The Vagenda

My Friend the Feminist Who Won’t Call Herself a Feminist


It doesn’t take long these days for me to slide the fact that I’m a feminist into a conversation. I feel as though I have to let people know this upfront, because a.) I don’t shave my head but I do shave under my arms and b) my bras might have holes in them but I’ll be dammed if I burn them before I get a good 6 year use out of them.  As I fail to exhibit any of the obvious ‘clues’ (so-called by the male dominated mainstream media), I think it’s fair to let them know so that, if in conversation, they’re ill-informed enough to ask if the victim was drunk, they’re forewarned of the tirade that shall be a’coming their way.
I have a friend who I have known for donkeys years. We both thought more was more when it came to applying glitter for the year 6 disco, we were both quite late for the whole boyfriend thing, and we’re both prone to forget the dangerous effects of Jaegerbombs on a bi-weekly basis. A few years ago, we both trundled up north to University, her to study Law and me to study English. She then spent some time traveling in Oz whilst I hopped from job to job at home. Recently we found ourselves back in our home town for a while and spending every weekend at the local. And here is where I discovered that she isn’t a feminist.
But she is.
She is in the terms that I define my own feminism. She believes in equality.  

But that’s all I know about what her views on the subject. When pushed, it transpires that she sees feminism as a dirty word, something that still means you hate men. 
‘But wouldn’t  you be pissed off if you joined a law firm and started to work your way up, but at the same time there was a guy, same age, same qualifications, same time working up the ladder but he got paid more than you?’

‘Yes, but that doesn’t happen anymore.’

‘Yes it does.’

‘Fine, that’s not fair but I’m still not a feminist.’

I’ve lent her my copy of ‘How to be a Woman’ as sort of a gentle introduction, but I’m pretty sure it’s collecting dust in her bedroom.
Should it bother me that she won’t call herself a feminist? Surely it is just a word, and actions should speak louder than any label?
But it bothers me. She is clever, bright, academic, witty and wins many a debate in the last 5 minutes before kicking out time in the pub. Why wouldn’t she want to describe herself as something that embodies her beliefs?
My mother also doesn’t call herself a feminist. 7 years ago she reluctantly took over a Girl Guides group in our town. Within weeks they had done away with the singing around a toadstool and now they go swimming and bike riding and also do an Eco Beach clean once a summer. They host talks from women who are in careers that are typically thought of as men’s professions. A surgeon, an engineer and a politician from the Welsh Assembly all came to talk for an evening about their careers to a group of girls between 11 and 14 years of age. That, I think, is a great Monday night and an active fight against the slow and subtle sexism that these girls might experience in school. But my mum says she’s not a feminist. 
Should it matter then that these two women actively disregard the word ‘feminist’. Is it just a label? The belief in the fight for equal treatment is surely what truly matters? So does it matter if they actively avoid the word?
Is the fight less valuable if it is fought on individual terms? The same values still exist, headway is potentially still being made, we are united in our goals, just not our proclamation of the word. Looking at the outcomes of the #fbrape campaign, it is again proof that it takes people coming together, standing up together and saying together that something isn’t right for it to have an effect. We’re stronger fighting for our sex, not just ourselves.
Should I be berating for her to realise that the word has changed? That it can mean what you want it to mean. Feminist is how I describe myself, but every feminist argument does not define my own thinking. Occasionally I admit I find the word headlining a fight I don’t believe in. I think body hair is your choice and that’s all we need to say about it. Louise Mench needs to realise she may want to be a role model, but she’s not a model that most of us were built on. Feminism to me is a dynamic word. It holds people together through movements that can lead to change, and argues against FGM and 14 year olds subjected to abuse on crowded buses.  With violence against women still going on, it angers me that someone could be embarrassed by a word that is used by those campaigning against these atrocities. But does it matter? As long as they are against what is happening in the world, should we care what they call themselves?
With more and more women in the public eye cautiously hopping around the word feminism, and young girls verbally abused in schools for daring to proudly label themselves as feminists, should we be surprised the word attracts a mixed reaction even from those who believe in the principles of feminism?

I realise that I haven’t answered any of my own questions. Perhaps you can. 
- BG

18 thoughts on “My Friend the Feminist Who Won’t Call Herself a Feminist

  1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that feminism covers a broad range of arguments that we might not all agree with, whereas a lot of people think that it means you agree with the whole spectrum of feminist topics. For every woman that hates having a door held open for her, there’s another who sees it as a gentlemanly gesture, which is why I think if you’re a woman,. you’re a feminist. We’re just all different versions of what is ultimately just a word.

  2. The problems arise when not identifying as a feminist translates into disliking those who do. Believing in equality is still valid on an individual basis, but when those individual voices refuse to support a cause because it is labelled ‘feminist’, or read a book because it is labelled ‘feminist’, or vote for a politician because they label themselves a ‘feminist’, then we got troubles.

  3. If we are still using the word feminist, then yes, if you believe in the principles, you should call yourself one. It’s not the name that is the problem, it is people’s reaction to it. My mum wouldn’t call herself one either but she is, no matter how much she protests against the use of the word for herself. If you are, then you are. In this, I really override someone when they show all signs of being feminist but shy away from calling themselves that. It’s just pointless to act upon such a dynamic but refuse to use the name for it

  4. No we don’t need a new word. If we got a new word, the patriarchal forces that have so successfully demonised feminism would swing straight into action and make the new word dirty too. While also ridiculing us for being pathetic little women who gave in to their bullying over the old word (which, if we did change the word, we would completely deserve).

    Surely this is SO obvious that we don’t need to have the ‘should we have a new word so that people who don’t believe in gender equality will like us better even though they won’t because they don’t believe in what we stand for’ discussion EVER AGAIN.

  5. sigh, feminism…. Pardon me for some spelling mistakes, english is not my primary language and I haven’t rly ever studied it either.

    “If you’re not with us, you’re against us!”

    The feminism movement is not ’bout equality from the starting point. It was to help women achieve better spot in areas where they were doing worse than men, as an example ancient Greek. I haven’t seen single one of you trying to get equality in areas, where females are in better shape than men.

    Somehow I think people have forget that during this time of fashion of being a feminism.
    And yes, it is fashion atm to be one, no matter how you put it it is the truth.

    Your friend agrees on the fact that she wants equality on her workplace. She wants to get paid equal amount as her possible male counterpart on same job with same education. That is fine, we all want it. But it doesn’t make you the supporter of feminism if you wish that to happen.

    Majority of the salaries (atleast here, where I live in western modern countries) are agreed beforehand between the unions and thus you can’t rly affect your salary any way when you start in a job.
    When you apply in a job which doesn’t have preset salary, if you walk away with bigger salary than the other one, it only makes you more skilled in negotiations and not priviledged. The company tries anyway to pay as little as possible, as long as you’re not overskilled in your job and they pay you more than the others to keep you in their company. This again, makes it a question of your skillset and how good you are in your job, and not about your gender.

    Just ’cause you believe in some of the principles of movement, doesn’t make you the supporter of that movement. I believe some of the principles of feminism myself. But I do aswell believe in some of the principles of Marxism. Does this make me communist? I have doupt about that since I dont want to see government guided by the rules of marxism.

    In the modern western countries there is no real need for feminism movement imho. I understand the movement in some of the African countries where woman is on the same line as the dog in regards of respect. And in those countries it can actually be about equality, since males are so much more priviledged than females.

    But in western countries, if feminism is ’bout equality(as you wrote above) why I don’t see your movement defending males in the divorce cases, where the custody of kids is given to the female on 4 cases of 5 without even considering the male. And giving an excuse like “women are better taking care of child” is just wrong, since it is proven both by example and studies that male is as well capable on nursing as female is, aslong as you don’t need to breastfeed the baby. This is somewhat difficult task for males as we all can understand.

    tl; dr: Feminism movement in western countries is as bad as male chauvinism and shouldn’t be alive at all. If you want equality then say you’re equality supporter and not a feminism and work towards it.

  6. You appear to confuse redressing the balance of inequality (feminism) with replacing one prejudice with another. Why, if you feel it is ridiculous to be discriminated against on the basis of gender would that automatically mean that you would wish to discriminate against anyone else in the same way? You also appear to assume that all feminists are female – which of course they are not. I find it interesting that individuals fail to see the irony of comments along the lines of “it isn’t necessary anymore, what on earth are you fussing about” and “they have it worse elsewhere”, with the subtext of “silly women, they know not of what they speak or what is best for them”. Basically I think your comment illustrates quite nicely why feminism as a movement is still very much necessary.

    As far as the word goes, I think it’s really important that we use it where we can; any refusal to do so feels like collusion. As the author points out, you are still verbally abused for using it on a regular basis. The more it is used, and that abuse made clear to be inappropriate, the less of an issue it will become (or at least that’s what I’m hoping…) I know a number of people approaching pensioner age but who actively campaign, for example, for greater equality for women in science and yet refuse to use the word because it “means something different to their generation”. Perhaps we can be the generation that manages to reclaim it?

  7. I suspect the problem is that there is no meaningful organisation. Without organisation or real leadership there is no means to push forward an agenda in any decent manner. Let’s imagine there is a news story tomorrow that affects homosexuals – you would have someone from Stonewall being interviewed on the news. If there was a news story that affects muslims – the news organisations would get someone from the Muslim Council of Britain on the phone. Chrisitans – the Archbishop and so on…. If there is a story that affects women in general or a specific equality issue – there is no feminist organisation with enough recognition who can be reliably called upon to speak out for feminists as a whole. In fact – under what circumstances would the news organisations ever bring on a feminist to speak on any issue ? I cannot think of a single item that is not directly linked to some other well established organisation.

    Whilst some groups have gained significant visibility like Object, they are usually single issue groups, not representing all feminist issues. As such, all there is for the general public is the legacy poor reputation that feminism has endured for decades with no truly successful media darling to challenge public opinion.

    More than that, what does it mean to be a feminist, why should someone support the movement and if they agree how should they support the movement ? If you can’t explain in under two sentences – then people get bored and switched off. With feminisms reputation as it is, two sentences might even be too generous.

    Rather than try to convince people there really are feminists, maybe it would be better to get them to actively support the already successful single issue groups to help them achieve critical mass. i.e. use a standard business tool – convince them to support a group that has specific, measurable and achievable goals — Object again as an example has all these three in spades, feminism as a whole, not so much.

  8. Isn’t the real problem with individual responses to issues of women’s equality, however aligned with feminist principles, that they are individual responses? Second Wave feminism adopted the dictum that ‘the personal is political’. It enjoined women first to recognize that their individual experiences were the product of social and cultural convention, and then to address those conventions collectively. The word is important because it is a call for collective action, rather than or in addition to individual action – or perhaps a way of organising a host of seemingly disparate individual actions and identifying them in terms of what they all seek to achieve.

  9. I completely agree with you but I have recently established a Feminist Society in my high school and it is very difficult to ensure attendance. Many students (boys and girls) dislike the actual label: ‘Feminist’, although I do not see anything wrong with it. Perhaps, we can make the movement stronger if we rename the label to ‘Genderist’. For me, there is absolutely no difference between those words but at the same time I can understand why some may find the label outdated. It’s a difficult debate.

  10. How can ‘feminism’ ever understand its image problem if, when this scenario happens, it is always the woman’s fault? There’s a deep irony when obviously bright women are accused of being silly and irrational by proponents of feminism.

  11. As a confused young man in the 80′s I was reading feminist press and books[one female flatmate said why you torturing yourself with that stuff !] and witnessed the hiccup that occurred back then that did so much to dent the image of feminism. A bit of history then for those who are young and perhaps a different angle for those around at the time,it is a personal view after all. What I observed was that as the feminist press became absorbed into a difficult debate as to whether educated middle class women could represent the interests of poor working women,and also a nice debate about the effects of relationship breakdowns and cheating on women,suddenly post-feminism was announced out of nowhere. Whether or not a looming debate about men’s license to philander proved to be the last straw will never be known,but a load of dodgy post-feminism women with links to the fetish scene were wheeled out and the message that lives to today was established that feminism was dower and dykey and that a modern post-feminism woman need only take charge of her sexuality,look sexy,and be a strong woman to dispense with ‘old hat feminism’. As we were at the point where commentators and journalists were no longer actually reading whole books no one took issue with these ‘post-feminists’ for what they were really saying their message became mainstream without question, the damage living on to today. If you consider that at the time Camila Paglia’s thesis was prevaricated upon the notion that because women can’t piss directionally like a man then your thinking will always be directionless and you’d be better off sticking to being earth mother and sex goddess[one at a time only god forbid !] then the implications of what occurred are clear. One ‘post-feminist’ was even advocating sex with minors in those so called heady times. I am now an old git [still somewhat confused] but if I can add anything useful I’d say see where damage has been done and revive the image of feminism through strength and wit.If you’ve not read Susan Griffin’s The Silence of Pornography read it, to me it’s the best after Mary Wollenstonecraft’s original essay and in it she suggests that though legal equality is useful,true equality will only be achieved when women are perceived human first and female second; he’s a lawyer and handsome too,she’s a little hottie and a lawyer also ! Nelson Mandela achieved victory for the moral right,others for the abolition of slavery,so don’t give up on the long feminist fight and revive it with fresh attacks on sexism and new energy,the image problem will then dwindle away.

  12. There isn’t one party line in feminism but I think most would feminists would say that they support the equality of men and women and so would not support the idea that women should automatically be granted custody of children. If this is happening then it’s because of old-fashioned ideas about childcare and gender roles.

    I don’t think your argument or facts add up to anything at all.

  13. Huge respect to you for starting a Feminist Society. I can see why you’re grappling with the question in the context of high school, where you’re really at the sharp end of conformity pressures, and I’ve got a lot of sympathy. But I think that coming up with a new word for ‘feminism’ just looks – and is – weak. It is capitulation to opponents of women’s equality, and these opponents aren’t going away. Whatever you call yourselves, there will be female students who want to get boys to like them by positioning their own supposed femininity against your feminism, and male students who think that they are threatened by empowered women.

    Is there any forum where you can get students collectively to think about *why* they dislike the label, and realise that the reasons don’t have anything much to do with what feminism as a movement (as opposed to the usual high-profile public hate figures like Dworkins, Greer, etc) has done, but has a lot to do with what vested interests want them to think? – and that being afraid to identify with a movement in favour of equality and/or justifying hostility to it on the grounds that usually come up (“it’s too aggressive”; “what about the menz”; “you’ve already got equality, why are you whingeing” etc) – is just playing into the hands of people who want to preserve the status quo with all the associated privileges for a certain type of macho, successful male? There’s also the whole issue of how this sits inside capitalism and the sales potential in everything from gendered toys to the carefully nurtured insecurities of adult women. Or could you get the school to invite a good feminist speaker who might be able to do this?

    I suppose the other option is to rename your society along the lines of ‘the equality project’, ‘the social justice movement’, or something, an option that isn’t brilliant, but that doesn’t mean its activities can’t still be called feminist. If you start saying you’re ‘genderist’, people are going to want to know what on earth that is, and you’ll have to keep explaining that you didn’t want to call yourselves ‘feminist’, so this was the compromise – which I imagine could be very depressing and humiliating.

    Good luck, anyway.

  14. @ELS26 feels like you only read my tl; dr: part and not even all of that.

    I am fully aware that there is also male feminists. I base my argument of feminism not being ’bout equality on my experienses and observation over your acts. Saying that you’re all ’bout equality and equal changes on both males and females is nice., but as you can see from my original post the supporters of feminism are not working towards this. I only see you people ranting how women are in worse spot as men and trying to get them on better shape, not working/helping males to get better spot regarding on getting the custody of a child as an example. There are other things where men are much more less priviledg’d than females.

    If you actually want to change the sound of word “feminist” more positive, you should first change what it means. Idea of equality is nice behind it, but how the supporters of it are not acting like they should and are not actively working towards equality. More as working towards female supremacy.

    If you use your brain you should be able to understand what I ment when I said that feminism, as it is now, is not needed in modern western countries but we need an actual movement of equality which is not spoilt by big mouthed people who only stare their own stomach.

    I’m more than happy call my believe “feminism” if you, who are actually actively working under the name in public change what the word means. But for now, I stay with the “equality supporter” who looks the feminists with mainly pity and shame on his eyes. You have the idea but thus far you’ve failed to execute it anywhere near how it should’ve been done imo.

    I can only hope you will see this, since it took me so long to get time to actually sit down and think response for you and not just throw a quick glance on your post.

  15. Your position on child custody cases as a way to demonstrate how feminists are only pro woman just really doesn’t add up at all. If women weren’t discriminated at work, paid less, expected to be the primary carers for their children then probably more men would get custody of children. Women wouldn’t feel forced to be the ones to give up work because they are on a smaller salary, men could more commonly be the primary care givers.. Or share the responsibility equally with women. In which case men would fare much better in divorce courts. Being a feminist and promoting equality between the sexes benefits all humans. Simple.

  16. Feminism as a word could never be substituted for Genderism as a word. In my opinion, Feminism is specifically about WOMEN. that still means that men, boys, trans-gender, everyone is whole heartedly welcome to stand alongside in support of feminist causes but once you remove the female element of the name you lose the fact that we aren’t fighting for the equality of both genders because men already have the privilege. We are fighting for the right for women to be raised to the same level in society as men.