Ask ten people you know if they believe everyone, regardless of gender, should have equal rights and opportunities. I bet they’ll say yes. Then, ask those same people if they would call themselves a “feminist.” I’m not psychic, and I don’t have a crystal ball, but my prediction is . . .
Like, HELL no.
What’s that about? Why do so many people act as if the word “feminist” will bite them? And this isn’t just a few people we’re talking about. According to a 2013 Huffington Post poll, only 20% of participants considered themselves to be feminists, even though 82% of them said that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.” That’s a massive divide.
I teach Psychology of Women courses, and my students are unabashedly part of that divide. When I ask my students what comes to mind when they hear the word “feminism,” this is what they say:
Feminists hate men.
Feminists burn bras.
If you’re a feminist, you must be a lesbian.
Feminists can’t wear makeup.
Feminists are racist.
THIS is why they won’t call themselves feminists – because there’s so much baggage attached to that word. So let’s unpack this, one by one.
Feminists hate men. Hating men is not a requirement to being a feminist. The real issue isn’t with men; it’s with patriarchy – our social system that’s characterized by unequal power between men and women. On top of that, many feminists would argue that patriarchy is a breeding ground for toxic masculinity – the belief that the only way to be a “real man” is to be tough, unemotional, strong, and aggressive. Addressing patriarchy and toxic masculinity is very different from hating men.
Feminists burn bras. That’s the classic image of feminism – women burning their bras in protest. But guess what? It never happened. That’s right – bra-burning is a myth. There is zero historical documentation of any protest, demonstration, march, or rally where bras were burned. The only thing that even comes close was the “No More Miss America!” protest, organized in 1968 by a group called the New York Radical Women. They marched with signs. They handed out leaflets. They threw mops, pots and pans, makeup, false eyelashes, corsets, and bras into a “Freedom Trash Can.” And they engaged in a public disruption of the Miss America pageant. But no bras were burned. In fact, many believe that the image of the “bra-burning feminist” was created as a form of anti-feminist propaganda, intended to dissuade people from joining the feminist movement.
So you don’t have to burn bras in order to be a feminist. Although no one says you can’t.
If you’re a feminist, you must be a lesbian. Besides the fact that it isn’t true, there are a few issues with this statement. For one thing, the idea that “all feminists are lesbians” erases the fact that in the past, lesbians were not welcome in some feminist circles. Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), famously referred to lesbians as a “menace” to the feminist movement. But there’s another issue with this phrase. If women refuse to call themselves feminists because they’re afraid people will think they’re lesbians, well, that’s good old-fashioned internalized homophobia at work. And just like the “bra-burning feminist” stereotype, it’s a form of anti-feminist propaganda – AND a homophobic scare tactic. Don’t fall for it.
Feminists can’t wear makeup. Wait a minute. Didn’t the New York Radical Women throw makeup into the “Freedom Trash Can”? That must mean feminists can’t wear makeup, right?
Feminism isn’t a list of rules you have to follow in order to be a member of the club. It’s not that simple. First of all, you get to choose how you want to decorate your body. Period. And you have the right to make those choices and not be subjected to any form of body shaming.
But there’s a catch. Because with freedom comes responsibility. As feminists, while we have the right to choose our clothing, our hairstyles, our accessories, and our makeup (if we choose to wear it at all), we also need to ask ourselves why we’re making the choices we make, and what those implications are. Understanding how our choices move us closer or further away from liberation – and knowing that our choices might be limited, or due to gender socialization, or are a survival mechanism – is what feminism is all about.
Feminism is racist. OK, so this one actually has some legitimacy to it. If your brand of feminism is White feminism, and if it blatantly (or subtly) ignores the concerns of women of color, then yes, it’s racist. If feminist history whitewashes the racism of key figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, then yes, it’s racist. If women of color are criticized for not embracing feminism, not being feminist enough, or doing feminism “wrong,” that’s racist too. (Google “Beyoncé” and “feminism,” and you’ll see what I mean.) And if White women always get the microphone, and the voices of women of color don’t ever get center stage – yup, RACIST.
But that’s not how feminism has to be. In my not-so-humble opinion, feminism can only be an effective social justice strategy if it’s inclusive and intersectional. It needs to address the complex and overlapping issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender. That’s the kind of feminism I talk about in my upcoming book, FEMINISM FROM A to Z.
Guest Blog: Gayle E. Pitman
By day, Gayle E. Pitman teaches Psychology and Women/Gender Studies at Sacramento City College. By night, she writes children’s books and engage in other forms of subversive creativity. Her debut picture book, This Day in June, won the 2015 ALA Stonewall Award, was a Rainbow List Top Ten pick, and won the IRA’s 2014 Notable Books for a Global Society Award. Her books, teaching, and general commentary have been featured in publications including the Advocate, School Library Journal, the Huffington Post, and the Gay and Lesbian Review. She’s also been interviewed on National Public Radio, the BBC News, “Good Day Sacramento,” and various podcasts. Her newest book, Feminism from A to Z, releases on October 23.