A Feminist By Any Other Name

Millennials share their reasons for choosing to distance themselves from the term 'feminist.'

December 5, 2016

Madeline Deninger ‘17 does not call herself a feminist. Growing up in Iowa City, she would often hear her classmates identifying with the term, which at the time carried no connotation with her. Following their lead, Deninger too classified herself as a feminist until the age of 15. It was not until recent years that her perspective changed, and she began to distance herself the movement. She now believes feminism has evolved into a movement of exclusivity and anger.

“I feel like [fourth-wave feminism] is all about shutting out ideas and opinions that may offend you or be different from you,” Deninger said. “I want new ideas, and to have mature discussions with people. I don’t think it’s me that’s changed, I think it’s the movement that’s changed.”

While the Merriam-Webster definition of feminism, ‘the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities’, suits Deninger, she thinks the general interpretation adopted by today’s feminists is more focused on restricting other’s perspectives.

“Although it comes in different forms, feminism in some respects means kind of ‘my way or the highway’ or ‘no one can have a different opinion than me’,” Deninger said. “It’s all about identity politics.”

Adversely, Dr. Meenakshi Gigi Durham, professor at the University of Iowa of gender, women’s and sexuality studies sees exclusivity as beneficial to those inside the movement to create a safe environment.

I know that women, or people who have experienced social discrimination in society in general, want safe spaces where they can address these issues without fear of being attacked, harassed, or criticised. I think those safe spaces need to exist, especially for the people who have been marginalized and discriminated against. That even extends to the Black Lives Matter movement, where there were certain gatherings or certain meeting that were exclusive to African American people; everyone that has experienced discrimination needs a place where they can talk about it without fear of more discrimination,” Durham said. “There are some debates about men in feminism whether men can be feminists, and some people come down to that ‘only women who experience sexual harassment and understand what that feels like’ or ‘what it’s like to live in the body of a woman’ can be feminists, but they do acknowledge that men can be pro-feminist and be allies. I don’t really see exclusivity in who can be aligned with these positions.”

Because Durham sees feminism as generally inclusive, she finds people with views like Deninger paradoxical.

“I think it’s really odd in a way. Some people just don’t like to be labeled in any way, but part of reason is that the term ‘feminism’ has been mischaracterized and sensationalized in ways that don’t really convey as a social movement for equality,” Durham said. “I think it’s really funny that many women and men will say “yes, I’m in favor of pay equity’, ‘yes, I’m against domestic violence’, even ‘I’m pro-choice’, yet they’ll say ‘I’m not a feminist’. They’re supporting all these issues that feminism has played a key role in. Feminism has really been behind all of these things that they seem to support. The term has been sensationalized and given a negative value in our society that isn’t true to how much a force for good it’s been.”

While Machlen Polfliet ‘17 still classifies himself with the term, he agrees that it carries a controversial reputation.

“The word feminist itself has a stigma to it because of the extremists in the movement. I think that if someone used the phrase, ‘I believe in equal rights between women and men’, they would get a lot more support than someone saying ‘I am a feminist’, even though it’s the same thing,” Polfliet said. “I wouldn’t exactly call myself a feminist, but by the definition of the word, I am.”

Unlike Polfliet, Durham deems the concept of feminist extremism mythical and used to thwart people from joining the movement.

“It’s just like a stereotype, like there’s a boogey woman out there, a kind of man-hating, violent monster and those people don’t exist as far as I know. It recognizes that oppression and discrimination is rooted in the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, class, nation and other markers of identity. Feminism at its core is a social justice and pro-equality movement seeking to address and correct injustices and violence that are based on these factors, so I don’t know what people mean by a feminist extremist. I don’t even have a notion of who that could be; I don’t have anyone who might be characterized that way. I almost think it’s a myth, a scary myth that keeps people out of the movement.”

Polfliet sees today’s feminist movement as generally empowering, but he believes the negative aspects of the movement can be attributed to feminist extremists.

“It’s definitely a different motive now than it used to be, but the main goal of feminism, of gaining equality, is positive,” Polfliet said. “I do feel like it would be a lot easier to accomplish what they’re doing without the extremists. If you talk to someone who doesn’t believe in gender equality, all they’re going to give is examples of extremists; it’s almost like they’re holding back and hurting the movement rather than helping it.”

Despite ambiguity of feminist extremism, Polfliet remembers an encounter he experienced specifically.

“I was watching this speaker on TV holding a pep rally with a small crowd that was holding signs saying things like ‘bring down the almighty man’. It was almost like instead of trying to raise women’s rights to equal men’s, they were trying to bring men down to equal woman,” Polfliet said. “It’s like people take examples from men who don’t support gender equality and think ‘if we do it back, we’re basically equal’. I don’t think that’s how it should get equal. We shouldn’t be equally bad; we should be equally good.”

Along with Polfliet, Tony Morphew ‘18 has also encountered feminists who he believes have ulterior motives to creating equality.

“Walking down the street in Chicago, I’ve seen women holding up signs that men should pay extra taxes,” Morphew said. “Some people who call themselves feminists aren’t fighting to promote gender equality. There are people with views who are so [politically] far to the left that I would consider it regressive, and I’m pretty far to the left. Sometimes they are working to put something where there is nothing needed.”

Morphew believes these stances can extend into blaming men for uncontrollable past inequalities.

“It was men that had the power, but that is not my fault personally,” Morphew said. “I don’t think men should deal with [guilt] today, when it is not directly their fault. I don’t think that it is my fault. I didn’t get to choose what men back then did.”

Instead of victimizing people, Durham prioritizes recognizing male privilege when approaching past inequity.

Acknowledging that there have been past inequalities and that these inequalities continue to exist is important,” Durham said. “I think recognizing that and being very open in terms of saying ‘yes, there are differences in how women and men are being paid’ or ‘yes women do experience sexual assault at far higher numbers than men do’. The first step is awareness and consciousness raising.”

The first wave of feminism to address these past inequalities began in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was passed granting American women the right to vote. The campaign, known as “women’s suffrage”, is widely received as a milestone for women. The second wave of feminism followed in the early 1960s, focusing closer on reproductive rights, sexuality, workplace, and family equalities. Today’s feminism is often referenced as third-wave or fourth-wave. While containing themes of second-wave feminism, modern feminism is additionally known for breaking previous social constructs by diversifying its outreach to queer and women of color. Some activists, such as journalist Jennifer Baumgardner, have identified a fourth wave of feminism they believe began in 2008. This wave is often considered to be riding atop the third wave as it supports related causes, but is centered around the internet and social media. Deninger believes that today’s feminism, considered third or fourth-wave feminism, divides the sexes more than it previously brought them together.

“Fifty years ago, [the feminist movement] was all about women having equality in the workplace or not being seen as housewives or childbearers. I think that feminism was, and is, necessary, but now feminism is more ‘you shouldn’t be in this discussion’ or ‘we don’t want to hear your opinion’,” Deninger said. “To me, feminism should be all races, all genders, all ages etcetera if we want equality. I don’t think today’s feminist’s motives are truly to be superior to men. I think [the movement] definitely focuses on women more than men. In some cases women need more attention, but I think it focuses on women in the wrong ways while leaving men out completely.”

Although Deninger sees the positive effects of feminism, she feels it is ultimately a negative movement. Specifically, Deninger finds some feminists are focused primarily on trivial issues, one such being The School that Bleeds, a feminine product fundraiser turned demonstration when the slogan “The School that Bleeds” was initially censored by the school.

“One thing that really bothers me about feminism today is that it focuses on these little issues just trying to pick a fight, like The School That Bleeds campaign,” Deninger said. “I’m not offended by it. I didn’t think the slogan was that great just because it doesn’t matter that City High is bleeding, it’s the women at the crisis shelter. I don’t care if people wanted to write that on the bin, it’s just when it came out that’s all anyone was talking about and we really lost track of what it was actually about.”

To Deninger, the movement should be turning its attention to introducing a first wave of feminism to developing countries.

“[Modern feminism] is like taking something small and turning it into ‘I’m a victim’. Just because a man is expressing an opinion that’s different from yours doesn’t mean he’s misogynistic or sexist,” Deninger said. “Instead of talking about places in the world where there is real legitimate rape culture, women are talking about ‘the waist size of this mannequin is too small and it’s hurting women’ or ‘a dress code at school isn’t allowing me to show half my ass and it’s oppressing me’ instead of focusing on real issues like impoverished women, men, and minorities.”

The subject of restrictive dress codes has popularized over social media with young adults. After experiencing several instances of suspension due to “inappropriate clothing”, a group of New Jersey high-schoolers launched a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #IfAnythingSchoolTaughtMe which inspired thousands of teenagers to take to social media exemplifying their disapproval of dress code regulations. Ailsa Burke ‘17 considers issues such as this instrumental in gaining attention towards teens.

“When it comes to clothing like spaghetti strap tops or shorts too short, it’s considered inappropriate, but the only reason it would be inappropriate is because they’re sexualizing a young woman’s body,” Burke said. “I think that issues like dress codes are important, especially with teenagers. A lot more people are getting involved which is great.”

While Burke agrees with Deninger that aiding women in developing countries is necessary, she doesn’t think the movement should restrict  topics facing American feminists.

“I definitely think in developing countries, the issues they’re fighting for is making an impact on a broader scale because it’s so fundamental in life to have education, and food sources, and a general place in society,” Burke said. “I don’t think that means that people in a first world country don’t have issues worth fighting for. The seriousness of some issues don’t take away from the seriousness of other issues. Obviously they’re on different scales, but they’re just as important. It would be great if we could help them, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help ourselves too.”

Durham agrees that these issues should also be addressed.

It’s sort of on a continuum, you sort of have to look at the ways in which discrimination and bias get expressed in different social contexts. I would even say access to education and basic resources is a more pressing problem, but at the same time, if the dress code is a differential for boys and girls, it’s still an expression of discrimination,” Durham said. “I think we need to address every form of bias and injustice. I’m not really going to argue to against taking note of all these different ways in which discrimination plays out and trying to challenge it.”

Deninger would prefer feminists to center their resources and influence around women in developing countries who have yet to experience fundamental rights.

“I don’t think it’s wrong to look at feminism in the scope of America, it’s still needed here. However, I think it’s really silly to say ‘I’m so oppressed’ by a small little issue that may have not been intentional, over women who haven’t even had a first wave of feminism yet,” Deninger said. “It’s not wrong to talk about women’s issues in America, but to completely forgo third world countries where women have little to no rights is ignorant.”

Generally, she wishes first world feminism would realign itself to mirror past waves.

“I think women have made great strides, and it’s because of feminism. Feminism is very important, but in today’s culture it has kind of gone off the rails,” Deninger said. “I think the suffragette women would be amazed at what women have achieved today and they probably wouldn’t even be thinking about whether a man commented on their makeup or said something online.”

Deninger’s attitude towards online feminism has similarly been applied to criticism concerning comedy and social media platforms promoting anti-feminist behavior. Memes such as ‘shut up and go make me a sandwich’ have drawn negative attention online. While Morphew has used jokes similar to these in the past, he claims his intentions are to mock those who criticise feminists.

“I’ve definitely felt nervous about offending people,” Morphew said. “When I say jokes [about feminism] that might offend people, I generally say them to people I know won’t be offended by them or I don’t say them at all. I’ll make many jokes that come from the perspective I don’t agree with. It comes from a more satirical way, where I’m making fun of the person who would say that realistically.”

Polfliet thinks most people who do use those jokes share the same perspective as Morphew.

“I think the vast majority of people who say that don’t actually think that,” Polfleit said. “I think most people these days don’t see women as ‘housewives’; I think most people see them now as just an average person.”

Durham regards all anti-feminist jokes to bolster those views, whether the intention is real or not.

Anti feminist jokes are just like racist jokes, they’re not really jokes,” Durham said. “They perpetuate the same types of bias and stereotyping. They’re not funny.”

Anti-feminists have also introduced the term ‘feminazi’ to compare radical feminists to German fascists in Nazi Germany. The term was first coined in the 1990s and peaked in 2002. Morphew does not support the term, but does not believe censoring those who do say it.  

“I have heard the term “feminazi” thrown around a lot,” Morphew said. “I don’t like it because it equates them with the Nazis who were on a completely different level. I don’t think I have ever used it and I won’t ever use it. I think if people want to use it then they are going to get judged for using it by other people and I will judge people who use the term.”

Despite his distaste towards the word ‘feminazi’, Morphew generally believes the reaction towards jokes shared conversationally shouldn’t be as severe.

“I think getting offended about a thing like that, there will be a lot more that will affect you later on,” Morphew said. “There’s a lot of stuff in the world that’s more offensive than the things I’ve ever said.”

Morphew sees the variety of feminist reception of humor and perspectives in general, is the primary problem facing the term today.

“There are a lot of [feminists] who are working for equal rights,” Morphew said. “That is the problem with putting it all under one branch, one word. It envelopes a whole group of people who are working towards different things and different views of the same thing.”

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