Feminism needs a makeover, or so many feminists think. Unnerved every time some starlet, superstar, or rising professional star shuns the term, feminists wonder why all women don’t automatically claim the description.
They assume women must not know the meaning of the term. So they launch various education and rebranding campaigns. Recently, Christina Hoff Sommers tried to get “freedom feminism” to take in the pages of The Atlantic, and UK Elle launched a straight rebranding PR campaign. Hanna Rosin wondered if it was worth rebranding since it has proven so divisive. She has gotten closest to the actual problem.
If someone as smart and successful as Mayer, someone who tours the country speaking to young women, can’t comfortably call herself a feminist, then maybe we need to take her objection seriously. Maybe there is a reason why that PBS documentary was so much better on the history than it was on the modern era. Maybe feminism is a term too freighted with history and it’s time to move on.
To gain new feminists, the movement will need to do more than rebrand. The term “feminism” has bowed, as words do, to the dominate cultural practice, which despite what the rebranders think, has little to do with the hairy leg stereotypes of old. Right now feminism is defined by the old line political feminists, who have no intention of releasing their grip on the term. Any attempt to make feminism more popular will have to confront and break this hold.
Currently women who claim feminism fall into two major factions (and a host of minor factions too numerous to go into here). I call them the equal opportunity feminists and the political feminists.
The first holds that women should be free to make their own choices without external limitations. This feminism focuses upon equal opportunity and individual autonomy and enjoys broad support across the political spectrum. In almost every casual feminist discussion, someone will claim this is The One True Feminism. Some claim it with grace and passion in blog comment threads, while more popular proclamations declare we are all stupid if we don’t get it, like this helpful visual from HuffPo that I found in my Facebook feed:
It is a simple sentiment and the one that the rebranding efforts reach for, but it is not the dominate feminism today.
For the past four decades, high profile feminists have co-opted the term for specific policy positions. These are the feminists who mistook the means for the ends.