Recently, I was having lunch with a friend who said she's been reading my stories for this site. Between bites of her gluten-free sandwich at a deli in Berkeley, she exclaimed, "Your stories are so feminist!" This friend—a girl I first met at an independent bookstore, where we would discuss our favorite feminist literature at length—clearly meant it as a compliment. And yet, when she said the word, my chest thumped, and I had to stop myself from a defensive retort: "I mean, I don't think I'm that feminist."
My gut response was, admittedly, thoroughly weird, because I do frequently write about women's issues, and I've often self-identified as a feminist.
Yet my reaction was hardly an anomaly—like many, my relationship with "feminism" has been an uneasy one for many years. While my first inklings began as a teen (Margaret Atwood's feminist masterpiece The Handmaid's Tale was my favorite in high school) I didn't fully latch onto the identity until college at Berkeley. In the hallowed halls of this famously liberal institution, I took a course on female sexuality in which we burned letters about painful experiences with misogyny, and I helped lead a course about Sex and the City and women's issues—complete with Erica Jung readings.
Soon after Berkeley, though, I crossed coasts and the ideological divide to Boston, where I fell in with a more conservative, traditionalist crowd. The word "feminist" rarely if ever crossed my lips, and "feminist" itself became a vestige of my uber-liberal college years at a time when I was forging a new identity in a wholly different place.
While I've since wended my way back to California and a "feminist" identity, the word feels somehow heavy now, like an albatross I am burdened to wear as a progressive woman. I often pause at the keyboard before typing the word—in part because I envision the seemingly inevitable attacks of vehement anti-feminists in the comments section—and have downplayed it in conversations with mixed company. I would never and have never described this site as "feminist," although that wouldn't be inaccurate. I simply worry that using the word will make people think of our site as something more radical and angry than it actually is.
All of which leads me to believe that "feminism" itself has a serious problem.
First, a history lesson: The term "feminism" first rose to prominence during the American and French revolutions in the late 18th century, when women first began fighting vocally for equal rights. Yet it wasn't until the 1960s in America that the movement reached its cultural zeitgeist as women banded together during a time fraught with civil rights tension and progress.
Many feminist leaders at this time were loud and, yes, what one could call "aggressive" (though—feminism aside!—it's hard to imagine men being called "aggressive" for similar tactics). Sparked in part by Betty Friedan's seminal The Feminine Mystique, which came out in 1963, women joined the fray of a burgeoning civil rights movement. Organizations including the still-powerful National Organization For Women (NOW)—spearheaded by Friedan herself—were formed. Women took to the streets to protest against workplace discrimination. And the little blue birth control pill, first introduced in 1960, liberated women sexually as they'd never been before, prompting a push for more reproductive rights.
Coming as it did on the heels of the extremely gender-rigid 1950s, this kind of noise was necessary for change. Yet today—though women have achieved much and the meaning of feminism has shifted with it—the word remains steeped in stigmas of anger, extremism and radicalism.
In addition to being saddled with a complex history, "feminist" is linguistically problematic. By putting "female" front and center, it emphasizes women over what they're fighting for. It sets up an adversarial relationship—women vs. men—at odds with the notion of gender fairness.
Modern "feminists" argue that both women and men should have an equal say in the home, workplace, as parents, etc. They don't believe women should be excused for things men aren't, nor do they believe all men are by their very nature misogynistic jerks (they're definitely not). They simply want women and men to be perceived by the outside world—and each other—as true equals.
Here, we can take a cue from the LGBTQ movement. Its recent success can be credited in part to the way it's framed the good fight not in terms of a "gay agenda" or "gay rights," but as a push for "marriage equality." Had the movement adopted the term "Gay-ist" to promote its cause, things could've turned out quite differently. As any number of sociologists, linguists and historians could tell you, the language surrounding a movement is key to its progress. As a framing device, "feminist" is simply too divisive to succeed at furthering the underlying cause.
I wish there were another catch-all word like "feminist" that I could use to express my belief that all people—male, female, transgender and otherwise—should have the exact same fundamental rights and opportunities in this world we share. "Gender-equalist," perhaps? "Advocate for gender fairness"?
All I know is I am and will continue to be someone fighting for a world in which cases like Hobby Lobby—decided by a majority-male judicial panel—don't limit women's reproductive choices. A world devoid of video games in which male characters "win" by ripping off female characters' clothes to kill them. A world where men never—in jest or earnestness—talk about rape being OK. And, for that matter, a world in which we also pay attention to the tragedy of female-on-male rape.
If this makes me a "feminist," so be it. But I think it just makes me a reasonable human being.
Image: women's liberation march in Washington, DC, circa 1970. Courtesy of, Wikimedia Commons