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.
Second Wave feminists of the 60’s wanted it to seem normal to have women in the office to disprove the prevailing assumption that women shouldn’t work so they prodded as many women into the office as quickly as they could (namely by insulting housewifery and insisting that volunteer work was for dilettantes). When women in professions became typical much more quickly than expected then these feminists morphed what was a route to equality into the measure of equality. They obscured the difference between equal opportunity and equal outcome. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Lean In fame, is just the latest example of a woman claiming that the revolution will not be finished until we have perfect 50/50 parity.
They tethered women to a ratio. They typically advocate only for policies that advance the goal of boardroom parity. Hence, the Get to Work attitude, hook up culture cheerleading, delayed motherhood and institutional childcare calls, and pro-choice piety. They know that the constraints of female biology will prevent perfect parity, so all policy positions aim to negate those constraints, to relive us of the burdens of motherhood. This feminism is not about choice (outside of abortion) and tends to focus upon the plight of wealthy, elite-educated, white women, who are closest to perfect parity. For good measure, they excommunicated any feminists who did not agree with the agenda, most notably the pro-life feminists, and they mock feminist housewives to keep them outside the movement.
In sum, they treat our lives as if they are only about work. When women reject the label “feminist”, we might express our objections differently—anti-men, anti-mothers—but distill the rejections, and women are shunning the one dimensional life that political feminism offers, in which a woman should be an island, completely independent and self-sufficient. Yes, that seems a risk free, safe plan but nothing risked, nothing won. And islands are lonely. Most women want a full life, with love and learning, family and friendship. And we don’t see it in the women who lean in.
To win new members, feminism needs more than mere rebranding. It needs a wider scope. But the odds of this aren’t favorable.
The political feminists have set their sights on more women in the boardroom. Or more sharply, they are the obstacle to a more inclusive feminism.
The equal opportunity feminists, however, are in denial, isolated, and defensive. They generally have forgotten that this battle for feminism’s soul was fought and lost in the 70s, about the time Gloria Steinem ousted Betty Friedan from NOW, and so they are hampered by the notion that the mantle is theirs to defend. It’s not. It is theirs to reclaim, which calls for a much more active strategy.
Equal opportunity feminism is also where most of the minor feminist factions live. The variety of pet issues makes it hard for them to find common practical goals. Furthermore, many have chosen domesticity and are currently too busy and overwhelmed to do anything other than career and/or motherhood.
Worst of all, they tend to buy into the notion of work as the measure of a woman. With every stay-at-home-mother’s comment about what “thinking women” do, they project: the working woman has a brain, the housewife doesn’t. She has to tell you that she thinks. It isn’t the default assumption. Only now the silly-little-housewife-has-nothing-of-import-to-say idea is perpetuated by women, not the patriarchy.
A side note, at a recent girls’ night, two of my friends told of problems they’d had polishing up their resumes after a few years of at-home mom life. One had attended a seminar in New York and another had hired a consultant, but they both learned the same thing: women routinely discount any work they have done while homemaking. They needed others to tell them how significant and worthy of inclusion on their resume some of their unpaid jobs were.
Such insecurity is not the foundation of a successful movement to reclaim feminism from the women who lean in. It is hard to argue for your position when you secretly believe the other side is right.
Of course, equal opportunity feminists could ally with women of the right. We are vigorous advocates for, and practitioners of, the equal opportunity concepts of feminism. Together we might be able to wrest the term from the political feminists and restore the diversity of ideas the movement once had. But fear of this alliance, I think, is why political feminists insist on pro-choice adherence.
Just the hard tie of the word “choice” to abortion is effective. I struggled in writing this piece to describe the non-political feminists. It’s probably why Hoff Sommers suggested the a-bit-too-earnest “freedom feminism” as an attempt at a common banner. The easiest description is something about choice, but any use of the word “choice” in politics or culture instantly calls to mind our greatest, and sometimes only, policy difference, abortion. It pulls us to our arguments before we can even start discussing our common ground and thereby secures the political feminists’ position by keeping women of the right and left politically isolated from each other.
As for the women of the right, we care a great deal about equal opportunity and individual autonomy, but we hardly need the term “feminist” for that. Plus, political feminism has spent so much time trashing us that the only reason some of us might claim the term is to provide a common banner with equal opportunity feminists while we both try to break the worker-bee life plan for women. But, again, thanks to that pro-choice wedge, they don’t want an alliance with us. (I have tried to find some possibilities for cooperation, but my experience has not left me optimistic.)
So I suspect that many women will continue to disavow “feminism” as the label for a life of work. As women plan for more in their lives, the term will diminish and fade, an ignominious end to a once-powerful historical label.