Is “feminist” a useful term?

I saw an interview in Time magazine with actress Shailene Woodley where they asked if she considered herself a feminist.

“No,” said Ms. Woodley, 22. “Because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.”


I used to not understand how anybody believe in gender equality and not consider themselves feminists. I was more accustomed to Rebecca West’s definition: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”  Obviously neither of those definitions is universally held: if “women grab all the power” were the real meaning, almost no one would identify as feminist; if “women are people” were the meaning, almost everyone would.

These days I’m more aware of some of the stupid and horrible things people do in the name of feminism, and the reasons someone might want to distance themselves from it. Scott details a few. But I tend to think of these as outliers, unrepresentative of most feminists. Maybe I’m doing a No True Scotsman to define “feminism” as I like. But I no longer find it completely bizarre for people my age to not identify with the term.

When I met Jeff in 2007, I was pretty disturbed that he didn’t embrace the word. (At the time I was at a women’s college with a major in sociology and a minor in gender and sexuality studies.) He explained that he didn’t like some of the things associated with the label and didn’t want to be connected with some specific policies, like favoring women in custody disputes. When I asked him about it recently, he says his current objection is that “feminism” can mean so many things that it’s not a very useful label for anyone.

But he was paying attention to the issues.  He’s more committed to consent than I am. He reads more Jezebel posts than I do. I have at least as much say in our financial decisions as he does, although he earns a lot more than I do. We’ve always balanced hours of housework, paid work, schoolwork, and commuting to be sure I wasn’t responsible for more than my share of the second shift. If anything, I have the more advantaged position in our relationship. So I came to a tentative trust that someone could not identify as feminist while still walking the walk.

Recently I was in a situation that highlighted the importance of paying attention.  I was at a discussion at Harvard with my newborn daughter. I was the only woman present. I had two friends there; one emphasized “You have a baby!”  Which was natural and well-intentioned, but I was cringing because I didn’t want “mommy” stamped on my forehead in an academic setting. The other friend intentionally treated me as someone who was knowledgeable about the discussion topic and only cooed over the baby after everyone else had left.  He had thought about how I, as a woman in a heavily male setting, might want to present myself.

Of course, I don’t want women to be the only ones who benefit from people paying attention to gender.  At my last job, my female coworkers laughed at me for asking them not to discuss how attractive male staff were.  I said it was unfair to talk like that in the workplace when our male coworkers weren’t allowed to say the same thing about women. If we were going to have a policy against sexual harassment, I didn’t want it to be only for one group. (The other women thought I was being ridiculous.)

Maybe what I want is a term more like “gender egalitarian,” someone who not only believes people of all gender should be treated well but who pays attention and acts on it.


3 thoughts on “Is “feminist” a useful term?

  1. J

    I once went to a dinner party with some friends where the official topic of discussion was whether nationalism had any possible use. Most people there thought it didn’t, but one person volunteered to argue in its favor. I respected her a lot for that, and she tried hard, but mainly ended up trying to move the goalposts (“what if nationalism meant something different that was okay?”). Very smart people trying honestly to understand the other side, but not getting very far.

    I tried to help by defending the concept, and my best argument was that it makes a lot of sense for small, threatened nations to cultivate nationalism for solidarity, whereas the metaphorical 30-year-running state basketball champions (USA) just come off as jerks if they always remind everyone how great they are.

    More recently, a different friend posted on facebook about how outrageous it was that someone had been asked to take down an american flag from their apartment balcony. I thought about commenting about some of the ways nationalism can be harmful, but the conversation already had over 100 comments and didn’t seem very open to dissenting views.

    All of that is just to illustrate how easy it is to create internet bubbles even when you really are trying to understand how the other side views things.



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