The Huffington Post, May 31, 2007
How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? One, and that's not funny!
Most American women, especially young women, agree with the feminist goal of women's equality yet eschew the label. Speaking as a feminist myself, I can't say I blame them. Let's face it: In the minds of most Americans, a "feminist" is and always will be a humorless hairy woman who hates men yet also inexplicably wants to be identical to them. She doesn't wear makeup, cuts her hair short to look like the lesbian she is, loves her career too much and doesn't like children nearly enough. She's too angry and complains too much. To many women of color, she cares only about white women; to many white women, she intellectualizes things far too much and doesn't know squat about real women's lives.
The term "feminist" dates back to late-nineteenth-century France, when it was actually not pejorative. But in the U.S., right from the get-go in 1906, the term was flung like a rotten tomato of an insult. Throughout the feminist "first wave" of the suffrage movement and the "second wave" of the late 1960s and early 1970s, feminism was alternately deemed dangerous or dead. In the 1980s and beyond, with the ascent of the televangelists of the religious right, feminists were maligned as evil destroyers of moral society. In the 1990s, Rush Limbaugh equated them with Nazi murderers. Thus, today's "third wave" is a very hard sell.
Here's my proposal: ditch "feminism" and find a replacement term. "Feminism" as a label has been stigmatized to the point where it can no longer be recuperated. At the very least, let's take a break from the term while we think things through.
I'm not advocating a burial of the movement. Now more than ever, we need feminism. We're losing our reproductive rights at an alarming clip. There remains a substantial wage gap between mothers and fathers. The sexual double standard is still in place, leading to sexual violence (if a girl once said "yes," the thinking goes, she's never entitled to say "no"). Girls and women "gone wild" believe, not entirely incorrectly, that their sexual allure may be their most potent power in the world at large. Religious institutions are run largely by men even though in many houses of worship, it's mostly women who sit in the pews. Mothers who work long hours are denigrated as terrible moms while fathers who do the same are lauded if they change one diaper a week. It's still true that a man who stands up for himself is assertive while a woman who does the same is a bitch. And so on.
Authors and activists Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards have observed that because feminism has had so many successes over the decades, it's taken for granted. For the younger generations, "feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice that we have it -- it's simply in the water." But "on a political level the movement is more like nitrogen: ubiquitous and inert."
So let's resuscitate the term, die-hards say. Author Paula Kamen has expressed this sentiment better than anyone. "A natural response is to change the word 'feminist' to a word with fewer stigmas attached," she writes. "But inevitably the same thing will happen to that magical word. Part of the radical connotation of feminism is not due to the word, but to the action. The act of a woman standing up for herself is radical, whether she calls herself a feminist or not." True enough, but embracing the shared term "feminist" is often the first step in doing something active to fight for women's rights.
Meanwhile, the "I'm-not-a-feminist-but" women can be tough nuts to crack, politically speaking. Very often the woman who says, "I'm not a feminist, but I'm angry and scared because I can't get a legal abortion in my county" or "I'm not a feminist, but my husband left me and even though I spent all those years taking care of our kids and home, I'm left penniless" does not necessarily want to unify with other women in similar circumstances because she's afraid to associate herself with those who are (in her mind) self-righteous, unsmiling, and always picking a fight. Too many of us are spending too much time trying to convince the "I'm-not-a-feminist-buts" that the feminazi stereotypes are trumped up and that if they don't act now, their contraceptives along with their right to an abortion will be as outdated as "gal Fridays."
Jessica Valenti, founder and editor of the website feministing.com and author of the recently published Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters, is on a valiant mission to win over the "I'm-not-a-feminist-buts." To her credit, she's trying to make feminism cool and fun again. But many feminist proselytizers aren't as savvy as Valenti; in an effort to convert, they glorify anything women do as "feminist," to the point where wearing a bikini is considered "feminist." Not that there's anything wrong with a bikini, but wearing one won't get us another woman on the Supreme Court.
Feminists have debated a name change for some time now. Alice Walker prefers the term "womanist," which refers to the perspective of women of color; and every once in a while someone pipes up with "humanist." I say: let's do as the radical feminists of the "second wave" did. Let's call ourselves "women's libbers." I admit it's confrontational, which will turn off some. But it's tempered with a whiff of nostalgia and it would re-connect us with the movement's history. Best of all, it connotes a sense of urgency, which women desperately need.
The women's liberation movement, whose heyday was 1967 to 1973, grew out of the anti-war and black freedom movements. Women's lib focused on the collective experiences of women. It jump-started the Our Bodies, Ourselves-style focus on women's health, rape crisis centers, the "sisterhood is powerful" ethic, awareness that "the personal is political", and the ever-valuable tool of consciousness-raising. But by the mid-1970s, a more individualistic strand of feminism became dominant and "women's lib" was thrown away like a stretched-out bra.
"I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is," the British writer Rebecca West famously said in 1913, her words later memorialized on countless office corkboards. "I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute." But today, in an effort to be palatable and accessible, feminism isn't always sharply distinguished from the doormat and prostitute businesses. Let's breathe "women's lib" back to life. If we don't liberate ourselves, who will?
Copyright © 2008 by Leora Tanenbaum. All rights reserved. If you want to reprint this essay, email your request to firstname.lastname@example.org.