Monday, November 12, 2012

Feminist in all but name

It never fails to take me aback when people say "I'm not a feminist but.." and then follow the "but" with an opinion that indicates that the person is quite likely to agree with the basic principles of feminism, in the sense of believing in political, economic, and social rights for women.
OK, so there are worse things than this; it is not difficult to think of many worse things than people who are feminists-in-all-but-name.

Even so, I was surprised the other day at an Administrative Meeting, when a female administrator whom I had not previously met came up to me and said:

 "The Vice-Person for Stuff told me that you are the first woman [position that I now hold in my university]. I'm not a feminist, but I think that's great. It's about time. We need more women [in that job] in the university."

She went on to say that the lack of women leaders in her unit of the university was a serious, longstanding problem. Most of the students and researchers are women, but few of the leaders are women. Every once in a while, a woman is allowed to be an interim head of something, but only until a man can be found to take over the job. She was frustrated by this, and more than a little cynical that it would change any time soon. She herself was an interim director and was certain that she would not be given the permanent position. She was sure they would replace her with a man, although she is highly qualified to keep doing this job.

Well, good thing she isn't a feminist because..

.. because why? I am having trouble finishing that sentence with anything that makes sense.

I don't even know why she chose to preface her sentence with "I'm not a feminist, but..". Why add that? If she had just said "I heard you're the first woman etc. and I think that's great", without the qualifier, what did she fear I would think? That she was a raving man-hating angry woman? That she is not automatically in favor of a woman being appointed to a position with some authority?

I did not ask her. I would very much like to help stamp out these twisted negative views of feminism/feminists, but after that strange little comment, our brief conversation focused on practical things that needed discussing in the short amount of time available.


Phillip Helbig said...

Obviously, it depends on the definition of "feminist". For some people, this means someone who believes that men are intrinsically better than women. Perhaps she wished to distance herself from such a view.

Rachella said...

This phenomenon drives me so crazy that I built a lesson on logical fallacy around it. I was teaching rhetoric and composition at the time so there was a clear connection, but a (female) student asked me why we were focusing on "women's studies, not Arisotle" exasperating!

Barefoot Doctoral said...

There is so much ire against feminists, that it is hard for some people to come to terms with that label. Just like there are pockets of society where it is hard to admit one's true political alegiance.

Anonymous said...

I used to do the same earlier: start off saying "I'm not a feminist". That's because in my mid-teens, the feminists I met were (with hindsight) rabid men-haters, quick to tar ALL men with the tainted brush of many men. And on the campus where I studied, being feminist meant being one of them.

Soon, though, I realised that I am a feminist in a better sense than many of them were. So, now, I don't start with "I'm not a feminist". Nor do I start with "I'm a feminist". I just state my view, and if I get a "Oh, you're a feminist", my reaction is "whatever label you wish. Now can we discuss the issue-at-hand?" It helps me immensely, in both the short and the long run, to not get repeatedly dragged into a pedantic discussion about other feminists, and others who think they are feminists, and ... :-)


Vee Miller said...

I think it's fear driven: if they were to self-define as a feminist what else might they demand and how would the system punish them (because it's not exactly rewarding them now). I always want to ask which rights they would give back, but (usually) manage to stop myself... However I think it's good that people are asking these questions out-loud, however they define themselves.

Anonymous said...

As many "feminisms" as there have been over the decades, I could see a person having one or two of them with which they wouldn't want to be associated.

Would a modern person really want to be classed with the "sameness" feminists of ancient times whose work could obscure the fact that women do face deeply different issues from men in some settings (thus discounting any need for protection against pregnancy discrimination, for instance)?

Would a modern person want to be classed with the "difference" feminists, who were later rightly criticized for suggesting that there was a single, and superior, "women's way" of absolutely anything?

And among the later critical feminist approaches more subtle than either, who can say where they want to cast in their lot?

Milton Friedman memorably said in the 1960's, "In one sense, we are all Keynesians now; in another, nobody is any longer a Keynesian."

Anonymous said...

I think this phenomenon has to do with the backlash against feminism we are in the middle of. It's definitely a thing.

I find that people are scared of feminism, certainly out of ignorance and misunderstanding, but scared nonetheless. It is unfortunate. They are even scared by my merely reading books about feminism. Scared of books!!

Anonymous said...

As someone who was in college in the early 1970s, and having struggled then to revise my own views and those of my "raising", its hard for me to understand how we got back to to the point where one would be afraid/reluctant to be labeled a feminist. It's a pretty simple idea.

Merriam Webster definition:the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.

OED definition number 2: Advocacy of the rights of women (based on the theory of equality of the sexes)

Wikipedia definition: Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women

Equal rights, pure and simple. What's not too like? Especially as the father of two daughters.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

I always find the whole "I'm not a feminist" thing annoying because the people who say it are often enjoying the benefits of things that feminists have worked hard to achieve. Although I'm sure that many of them don't intend to sound ungrateful, that's how it comes across to me.

Of course, I suppose there are people out there who would say that these are things that would have happened eventually anyway, just like we need to wait around until the percentage of female full professors equals the percentage of female grad students. Just wait, mind you, don't make a big deal out of it.

Anonymous said...

The interesting question here is not why some people are uncomfortable calling themselves feminists, but why mention it at all? (as the post asks) Is there a backstory that this woman has and that makes her blurt this out in a defensive (???) way in otherwise normal conversation???

Psycgirl said...

While I understand why some women might do this (and many other commenters outlined why) this makes me want to punch the speaker in the face.

EliRabett said...

It's easier to deal with than "I am not a racist"

Becca said...

Given her situation, let's hope she was trying to say "Just because I'm a feminist doesn't mean I think I deserve to be the permanent Administrator simply because we haven't had any women. I might deserve to be the permanent Administrator because I am competent and smart, like you, dear FSP, but I'm not sure that's enough, more's the pity."

Perhaps she's encountered ambitious women who have used feminism as a thin veneer for personal ambition, but not supported other women. Or perhaps she wants to establish support of you, and you for her, on some basis more personal than "just" feminism.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. CNN just came out with an article on the millennial generation and their unwillingness to call themselves feminists.

Anonymous said...

I get so frustrated with this type of thing. Since when did being a feminist become something to run away from? I think part of this is that we've let the wrong people frame how we talk about this. It's like how conservatives have re-framed 'liberal' as a dirty word. I am a liberal feminist and proud of both of those things.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comparison to "I am not a racist, but." Now, that's almost always followed by something racist. Otherwise, one wouldn't start it with the defensive posture.

Is that true about feminism, to? Does someone always follow, "I am not a feminist, but" with a feminist statement? If so, maybe we can be pleased that they react to the social pressure not to be feminist by saying they're not feminist, but being feminist anyway. At least that's going in the right direction.

The RadFemWay said...

"I'm not a feminist but.."

People who say that really are not feminist.

Anonymous said...

If you're not a feminist, then you must not believe in equality for women. Shame on you!

Anonymous said...

Anon at 12:02, let's not go there. There's no reason to put words in someone else's mouth. That's like saying "if you're pro-choice you must think it's OK to kill babies" or "if you're pro-life you must think it's OK to tell women what to do with their bodies". Neither of these things are necessarily true, but both contribute to an atmosphere where labels like "feminist" bring baggage that a person might not want.

CSgrad said...

Funny, I read that CNN article, and I see no statistics at all on whether millennials (of which I am one) are less likely to call themselves feminists (of which I am one) than other generations. Just some quotes from a few people and some substanceless babble.

Anonymous said...

Days late, dollars short, as usual.

There was a short period I said something similar (only if pressed, never introduced a line of conversation with "I'm not/but"). In my case, I'd elide feminist into humanist and then give the ole' "patriarchy hurts men, too" spiel. I used this with specifically anti-feminist women and potential-ally-but-probably-never-pressed-on-the-matter men.

I can still trot it out when my social context requires it.

Lots of people let Rush Limbaugh and his ilk define what feminist means.

That being said, am I allowed to use colorful and anatomy specific expletives here? In order to comment on this "I'm not a feminist, but..." topic, I really, really want to. Of course, I plead that most of my nouns are modified by obscenities even in normal conversation as I work in construction.

There are days when I have a great deal of sympathy for women who've been raised within the strictures that make them terrified to stand up for themselves. It is exhausting, even if one was raised by people who praised the child when said (female) child stood her ground. Then, there are other days when all I can hear in my head is "Get back into the safe little kitchen and bedroom, then, you useless piece of trash. Leave the playing field empty of women who want the moral support and the examples but don't have the spine to provide them and OWN the labels. I don't need to carry you, especially if you are someone who let's the rest of the world define you."

When my marriage was visibly on the way out, my now-ex was working overtime on defining me as a man-hating evil woman, probably unsuitable to raise a male child and certainly unsuitable to be given any benefit of the doubt in a divorce. He had also fallen back on an ancient patriarchal tactic to demoralize me (that I'm not going to detail here) quite a bit before we reached the divorce stage. All that drama and (in my entirely unprofessional opinion) mental illness that he created to bolster his ego only ultimately reaffirmed my feminism -- after I got over the shock of seeing something so primal come out. Then, having to listen to advice and commentary on the breakup from women that was culturally complicit in backing up his justifications told me that many, many females are terrified. They think that outing themselves as feminists -- that is, people who are willing to own the label, publicly identify as something that so many others use as a scapegoat -- is going to break apart their carefully-constructed chimera of girl power or traditional marriage or whatever other armor they are wearing against the Fear.

You know what? There is no safe space. Denying feminism and not standing firm with one's own rights whether or not they are acknowledged by others won't protect you.

Anonymous said...

if she has any personal religious bent at all, then feminism has all sorts of negative connotations. (religious conservatives often say that feminism is the root of all of present day society's ills)

gmr said...

I forgot if I commented on this post already. Anyway, I was just remembering a time when a variant of this issue came up in my own life. I play music and to that end I'm usually with a bunch of guys. I was vaguely mentioning feminism and one guy friend of mine was like, "Wait, you're not a feminist, are you? I never thought of you that way." What he meant was, "Wait, I thought you were cool and easy going and didn't complain about sexism at every turn."

On one hand I should be thankful that my friend thinks I'm cool, but on the other hand I'm pissed that my friend doesn't realize that he's a feminist too if he thinks women should be treated with respect. (which he does.)

The Alchemist said...

I encourage you to keep that exchange in your hip pocket so you can dig a little if that phrase ever passes by. I too wonder what people really mean sometimes.

The feminist movement has managed to create some stereotypical behaviors along the way that some people don't want to be associated with. It really does mean different things to different people. The common definition is a lot more nuanced than the dictionary definition. The speaker is probably trying to distance themselves from them, while staying with some core set of ideals.

I've heard the phrase, "I'm not a feminist but..." or some variation, before. In context, it meant that the speaker does not espouse views or behaviors that feminism has become associated with.

-Speaker does not subscribe to the belief that reality is fundamentally different for women than men. (Think of the quantum mechanical implications if this were true! The Heisenberg equation would have a gender term in it!) See: Epistemology of Feminist Theory.

-The speaker does openly despise a person solely on the basis of gender. (See: SCUM Manifesto)

-Speaker thinks that certain stereotypical behaviors (e.g. describing all small aspect ratio objects as phallic and domineering, using gender specific spelling ~wymyn~, drum circles, and dancing in the woods at all hours) do not make real progress at identifying and correcting issues of inequality.

So, maybe the speaker really means to say that they want equality, not Toril Moi.

Going back to the labels thing, they might want to be called humanists. Then they get to advocate LGBT, religious, racial, and age equality too!

Anonymous said...

feminism = man-hating lesbians.

Of course normal woman don't want to be confused with feminism

Anonymous said...

It's interesting seeing so many people mention the justification that some feminists/women in the feminist movement have given it a bad name, and so they were just distancing themselves from that particular image. I'm particularly struck by the person who said it came from all the feminists on his/her campus in school that actually fit into this mold. I suggest that there were likely a number of other feminists there, including some who would openly accept the label--the fact that the ones s/he remembers were obnoxious seems to be as likely to come from confirmation bias as a real trend. (Few of us go about our day-to-day lives in a way sufficient to overcome confirmation bias in our casual observations.)

My big point, however, would be the lack of commentary on how it's not just that some feminists fit the caricatures--it's that it of course has always been in those who oppose or fear feminism's ideas best interests to perpetuate the idea that openly being a feminist is an extreme, anti-social identity. Insofar as this is the case, it plays into the hands of those who would oppose the basic equality tenets of feminism to continue this identity-fleeing.

To be utterly and completely polemical--apologies in advance--it is a step towards "I'm not a ni**er-lover, but I think slavery should be abolished." In the admission, you've already given away the (rhetorical) game to those who oppose the values you say you espouse. Pretending (or assuming) that the image of Unpleasant Militant Feminism is purely the result of Unpleasant Militant Feminists, and not partially a result of active attempts to smear the movement at large, is to concede an important area for cultural change and struggle.

Anonymous said...

An example of what I was talking about in a well-written piece by the consistently good (imo) Amanda Marcotte:

"Negative stereotypes of feminists have so far proven impervious to reason, humor, excessive amounts of counterevidence, and even paradox. It is not uncommon for anti-feminists to accuse feminists in one breath of being humorless prudes, and then turn around and denounce them for being frivolous sluts. Sometimes, you even get treated to being told feminists are man-hating lesbians who demand gallons of contraception to deal with their overexposure to penis.

Anti-feminists wield these stereotypes because they work, and not just on people who are already convinced they hate feminism. These images, for instance, have done a great deal to scare women away from labeling themselves as feminists, or to even organize for women’s rights, all because they fear being painted as harridans (or sluts, depending on what’s more useful in the moment)."

Remember--it's not that stereotypes portray something that NEVER happens (some of the comments here indicate that people have met unpleasant feminists); it means that tarring a whole group with your founded or unfounded impressions or characteristics of a few is illogical and unreasonable.

Unknown said...

I think it's easier to be a self-avowed in contemporary society if you're a man. I speak of myself as a feminist and no one has ever suggested that I hate men or drawn any (verbalized, at least) conclusions about my sexuality because of this.

I agree that it's sad that many younger women seem uncomfortable self-applying the feminist label.