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.