"Perhaps today's smart women should stop contemplating the lexicon and start figuring out the fight." Readers sound off on Rebecca Traister's article about "feminism."

Published July 12, 2005 8:22PM (EDT)

[Read "The F Word," by Rebecca Traister.]

I'm a bit disappointed in Rebecca Traister's article. I hold it to the same standards that I do the feminist movement: You are what you do.

But I do share Traister's larger concern. Do we really need to make our social movements sexy? I mean, whom are we attempting to court? When hasn't feminism had an image problem to those who don't share our goals of social, political and economic justice? I have nothing against sexiness. I think people working together for social justice is hotter than Paris Hilton, but I'm skeptical about having to dress up feminism (or any other social movement for that matter) for mass consumption.

Traister's article situates feminism in ways that do little for expanding global social change. By largely equating feminism with reproductive rights -- which Traister uses as a hook, identifying how Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement gives a "new urgency" to "women's issues" (read: reproductive rights) -- and looking at only U.S.-based feminism, Traister misses an important opportunity to acknowledge the valuable work of feminists worldwide. To equate feminism with U.S.-based reproductive rights' issues reveals an uninformed article at best and a worrisome form of U.S. imperialism at worst.

Finally, a glaring omission in an article discussing language and the women's movement is the use of the term "feminisms" -- a popular term among activists and scholars alike around the world. And while a simple pluralization doesn't solve all of the problems of feminism, I think it does situate the emphasis appropriately: The goals of feminism -- not its name or its image -- should be its beacon.

-- Jennifer Burke

Rebecca Traister's article is interesting and nuanced but totally misses the larger point: The vast majority of young women just don't care.

Most women don't identify as feminist, not because they worry about feminism's history of exclusion or because "feminism" seems like their mom's word or because they've adopted softer terminology. They don't identify as feminist because they are not at all conscious of feminist issues. They don't know of any feminist battles that weren't won about a hundred years ago, or they don't agree with the feminist political stance as they know it.

Remember that in the 2004 elections, more people voted for "whatever" than for Bush or Kerry.

One of Traister's interviewees says, "If I hear one more person say, 'I'm not a feminist, I'm a humanist,' I'm going to kill them." Personally, when I meet anybody who's thought enough about either of those words to have a preference between them, I do a little happy dance.

-- L. Almagor

Rebecca Traister's piece about the use of the word "feminist" raised some interesting points about the role of language in a political movement and the corruption of the political descriptors of the left by the right. "The F Word," however, completely lacked any insight into the feelings of an extremely important constituency for continued progress in social, political and economic gender equity: men. Although I do not have the relevant statistics at hand, it seems clear that if political actions that advance the equality of women are to succeed, at least some fraction of men need to be on board for them. My personal experiences suggest that plenty of left-leaning men are interested in helping further feminist causes. However, the use of the word "feminist" can seem exclusionary to men, as it places the focus, linguistically, on the advancement of one gender rather than on the equality of the two genders.

I understand, of course, that the advancement of women implied by the word does not need to come at the expense of men, and that most feminists are absolutely not anti-male. However, as a liberal man who wholeheartedly supports gender equity, I still feel uncomfortable calling myself a feminist because of the gender bias that seems, however inaccurately, inherent in it. By failing to even raise the issue of how pro-gender-equality men react to the word "feminist," Traister's piece seems to demonstrate the sort of disregard for the male viewpoint that can deter men from applying the feminist label to themselves. Perhaps a new label for those who are in favor of gender equality would be useful, particularly if it is part of a general acknowledgment that gender equity will be difficult to achieve if only one gender is working toward it.

-- Nicholas J. Condon

Why is it always about words? And not just any words; the "right" words. Fussing over how to coin or re-coin feminism is yet another vestige of the shockingly anti-progressive p.c. movement, which had highbrow lefties fretting over context without considering meaning, action or implications.

The trouble with loaded labels like "feminism" is that such coinage is too reductive to allow any real thought -- or any thoughtful deviation. As a pro-choice woman, I believe that abortion rights are necessary and inalienable, but I also believe that the extermination of a child (or a "maybe child") is nothing to get all "you go girl" about. A valid concern, I think. Why is it then, that my vacillation around the gray areas of this dark social issue attracts scoffs and jabs from educated, upper-class "feminist" friends who cheer wildly when Whoopie Goldberg wields a wire hanger in Washington?

Perhaps the smart women of today should stop contemplating the lexicon and start figuring out the fight. Do we want to make sure abortion rights stick around? Do we want to have lots of babies and make lots of money? Do we want that jackass coworker to stop staring at our tits? Me too. But I guarantee you these battles won't be won with words, let alone the "F word" or any of its throwaway replacements.

If progress is what we want, then it's time to stop talking among ourselves and start tackling some tougher crowds -- and tougher issues.

-- Kristen Acimovic

It frightens me when I contemplate that the way I live my life -- free to remain single, work, travel, walk around outside, dress as I will, gather with men and women outside those of my immediate family, and enjoy the protection of Canadian law, which prohibits my personal violation -- cannot be taken for granted. Do not overlook the following: For all the human beings who've walked the planet, this way of life has been possible for less than 30 years -- and still only in certain parts of the world. To think that the freedoms we've won are here to stay, a perpetual norm, takes more optimism than I possess. As far as I see it, in the long line of human history, my ability as a woman to live this way could very well be a blip on the socio-anthropological radar. In this light alone, "feminism" as a movement remains relevant and, as a term, deserves its place in our lexicon.

-- Jody Cooper

It seems quite obvious that all the problems with the word "feminism" stem from the fact that people are trying to use a single word to describe a movement that represents 3 billion people.

No other movement I can think of feels the need to identify itself with a single word. Just because the struggle for reproductive rights of East African women and the fight for more women in the boardroom both involve women doesn't mean both struggles need to have the same name.

-- Aran Johnson

Feminism has not "become" a dirty word; it has always been a dirty word. Aligning oneself with it has never been fashionable. It's significant that Traister's anecdote-based article contains no statistics regarding the number of women who identified as feminists at the height of the feminist movement. I suspect the percentage would be greater now than it was then.

So this is all Salon can come up with in the wake of Sandra Day O'Connor's explosive news? The most important thing that your new young feminists kept pointing out was that they weren't ugly and fat, and that they could wear makeup and be heterosexual. As one of those hairy dykes the supposed feminists speak of so derisively, I think I'll keep my label, but dump my subscription.

-- Mary Clark

To me feminism, the modern version -- not my mother's true call for equality -- is about getting more for women even at the expense of equality for men.

Any discussion about equality needs to be a discussion involving everyone. Not just white middle-class women. It needs to include minorities and men.

Young men want everyone to be equal too. But we are not allowed to be part of the discussion. There are a lot of things that men are not allowed to do. I can't take a job as nurse, or day care worker, or raise children without a lot of ridicule from the very women who claim to be feminists.

How can we all achieve equality when only one section of society is allowed to discuss the topic?

Forgive me for speaking like this. But does the fact that I have a penis mean my thoughts don't count?

-- Jay C.

I strongly disagree with comments in this article regarding feminism and race, the principal argument being that "women of color" have been somehow ignored or abused by mainstream feminists. Feminism's main concerns have always been political and legal equality. The original suffragists were not fighting for the rights of Republican women, or busty women, or Irish women. They fought for women. So do we.

Rebecca Walker complains that, "They have not de facto done their work around race." Walker fails to understand that whenever a fight for fundamental liberties is parsed into subsets and factions, it is immediately weakened. It is especially weakened should it try to "reach out" to mythological racial factions. An opinion that begins "As a [fill in the blank]" is seriously missing the point of feminism. Feminism is simply part of the larger goal of universal human rights. One needn't even say "As a woman..." or "As a man..." If you have something to say, don't wait for a color-coded or religion-coded or sex-coded invitation. Stand up and talk.

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner's comments about "re-appropriating" feminism from its negative connotations were offensively stupid. No amount of right-wing spin can drag "feminist" down to the level of "nigger." And no amount of left-wing rationalization will ever convince me that "nigger" has been rehabilitated for African-Americans. "Nigger" is for creeps and morons who hate themselves, no matter who says it.

With these sorts of bizarre distractions, no wonder the F word is in trouble.

-- Conrad Spoke

Does it matter what we call feminism? Seriously, does it?

It seems to me that the more time we spend bickering about whether or not we're feminists, humanists, egalitarians or any other such word, the less time we have to, say, discuss the best way to go about finding and promoting someone to replace Sandra Day O'Connor.

I don't label myself anything in particular. Feminist? Sure! Humanist? Why not? Fat, ugly dyke? Wouldn't be my choice of words, but if it's yours then by all means, run with it.

How about this: Instead of asking me what I am, ask me what I believe in. Look at what I work toward rather than what cheeky sound bite sticker I may or may not slap on myself. Or have slapped on me.

Even if we do come up with one all-encompassing word, there are still going to be a thousand variations underneath. Not every feminist believes the same thing, not every humanist -- sure it's more complicated, but this isn't a simple issue. And yes, it'll be demonized at some point. So what? Women's rights should be about the issues, not the name.

-- Emily Rush

Whenever I hear feminists talking about women still being second-class citizens, I am reminded of the Eleanor Roosevelt quote about being a victim because you allow others to treat you as one. Get over it already! Continuing to view yourselves as second-class citizens and eternal victims is only going to extend your suffering.

Arguing over the use of a word proves to me that feminists are just a bunch of middle-class/wealthy white women who really have nothing better to do with their time. The fact that Salon keeps giving page space to this kind of faux disaffected class is disheartening to say the least, and leads credence to the right's view that liberals are wishy-washy milquetoasts.

-- Meredith Bateman

I say this with no disrespect, because the same could be said about any of a thousand recent articles and books, but Rebecca Traister's "The F Word" nicely illustrates what's wrong with the left. Do those on the right sit around fretting about what they should call themselves? No, they spend their time thinking up creative new smears like "feminazi." We should return the favor. Forget about whether "feminism" or "liberal" or any other such terms are either accurate or politically wise; focus on what we can call our opponents, fairly or unfairly, that will put them on the defensive for once. The term "Christianists" used in War Room and elsewhere is a good start, but it has the defect of not being libelous enough. How about calling opponents of stem-cell research "disease lovers," and apologists for our foreign-financed national debt "antinationalists" and "China appeasers"? How about pointing out that those who want to waste our underequipped military in Iraq are "Osama's accomplices" and "G.I. killers"? Oh, and memo to Dick Durbin and his fellow Democratic wusses: Please don't undercut us by apologizing. For anything. Ever.

Do we not go this route because we worry it won't work? But the right has proven it does. Or do we think it will debase the public discourse? Please. The only thing that will get the other side to lay off, thus raising the tone of public debate in the long run, will be the threat of mutual assured destruction -- a situation where name-calling hurts both sides equally. As long as they have the field to themselves, they'll keep doing it and keep winning.

-- Jeff Smith

I am co-director of an international young women's organization, FAIR Fund. Every day, I see young women working toward gender equality from the Balkans to the United States. Some of them don't call themselves feminist; many do. At the end of the day, each and every one of them are achieving real change in their community, regardless of their terminology. But, my organization chose to use the "F" word explicitly in our mission statement because we feel that we should be taken seriously and have the right to use the word to define our success. We are not going to back down from a word because a few people have tried to twist gender equality into a bad thing. We build on the work of older feminists and have educated thousands of younger women about issues ranging from preventing human trafficking through our Campus Coalition Against Trafficking to creating democracy youth movements to advocate stronger laws against gender violence. We are young, feminist and not backing down!

-- Andrea Powell

I'm a 34-year-old liberal woman. I don't consider myself a "feminist" because repeatedly in the past (particularly while I was in college in the early '90s) women who do call themselves "feminists" have told me that I'm not one. They told me that I was not feminist because I am pro-pornography, because I am sympathetic to certain aspects of the antiabortion movement, because I questioned the academic rigor of certain elements of the traditional "women's studies" curricula, and for many other ideas and attitudes that are not in line with "feminist" dogma. So, I decided if they are feminists and they say that I'm not one, then I must not be one.

Simply: If this is what feminism is about, I don't want any part of it. Stifling women's voices because they dare to think for themselves sounds like what I thought feminism was supposed to be fighting -- not embracing.

And no, I don't have the motivation to try to "reclaim" the term -- if it means so much to certain "feminists" to keep women like me (in other words, women who don't faithfully preach the party line) out of the movement, let them have the term. I think the women's movement would be much better served by dropping its fixation on the word itself and addressing the reasons why we don't call ourselves feminists.

-- Jen Matis

Brava for Rebecca Traister for pointing out how a new generation of women is reinventing the labels and goals of feminism. But while celebrating the reinvention of the movement, Traister (and many of those she interviewed) shouldn't forget how much different generations of feminists have in common.

Debates over the meaning of "feminism" have defined the movement from the start. Ever since young radicals protested the Miss America pageant in 1968, throwing aprons and other symbols of female oppression into a Freedom Trashcan while others questioned their tactics, feminism has been a movement in internal flux. As in the early days of the second wave, today's fight for feminism is about the way we do feminism, the meaning of personal politics, and the movement's ability to withstand reinvention by diverse and ever-widening constituencies. To movement veterans, the questions young feminists are asking themselves should seem achingly familiar: What's a "feminist" act? Who decides? What's the source of women's oppression? What's the path to lasting change? OK, so now we're questioning the word "feminist" too. But the important thing is that through the very act of debating the continued relevance, meaning, form and shape of feminism, younger women (and men) are proving that the battle to name, claim and redefine it lives on.

-- Deborah Siegel

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------