The F word

"Feminism" turns off a lot of younger women. Is it time to retire the word -- or reclaim it?

Published July 5, 2005 5:02PM (EDT)

A couple of years ago I interviewed a big-eyed activist-actress whose work and politics I have always admired. I asked her a question related to feminism. Her response? That she didn't like the word "feminist" and preferred "humanist."

What a crock, I thought, with the same disdain I once felt for a high-school classmate who memorably piped up that though she was "totally not a feminist," she wondered if Mr. Rochester's willingness to treat Jane Eyre badly and imprison Bertha in an attic might indicate a low-level misogyny. It was a fair observation, I thought at the time. Why did she have to preface it with personal disavowal? Did she think that the expression of such a sentiment brought her close enough to a militant conception of feminism that her lissome 10th-grade body might dramatically sprout armpit hair?

It's no great news that "feminism" -- the word and, by extension, the movement -- has an image problem. Women of all ages and colors have, at turns, bristled at the term, embraced it, lauded it and disdained it, practically since it was coined. However, after years of soldiering on under the burden of a heavily loaded word, a new crop of progressive and politically active women are finally addressing the problem. Some are looking to reinvigorate "feminist" by laying claim to the word -- a new magazine and a recent book are both cheekily titled "The F Word" -- while others are contemplating new words and phrases to employ in the fight for women's equality. After years of quiet debate, women are tackling their own labels with the energy of a movement anxious to make itself fresh again.

The debate acquired a new urgency with Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's announcement on July 1 that she is retiring from the court. If Bush, as expected, nominates a judge opposed to Roe. v. Wade, women's issues will move to the center of the national stage.

It's almost remarkable that "feminism" has survived as long as it has, stigmatized as it's been by a sneering right, and criticized by groups on the left for its early lack of interest in the concerns of poor and minority women. Now, as second-wave feminists look to the future and see a generation of women with a very different set of battles than their own, the question becomes: What do we do about "feminism"? Does it have anything to do with younger female activism anymore, or is it simply an Achilles' heel? Do we replace it, phase it out? Or do we embrace it with renewed vigor and a spruced-up, all-inclusive definition?

When asked to consider what other terms besides "feminist" might be useful descriptors of the movement she helps to lead, National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy laughed and said, "Nothing has really swept anyone off their feet, but 'egalitarian' is one that always comes up. There's 'humanist.' Sometimes 'womanist.'"

Gandy isn't suggesting that anyone rub the word "feminism" off their bumper stickers or refrigerator magnets. But she did acknowledge that she has had informal conversations -- both with people who work at NOW and with those she meets on the road -- about agitation from some within the movement who believe it's time to retire "feminism's" number.

"There's nothing inherently wrong with the word," said Gandy, invoking Dame Rebecca West's famous assertion, "I ... have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute."

But, she said, we cannot pretend that "feminism" has escaped the fate of "liberalism" before it. "This is what the right-wing has done to our language," she said. "'Liberal' is a proud term. But at a certain point, it became very difficult for people to call themselves liberal. If you asked them about issues they would say, 'I'm not liberal, I'm progressive.' Excuse me, you are a liberal! But the right made that a bad word. They've done the same thing with 'feminism.'"

Unsurprisingly, Gandy has had countless encounters with women and men who open up a conversation by saying, "I'm not a feminist," and then go on to espouse feminist ideals. "It's like, 'Do you have a belief in the political and social equality of women?' Yeah? Then you're a feminist," she said.

Language shifts have often transformed the struggle for women's equality. Gandy recalled the way that the term "suffragists" became the diminutive, mockingly feminine "suffragettes," as though those who devoted their lives to secure the vote for women were actually a backup group for Ray Charles. Then there was the time in 2003 when the National Abortion Rights Action League changed its name to "abortion"-lite NARAL Pro-Choice America. But language has strengthened the movement as well. Gandy said that when she started at NOW in 1973, "We didn't even have a word for sexual harassment. We knew how women were treated at work and on the street, but we didn't have language for it. Domestic violence? You didn't even whisper words for that in public. Now we have women's studies. Now we have a word for everything," said Gandy.

But she acknowledged, "I think that there's a new generation that's looking for a word or a term they can call their own. At some level they associate 'feminism' with their mothers. Not in a bad way, but just in a way that's not about them."

It might seem like a simple suggestion. But the hyper-sensitivity surrounding the "feminism" discussion makes it an ideological fire-starter. Weeks after my interview with Gandy, I called Feminist Majority leader Eleanor Smeal about this story. When I asked her to respond to some of the comments Gandy had made, I was apparently unclear, somehow leaving Smeal with the impression that I was reporting that Gandy wanted NOW to abandon the word "feminism." This was certainly not what I was reporting. But Smeal alerted Gandy to the possibility that my story might suggest that Gandy was rejecting the word just days before her reelection as NOW president. A very agitated Gandy called me to clarify that her comments were not reflective of any formal discussions within her organization. I assured her that I only planned to report what she had told me: that she had had discussions about the word with colleagues at NOW. She responded: "I hear people talk about it. But they don't talk about it that often. To say that 'there have been discussions within NOW' would convey a really inaccurate thing." Gandy emphasized that she can't imagine ever backing away from "feminism."

But some people didn't think the notion of ditching the word was such a crazy idea at all. "I think it's very smart," said Erica Jong, whose use of explicit language in "Fear of Flying' changed the nature of American women's fiction in 1973. "The problem hasn't gone away. Women are still second-class citizens; the problem of choice is still with us -- in fact it's gotten worse. So if we need to change the name to get people involved, we should."

But Jong was stumped as to what a replacement could be, and noted that "words always get degraded when associated with something progressive or something female. This is the way right-wingers capture the language, so we need to be smart." She noted the right wing's use of the term "pro-life" in the abortion debate. "If we had called ourselves pro-life -- as in we don't want women to die in illegal abortions -- we would have won on that one, but they got there first."

Jong thought that dusting off our lexicon was a natural generational progression. "It's all so cyclical," she said. "Mothers push forward, daughters pull back," she said. "We have been in a period of backlash and now we're ready to push forward again."

It's true that there is resistance to the feminist label from some young people. Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, a Seattle-area writer and author of "The F Word: Feminism in Jeopardy -- Women, Politics, and the Future," described a poll she'd done for her book. Noting that the 300 respondents were self-selected college-educated women between the ages of 18 and 34, Rowe-Finkbeiner said, "Sixty-eight percent of young women didn't want to be confined by labels, and the word 'feminism' chafed the worst."

But other national polls -- including a 1984 Wall Street Journal/Gallup poll, a 1986 Newsweek/Gallup poll, and a 2003 Ms. Magazine poll -- have shown that the younger the woman, the more willing she is to identify herself as a feminist. And, sure enough, many of the young women contacted for this piece were more vociferous in their defense of the word than their elders.

Melody Berger, a 25-year-old college student in Philadelphia, launched the new feminist magazine the F-Word in late May. She said she chose the name for her publication "because I was tired of tiptoeing around the word, of saying, 'Don't worry about us, we're not feminists, we're totally acceptable.'" Instead, Berger has proclaimed herself a full-blown "Howling Harpy."

Berger is not alone in her affection for the word. "If I hear one more person say, 'I'm not a feminist, I'm a humanist,' I'm going to kill them," said 26-year-old Jessica Valenti, founder of "How do you possibly think you're going to talk about gender equality if there's no acknowledgment of gender?"

When I told Valenti that there was even casual discussion about the future of the word, she snorted, frustrated with what she perceives as generational tension between second-wave feminists and her activist peers -- many of whom don't align themselves with feminist organizations. "When they say they're interested in pulling in young women, I understand where the sentiment is coming from because they feel like young women don't like the word, but come on. How much are we willing to give up?"

Valenti acknowledged that many young women are "afraid of the word." "Part of me gets so angry at younger women who are nervous about feminism because they're afraid that boys won't like them," said Valenti. One of the reasons she started Feministing is because she wanted to meet young women and tell them, "I'm a feminist. And despite what you may think, feminism is pretty fucking cool." In addition, Valenti added, "Part of me wants to say, 'Yeah, someone's going to call you a lesbian. Someone's going to say you're a fat, ugly dyke.' Suck it up."

Valenti did have a couple of non-linguistic suggestions about how to bring older and younger activists together, starting with how the older generation treats its daughters. She described meetings for young feminists where the young women talk "while famous feminists are sitting there taking notes and watching you like you're some National Geographic animals." She said that the very suggestion that "feminism" could be disposable in any way makes her feel like saying, "Hey! This is your word! You started this and I took it on. I have been working hard for you. And now you're going to just give up on it?"

Erin Matson, the 25-year-old NOW chapter president in Minnesota and a member of the Young Feminist Task Force, said, "I wear the feminist label with pride and I love it. It's hard for me to imagine leaving it behind or discarding it." But Matson did recently write an article questioning the notion that feminism is a word that can describe a single, cohesive group, "all of us with pierced lips and hairy legs and the same concerns. That's simply not true," she said. Instead of the plaintive 10th-grade cry, "I'm not a feminist, but..." Matson's piece suggested that the new disclaimer is "I am a feminist, but..."

"Crystal Plati, 32-year-old executive director of Choice USA, said that at her organization, We use [the word feminism] but we don't belabor it. We are also open to other words.

She continued, "More than looking at just one word, for me it's about doing some listening for what kinds of language young women are using to define their empowerment for themselves." She also pointed out that it's not just young women who are alienated by the term. "No matter what choice we make about language," said Plati, "we need to be building toward an inclusive movement, in particular a movement that has women of color and young women in leadership. Changing the word is not enough. We need to address why it's alienating."

It's an assertion familiar to women in the movement, who for years have been reminded that second-wave feminism of the 1970s did not address the concerns of women of color and women from lower economic strata.

It's a concern that activist and author Rebecca Walker -- whose mother, Alice Walker, coined the term "womanist" as an inclusive alternative to "feminist" -- said she's been anxious about for a long time. In an e-mail, she referred me to an interview she gave to Satya magazine in January. In the interview, Walker said that in 1992, when she co-founded Third Wave, an organization for young women activists, she worried that "the word feminist had become too divisive and culturally loaded." Walker also told Satya, "It seemed clear to me that the term had more of a repellent effect than a magnetizing one within my generation, and I did not feel the need to prove my allegiance and gratitude to the women that came before me by holding on to something that had meant so very much to them, but did not mean that much to me."

In the interview, Walker continued, "The left is getting our collective ass kicked because of just this kind of romantic, naove attachment to movement narratives and aesthetics of 20 and 30 years ago." She also pointed out that "many women of color do not feel an affinity with the term because, among other things, we know firsthand that people who call themselves feminists are not always our friends," she said. "They have not de facto done their work around race ... though [they] would become appalled if we suggested that some 'feminists' were also racist."

The racial wound remains fresh for many women who spend their lives thinking about and working on issues of female empowerment. When Berger launched her F-Word site in May, she said she was surprised that some of the anti-"feminist" mail she got was from other women activists. Berger explained, "The word 'feminist' alienated a lot of political allies I wanted to be tied to," including women of color "who told me that traditionally this word is off-putting because of the predominantly white, middle-class vibe it had." Others, she said, told her, "I hope you don't make the same kinds of mistakes your foremothers did."

The result, said Berger, is that a month after her launch, "the word 'feminism' is on the site, but it's not the tag line anymore. I've toned it down a little bit."

When I asked her what words could possibly replace the pesky descriptor of the movement, Berger was stumped. "I'm not such a fan of the word 'humanist,'" she said in an e-mail. "I think it's one of those 'well, duh ... who ISN'T pro-human??' kind of concepts." As for "womanist," Berger wrote, "I like that it may be more appealing to women of color ... However, I don't think feminism is just about 'women' anymore." It's these qualms, Berger said, that keep her "pretty attached to the f-word." But she conceded, "Maybe it isn't worth fighting to reclaim a word. There are much bigger things we need to be fighting for."

But what if we don't need to fight to reclaim it? What if we've already begun to make it new?

There is a camp of women who say, "'Feminism is just what we determine it is,'" said Mandy Van Deven, 25, founder of Altar magazine, a magazine about social justice, and the director of Community Organizing for Girls for Gender Equity in Brooklyn, N.Y. "'So if we wear makeup and call ourselves feminists then we are feminists,'" she continued, adding that she did not necessarily identify with this multi-purpose definition. Van Deven said that changing definitions is "part of the evolution of political movements and the evolution of language and how people are going to identify themselves as individuals and in the scope of larger political context."

Van Deven said she thinks that there are a lot of young women out there who -- while they may not like the word or embrace the entire exclusionary history of the movement, "are really anxious to grab the word and claim it and say, 'No, I don't care, I am going to make this word work for me.'"

Rowe-Finkbeiner, author of the book "The F Word," said that Van Deven's attitude is typical of broader political and linguistic patterns. "In the history of social movements, many of the people who are most impacted by negative connotations of a word are the ones who take that word back," she said. Rowe-Finkbeiner pointed out that women have already done this with "bitch" -- as in popular "stitch and bitch" knitting circles and "bitch-n-swap" clothing swaps. It's a phenomenon similar to a gay re-appropriation of "queer," or African-American usage of "nigger."

Third Wave co-founder Amy Richards said she isn't too worried about the women's movement agreeing on one word. In her work on campuses, she said the number of projects she sees young women taking on -- from prison reform to AIDS funding in Africa to living-wage fights for university staff -- is enough to satisfy her that there is tremendous life in the movement, even if no one knows what to call it. "The thing that's different from 30 years ago is that young women are moving beyond organizing around reproductive issues and violence against women. It's not that those issues aren't relevant to them, but I think they're just tired of them."

Gandy said that membership in her organization is bigger than ever. "Eighty percent of people in the United States, based on what they think now about pay equity and domestic violence, would have been considered total feminists had they felt that way 30 years ago. And the women's rights movement is living in our daughters every single day. Whether or not they consider themselves feminists."

Besides, said Richards, "Whatever we'd change 'feminism' to would become a bad word too." This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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