What’s in a Name? Saying the F-Word and Why it Matters

This weekend I got into a conversation with someone who described himself as an “anti-feminist.” It was actually a conversation (an exchange in which both parties speak and listen), not an exhausting encounter in which one person attempts to antagonise and undermine, rather than hear, the other: I know I’m not alone in having experienced many of those “conversations” about feminism! Towards the end of what was, for me, a fun and respectful exchange, I shared a brief 3-question test. It goes like this:

1. Do you believe that there are power imbalances in the world along gender lines?

2. Do you believe that this is a bad thing?

3. Do you believe there’s something that can be done about it?

The deal is, if you answer yes to all 3 questions, you’re a feminist – if you answer no to any, you’re not (were I more technologically able, I would have made a flowchart).

I don’t know who originally came up with this; I learnt it from friends who had taken Professor Deslauriers‘s Intro to Feminist Theory class at McGill. * While it has limitations, I like a lot of things about this formula. It puts the issue of power right at the centre of feminism: exactly where it should be. It doesn’t specify where power imbalances lie, describe their impact, or advocate methods for tackling them, leaving plenty of room for differences and debate among feminists. It outlines a skeleton of core beliefs, but allows individuals to flesh out their feminism based on their ideas and experiences.

My favourite thing about this “test” is that it’s simple and clear. As a result, I’ve found it an invaluable tool when debunking myths about the movement, challenging generalisations, and, above all, suggesting to people that “feminist” is a word they could use to describe themselves. On this occasion, my interlocutor – though he answered yes to all 3 questions – laughed off my conclusion that he is a feminist. This got me thinking: if someone’s beliefs and actions are feminist, should it matter to me whether they adopt the label?

International Women’s Day recently provided some discussion in the media about what being a feminist means and why it matters. Novelist Linda Grant directly addressed “young women who say they are not feminists” on Twitter, recalling that in 1979 she couldn’t get a store card without her husband or father’s signature. Her point – that many women enjoy rights and freedoms that were won by feminism, yet recoil at the idea of identifying as feminists – clearly resonated with a lot of people. Thousands shared their experiences of sexism, both historic and contemporary; a spontaneous, communal testimony to the relevance of feminism which became athousandreasons.com.

I share Grant’s frustration with, as she calls them, I’m-not-a-feminists. I’ve spent many hours trying to convince people that they’re probably feminists already and just don’t know it – perhaps because they’ve been misled by all the misogynist claptrap about feminism that’s rife in the media. When people do come around to the idea, I feel it as a small victory. But is persuading someone to call themselves a feminist an end in itself?

Also on IWD, Zoe Williams argued that feminism has “a problem with ideological purism”, with feminists wasting valuable energy on an impossible goal of total unity. She denies, though, that she is “one of those beaming, inclusive” types who priorities self-identifying as a feminist above all else. Williams’ point, and her aside about “blue feminist” Louise Mensch, highlights for me one of the weaknesses of the model above. The 3 questions don’t necessarily rule out those whose values and actions perpetuate the oppression of women (for example, supporting economic policies that disproportionately disadvantage women).

While I believe that dissent is healthy within any moment, I know that I draw the line somewhere. If you’re passionate about closing the pay gap, but spend your weekends intimidating women accessing abortion services, I really don’t want you on my team. It would, however, be naive and counter-productive to suggest (or require) that no feminists ever participate in the oppression of women, particularly if you’re alive to the intersections of sexism with classism, racism, capitalism, ablism, transphobia, lookism, heterosexism, etc. Maybe a 4th question on intention would be useful: “are you committed to ending oppression?” This might weed out those who call themselves feminists to court much-needed female voters (cynical? Me?) while in reality doing worse-than-nothing to advance women’s position in society.

I digress: enough on the tiny minority of self-identifying feminists whose use of the title I question, and back to all those I’m-not-a-feminists who I really want to start claiming the name. Why do I care? Maybe because I believe that people identifying as feminists helps create solidarity. If someone uses the label, it suggests that we’re going to have things in common: not that we’ll have similar answers on everything (how dull that would be!), but that we’ll be interested in similar questions. Depending on the context, there can be a tangible feeling of relief and safety accompanying this connection. Challenging patriarchy can be demoralising, frightening, and dangerous. Everyone needs allies, and it’s good to know how to find them.

Secondly, I value precision: if we’re advocating or denying “feminism”, let’s check we’re talking about the same thing. When I ask what someone means by “I’m not a feminist”, frequently they’re distancing themselves from a total caricature. They mean that they don’t hate men, or that they are a man, that they don’t believe women are essentially victims, or that they like having sex. People really believe that these things are mutually exclusive with being feminists. Stereotypes about feminism are powerful tools to generate misogyny and maintain patriarchy: they scare people away from the label, from the movement, from noting or objecting to sexism for fear of being called a feminist. And those stereotypes are pervasive as fuck.

The most important thing, I recognise, is dismantling those power imbalances foregrounded by the 3-step feminist test. If the I’m-not-a-feminists are fighting oppression, maybe it’s a misdirection of my energy to get evangelical about the label itself. But the fact that feminism is such a dirty word is evidence of how vital it still is. More people identifying as feminists means more people challenging the misinformation and mudslinging about feminism. And I can’t help but feel that that would give us a better a shot at being heard and making change.

* And I apologise to Prof. Deslauriers, and those who actually took the class, if I’m getting the precise wording wrong!


2 Comments on “What’s in a Name? Saying the F-Word and Why it Matters”

  1. jbeard4 says:

    About a year ago, I had a conversation with Professor Hasana Sharp who also teaches a course on feminism at McGill (I didn’t take the course), in which I told her that I did not describe myself as a feminist, because, while I felt I would probably agree with the basic precepts of feminist philosophy (essentially those that you described), I did not feel that these beliefs motivated my actions in real ways in my everyday life. I feel like calling oneself a feminist implies that one is, in some capacity, attempting to actively advance the cause of feminism, i.e. that a feminist is also necessarily a kind of activist, and thus I felt that it would be unfair to apply this label to myself. At the very least, I felt I should at least feel *motivated* to be active, but that was also untrue, perhaps because I had never (really, I think, never) directly experienced sexism. It wasn’t until recently, with the appalling and incessant right-wing assault on women’s health issues in the US in the wake of the Republican presidential primaries, that I was galvanized into properly think about feminist ideology and what it means to me. During the Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke debacle, I remember clearly thinking “This guy is going to turn me into a feminist.” I feel like when the right pushes hard in one direction, people who might only passively agree with the ideas behind feminism, and thus reject the label, may push back.

    • Thanks for your thoughts! I’ve wondered about this idea of active v. passive feminists too. I actually don’t remember if question 3 started out as “Do you believe something can be done about it?” or “do you believe there’s something you can do about it?” – the latter would put quite a different spin on the whole thing. I respect someone not wanting to use the label if they don’t feel they’re actively participating in feminism. But I wonder: have you ever heard people being sexist and called them out on it? Have you ever challenged things people have expected of you that are traditionally “masculine” but you don’t identify with? I think there a huge range of ways in which people can, as you say, actively advance the cause of feminism. A lot of those happen in small, interpersonal ways which are hugely valuable.

      I’m pretty sure I know what you mean by saying you had never directly experienced sexism (that you’ve never been disadvantaged by it?), but that caught by eye. With pervading systems of oppression I think it’s worth being mindful of how we use the word “experience,” – e.g. I’ve never been discriminated against on the grounds of my race, but if I say I’ve never experienced racism, am I denying that the unearned white privileges I enjoy every day are a result of racism?

      On your last point, I’m heartened to hear that this horrendous attack on reproductive rights is at least galvanising people. “Rush Limbaugh Made Me A Feminist” sounds like a great T-shirt slogan to me!


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