Taking the Fear out of “Feminist”

I was raised by a hippie artist and a conservative attorney. While my parents, now married for over 38 years, have grown less rigid in their stances over the past decade and a half, they agreed on almost nothing during my childhood.

Despite residing on separate sides of the political spectrum, however, they fully agreed on the importance of raising their trio of daughters to become strong, confident women. Moreover, they both certainly considered themselves, and each other, feminists.

My mother and father taught me that being a feminist meant believing in, and fighting for, true equality between men and women. They also taught me that the term “feminist” was a compliment, something everyone should strive to be called.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived at college and met my first ‘anti-feminist’ women’s rights advocate. My whole life I had known people who disagreed that women and men were equal. These people often used “feminist” as an insult; by age 18, I was more than prepared for that debate.

Never before, though, had I met anyone who agreed with gender equality but refused to be called a feminist. In the decade or so since then, I’ve met many more people who fall into this category, who believe strongly in gender equality but would never call themselves ‘the F word.’

Legendary actress and well known women’s rights activist Susan Sarandon described this scenario in a 2013 interview with The Guardian, saying, “I think of myself as a humanist because I think it’s less alienating to people who think of feminism as being a load of strident bitches…[Feminist is] a bit of an old-fashioned word. It’s used more in a way to minimize you.

This sentiment is in fact shared by a majority of Americans, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll taken in April of the same year. The topline results show that while 30 percent of participants consider the word “feminist” to have a negative connotation, and 63 percent classify themselves as neither a feminist nor an anti-feminist, 82 percent believe “men and women should be social, political and economic equals.”

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Why is the word “feminist” treated as an insult?

Actress and United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson discussed the changing understanding of feminism in herSeptember speech at UN Headquarters. “I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me,” she stated. “But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and unattractive.”

She goes on to say that it’s not the terminology one uses that defines them as a feminist, but rather their actions, and even identifies several ‘inadvertent feminists’ she’s known.

The definition of feminism, according to the Oxford English dictionary, is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social and economic equality to men.” Sound familiar? It should, since this is exactly what 82 percent of the previously mentioned poll participants said they believe in, though less than half of them would classify themselves as feminists.

While I agree with Ms. Watson that actions speak louder than words, I am saddened that something with as clear a definition as feminism has been twisted into anything other than a badge of honor. There’s nothing bad about believing in equality. If you believe in it, like most Americans do, I hope you’ll join me in proudly declaring yourself a feminist.