and infuriate others; some of the students who DO identify as feminists (who were, of course, not necessarily the subject of this post) want her to be a feminist hero, and they feel like I’m “ruining it” by telling the fuller, more complex story. And THAT points to another problem with teaching history in general — many students want their historical figures to be more clearly identifiable as “good guys” and “bad guys,” and history, of course, just doesn’t work like that most of the time.
I could make a whole blog post on teaching about Sanger and the birth control movement!
On the views of second-wave feminism and sex, it’s a good time to remember Jane Gerhard’s Desiring Revolution…
Desiring Revolution has been on my “must read very soon!” list for far too long now. Thanks for the nudge!
[…] Carrie Adkins at Nursing Clio, we come back to find Lindy West’s “What No One Else Will Tell You About […]
Thank you for such an interesting post.
I am currently a volunteer with the Pro Choice League, which is a reproductive rights advocacy organization led by Bill Baird and Joni Baird. Bill Baird has been frequently referred to, over the years, in the mainstream media as the “father of the abortion rights movement.”
Many journalistic pieces discuss how Bill Baird was sidelined by women leaders in the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Some accounts mention that Bill was a male chauvinist and a womanizer (though apparently to this day no one has provided any factual evidence of this). However, there is also significant documentation that female liberationists did not want males involved in their activities (at least not in leadership roles). This was very difficult for Bill because he had been involved in the fight for access to birth control and abortion long before there was any sort of organized women’s movement.
So, in my opinion (I’m 44), one of the reasons many people (and specially young people) shy away from self-identifying as feminists is that there is a history (perceived and perhaps even real) that feminists reject men’s participation in the feminist movement. Of course, this has not always been true but it is a complicated reality that is not entirely a myth.
Do you have any sort of opinion of Bill Baird as a figure in the American reproductive rights movement?
Also, has the “feminist movement” (to the extent such a thing can be said to exist today) now come around to truly embrace the concept that there can be “male” feminists with whom women can collaborate? What about the more complicated issue of having males lead feminists organizations or issues? Allan Guttmacher used to be the president of Planned Parenthood. Is it possible that today a man would be allowed to lead such an organization? What about a man leading an organization like NARAL or NOW?
Brilliant article! I had similar conversation with my mum who pretty much blames feminism for … well something I don’t completely understand why she blames feminism… but I think I have convinced her or at least made her think that she might be a feminist after all ….:)
What convinced her finally?
Thanks btw, for adding Nursing Clio to your blog roll!
Well when I started saying “do you want to vote?; do you want to have equal rights?; access to education etc etc” then she was like “yes, I like all these things …” ” then you’re a feminist mum….” lol but seriously I don’t blame her… She still thinks that feminism is all about raging women, burning their bras and that’s understandable in the Greek society… for example when I graduated high school in Greece I had no idea what feminism is about and what are the feminist movements etc etc.. we are not being taught about that .. not at school or even at university (and I studied international politics …)
and you are welcome! I just found your blog and I loved the fact that is focuses on gender and medical issues since I am very interested in reproductive rights especially in the USA… it has many useful information! well done! 🙂
I support equal rights for women. I also support flat taxes, nuclear weapons, genetically modified food, charter schools, and privately-run prisons. I oppose affirmative action and disparate-impact litigation. I think all people with penises are male. I’m pleasantly surprised that I’m a feminist, and that the feminist movement is broad enough to accept my views. From most of the feminist blogs I read, I thought it was just some lefty ideology that would be incompatible with most of my beliefs.
I have, in the past, been very guilty of the “I’m not a feminist, but…” phrasing. I think now that this was due to my understanding feminism as forceful and in your face, and that’s not in my personality at all. More importantly, though, is that I was much younger and unaware of the continuing discrimination. As I grew up and started getting jobs, talking to men, going to bars, I realized that I got whistled at any time I walked through town. And when I started getting birth control I was lectured by my doctor about getting a ring. And even now our women are being legislated against. So my point is, that just recently I found myself saying, “I’m not a feminist, but…” and then thought twice and corrected with, ” well actually I am, regardless…” and it felt really good. Anyway, I really enjoyed your article; it comforted me in my recent revelations!
Just wanted to add that men can be recognized as “feminists”. In the book “Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975”, Bill Baird is recognized as one such feminist.
For more information on Bill Baird’s remarkable contributions to women’s rights, I provide the following resources.
Pro Choice League
Reblogged this on Irrationally Bound and commented:
I do not usually re-blog articles that I haven’t written myself, however, a brief discussion I had with a friend reminded me of this article that I read a while ago. I think this sums everything up.
People who say “I’m not a feminist but…” really are NOT feminist: http://radfemway.blogspot.com/2012/11/im-not-feminist-but.html
Just an aside — every gay guy I knew didn’t give two shits about Chick-Fil-A, because those waffle fries and peach milkshakes are tasty.