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Has feminism become uncool?

Why are women increasingly reluctant to call themselves feminists?
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Mark Moyes, September 6, 2013 11:40:22 AM

I’m not a feminist, but.

It’s a phrase we’ve been hearing a lot recently. Katy Perry said it when accepting the “Woman of the Year” award from Billboard last year. Carrie Underwood said essentially the same thing. Madonna said it. Even Bjork echoed the sentiment.

The format is always some variation on this: “I’m not a feminist, but I believe in [equality / the strength of women / other feminist idea].”

Some would argue it’s a youth thing. There’s been a lot of ink spilled on Generation Y women and their relationship to feminism. “If you went up to a millennial and asked if they believe in equal rights for all, they would look at you like you’re crazy, because that’s a silly question,” Lauren Rikleen, executive-in-residence at Boston College, told CNN. “But if you ask if they’re feminist, there’s this backing away and an emotional reaction.”

What’s going on? Has feminism really become so uncool?

A hint, maybe, in this quote from the same article: “If a woman stood up for herself as a person (instead of) demanding rights based on gender, I think that’d be a much stronger platform,” said Sharon Rosenblatt, 24.

For a generation that grew up in the wake of the third wave of feminism, it seems that the gender divide is, if not less of an issue, perhaps less of a battle. Some are uncomfortable with the us versus them mentality.

As Taylor Swift famously said: “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls… I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”

But some find that problematic. Is the answer really to ignore gender differences altogether?

“Every smart, attractive woman considers it a compliment to see herself as not like the rest of women. That’s how you distinguish yourself as a Jane Austen heroine–she’s not like her other ridiculous sisters,” says Gina Barreca, professor of feminist theory at the University of Connecticut and author of the upcoming Not Just One of the Boys. Eventually women need to “stop seeing ‘you’re just like a woman’ as an insult, and ‘you’re just like one of the guys’ as a compliment. And that really doesn’t happen until women are in their mid-thirties.”

So Katy Perry is a feminist in waiting? Maybe, maybe not. But Barreca believes feminism is something that women often come to later in life. “Women are not tested by the stuff that they’re going to have to face until they reach a later age. They don’t have to see themselves as feminists,” not until they reach certain milestones: motherhood, for example. Or becoming, as Barreca puts it, “sexually invisble.”

Still, it’s not just young women or pop stars who are rejecting the feminist label. That pesky “I’m not a feminist, but-” phrase is not limited to the younger demographic. Academic scientists say it. News anchor Megyn Kelly said it. Marissa Mayer–President and CEO of Yahoo and mother, with a net worth of $300 million–said it. This guy said it when he asked people to give Miley Cyrus a break and direct some of their vitriol towards the douchey Robin Thicke. Breast cancer activists say it. (More on that later.) Even feminist blog Jezebel argued that it might be time to retire the term, since “feminism might be nearing her expiration date.”

People who reject the label point to the image of the feminist–as overtly political, even militant–as one of the reasons they feel uncomfortable with it. But it’s perplexing why this image persists, since the movement has existed in so many different forms and flavours, for so many years.

But that’s the thing. Feminism has persisted for over a century. The media has been proclaiming the death of modern feminism for decades. In 1989, a Time magazine cover story asked: “Is there a future for feminism?” Nine years later, in 1998, Time published another controversial cover, asking: “Is feminism dead?”

And here we are in 2013, hearing the same things. If popular culture is to be believed, the collapse of feminism is imminent. Or maybe just cyclical. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about it: “This is an important discussion, and it happens about every six years,” says Barreca.

One issue is that feminism is a political ideal, and some people just don’t self-identify as political, period. “In the mid 1990s sociologists Myra Marx Ferree and Beth Hess found that… the percentage of women who do identify as feminist was the same as the percentage of women who identify as Democrat or Republican,” says Amy Blackstone, Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology at the University of Maine.

Consider this: In the last U.S. election, 55 percent of women voters self-identified as feminist–an increase of 9 percent over the previous election. And given a follow-up question that defined feminism, that number rose to almost seventy percent.

This might just mean people need to be reminded of the definition. Blackstone has researched breast cancer and anti-rape activists who don’t identify as feminist. (“We’re not feminist, we’re just fair,” said one.) But as Blackstone points out, research shows that “despite media proclamations of the death of feminism, many young women in fact support feminist goals, even if they don’t label themselves feminist.” Blackstone’s own research points out that some people don’t like to identify as political even as they’re acting politically.

So to answer your question, Dear Reader: No, feminism is not uncool. Feminist ideas are alive and well, as is the activism fighting for its causes. There is still lots of work to be done, but despite what the media says, it is probably cooler than ever. It’s just the word we need to work on.

Photo by Cletch from Flickr.

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