The news media love to ask the question: is feminism dead? A quick google search finds literally millions of hits for the phrase. Yet despite the supposed death of feminism, gender equality has become strangely mainstream even while misogyny continues. Today’s sexism is sneaky and overt; while violence against women continues and people still ask “female presidential candidates for cookie recipes,” one is also hard-pressed to find someone respectable who will go on record arguing that women should not be given equal pay or have the right to run for office.
Honestly, feminism has an image problem. Though many people agree with its tenets, relatively few embrace the label and the identity. The conservative Washington Times recently reported that “among women, 38 percent consider themselves feminists.” Many women who reject the label primarily oppose two related characteristics associated with feminism: man-hating and unattractiveness. These fears are not surprising. Since girls and women are socialized to believe that their worth lies primarily in their beauty and their motherhood, it takes a certain amount of audacity to insist on women’s value regardless of their relation to men. In doing so, women encounter significant risk – accusations of lesbianism. Not surprisingly, homophobia fuels feminist-bashing.
I find that when I talk frankly with people about the actual definition of feminism, few are able to rationally disagree. Feminism is simply “an intellectual commitment and a political movement that seeks justice for women and the end of sexism in all forms.” Is that so hard to embrace? If so, try this one from Carol Gilligan: “I see feminism as one of the great liberation movements in human history. It is the movement to free democracy from patriarchy.” Part of the problem is that despite simple dictionary definitions and ones that appeal to American patriotism, there are many versions of feminism. Honestly, is this really a problem? As lauded poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “How shall we ever make the world intelligent of our movement? I do not think that the answer lies in trying to render feminism easy, popular, and instantly gratifying. To conjure with the passive culture and adapt to its rules is to degrade and deny the fullness of our meaning and intention.” And yet, there is a new movement afoot to attempt that very idea to make feminism popular, but, in a satisfying paradox, meaningful also.
In 2012 16 students at Duke University, as part of their final assignment in a class titled Women in the Public Sphere, started an online activism project called “Who Needs Feminism?” in which young people post photos of themselves holding signs that explain the continued applicability of feminism in their lives. In other words, despite the media’s continual denial of the relevance of feminism, young women and men are finding ample reason to embrace the supposedly antiquated social justice movement that is feminism. In the era of social media, this campaign has gone viral; there is now a website, a Facebook page, many YouTube videos, and a Tumblr page. Despite, or perhaps because of its popularity, the campaign has also inspired vandalism and even an anti-feminist website mocking the movement.
Ridiculing feminism is nothing new. In the 19th century, suffragists, women working for the right to participate in democracy, were mocked as suffragettes. When –ette (from the French) is added to the end of the word it makes it small, and feminine, e.g. bachelorette, Rockette, Smurfette. Political cartoons from the period made fun of women’s suffrage by scaring the public with the potential of emasculated men. What’s the worst thing you could do to a man? Make him do “women’s work.” The link between man-hating and feminism has a long history.
When activist women in the 1960s started to argue for women to be added to the paradigm of liberation, critics called them “Women’s Libbers” to belittle the Women’s Liberation Movement. One of the most famous feminist epithets comes from this era: the bra-burning feminist. The real story behind that phrase comes from a protest against the 1968 Miss America Pageant. Female participants in various anti-war and civil rights movements decided to refocus their efforts to address sexism. A group called New York Radical Women organized a demonstration against what they called the “degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol.” They held signs comparing women’s bodies to cuts of beef and crowned a live sheep to make the comparison to livestock auctions. Part of the demonstration included a Freedom Trash Can, in which they threw mops, pots and pans, magazines, false eyelashes, high-heeled shoes, curlers, hairspray, makeup, and girdles — all items the protestors called “instruments of female torture.” The protestors intended to set the trashcan on fire, but were prohibited from doing so by a police department order. Nevertheless, a news story by Lindsay van Gelder in the New York Post carried the headline “Bra Burners and Miss America,” which, of course, embedded the image permanently into the American consciousness. In reality, many women find their bras useful instruments of exercise rather than tools of oppression, but that subtlety seems to have evaded popular culture.
The ridicule didn’t end there. In the 1980s and 90s a backlash against feminism took the U.S. by storm. Conservative icon Rush Limbaugh popularized the word “feminazi” in the early 1990s to further insult the movement. Honestly, what better way to smear your opponent than to associate them with the Nazis? It worked. Feminazi entered popular vocabulary. Limbaugh went even further, proclaiming that “feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream,” thus smearing feminism as merely the revenge of ugly women. Similar statements from fellow religious right spokesman, Pat Robertson, failed to achieve the popularity of feminazi but nevertheless illustrate the derision of feminism in certain corners of American culture: “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” Who would voluntarily associate themselves with such a movement?
Many, it turns out. Despite pundits arguing in the late 1990s about post-feminism — the idea that gender equality had been achieved so feminism was no longer necessary — new generations continue to reject popular culture and identify as feminists. These young people sometimes argue with their elder feminists and reorganize priorities, but they still find the feminist identity useful. In addition to the “Who Needs Feminism?” campaign, there are “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts, popular blogs for young women like Feministing, and several books trying to make feminism hip, young and modern. Try Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti. I’ve also heard many arguments that women ought to let go of the word feminist and embrace humanism in order to find equality, but it appears that the realities of misogyny are tangible enough that feminism continues to rise from the dead. Maybe with the current popularity of zombie movies women can capitalize on feminism’s resilience. Zombie Feminism anyone?
To me, one of the most unfortunate aspects of popular culture’s derision of feminism is in overshadowing legitimate critique. For example, many women of color associate feminism as a white woman’s movement, and indeed, feminism has a history of racism and colorblindness. At the same time, active anti-racism has been practiced by feminist organizations, women’s studies classes, and feminist scholarship for decades. And dismissing feminism as lily white also effectively mutes myriads of smart, vocal feminists of color like bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, Rebecca Walker, and Paula Allen Gunn, just to name a few. This complicated relationship between gender and race oppression should be the topic of feminist discussion, instead of defense against angry, hairy, man-hating stereotypes.
Arguably feminism also needs more feminist role models in mainstream culture instead of academia. Gloria Steinem should not be the only name that comes to mind when asked to name a famous feminist. Part of the problem is that many strong, smart celebrities aren’t willing to associate themselves with the word. Most of them sort of take on the I’m not a feminist, but I believe in gender equality trope. Just a couple of examples: Katy Perry, Penelope Cruz, Carrie Underwood, Susan Sarandon, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Madonna and Sandra Day O’Connor. But, the ranks of the self-identified feminist celebrities are growing; Amy Poehler, Queen Latifah, Sheryl Sandberg, Salma Hayek, Lena Dunham, Ellen Page, Geena Davis, Toni Collette, Julianne Moore, Keira Knightly, Zooey Deschanel, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonya Sotomayor, and Meryl Streep are all self-identified feminists. That a few big names are missing (Michelle Obama, Ellen Degeneres, Oprah Winfrey) is disappointing, but ultimately feminism is a grassroots movement. As these student groups embrace feminism personally, specifically, and courageously, they yet again resurrect feminism from its supposed demise and in doing so, give us all hope for a world of equality and justice.
Who needs feminism? I do.
 Carol Gilligan, “The Sixties and the 2008 presidential election,” The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture 2:1 (2009).
 Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silences (New York: Norton, 1995).
 Robin Morgan. “No More Miss America” Redstockings. 22 Aug. 1968.
 Lindsay Van Gelder, “The truth about bra-burners,” Ms. (September/October 1992), 80–81.
 1992 Iowa fundraising letter opposing a state equal-rights amendment. “Equal Rights Initiative in Iowa Attacked”, Washington Post, 23 August 1992.