A particularly inane game show was on the television set earlier this evening, and some wide-faced 19-year-old kid was chomping at a million dollar question. I won't bore you with the details -- I won't bore me with the details -- but the question this kid had to contemplate was, "What percentage of American women define themselves as feminists?"
The kid said between 23-33 percent. But then began to balk, wondering if that number was too high.
"Are you kidding me?" I yelled at the TV set. "The number better be closer to 90 percent."
The poor soul watching said show who had to endure my ranting gave me a quizzical look. "What are you talking about?" he asked. And then he put himself squarely in the mindset of the American female public, as the lame program on our television set demonstrated in the background. "By definition, I don't think you're a feminist."
As an instructor of rhetoric, I know all about the definition of the word feminism, and the ensuing debate ended with my friendly adversary yanking out our trusty Oxford American and reading out loud the following:
A supporter of women's claims to be given rights, opportunities, and treatment equal to those of men.
And there you have it. By definition, I don't think I know anyone who isn't a feminist. So why are we all so damned afraid to identify ourselves as such?
It isn't an easy question. I'm sure if our discussion had gone on any longer, the word "strident" would have made its way into the equation. The truth is, somewhere along the way, the term feminist has become bastardized into this evil, ugly, man-hating creature who wants to ruin families, burn her bra, and destroy the very fabric of the American way of life.
Please, I was born in 1974. I've never even heard of anyone setting fire to her undergarments in the past 30 years. (Personally, I find my own rather useful, thank you, not to mention too expensive to use as kindling.) [Editor's Note: Word!]
What else do we know about feminists? They don't shave their legs or armpits (and I assume bikini waxing isn't part of the lifestyle). They don't wear lipstick (or gloss or stain, and probably even Chapstick’s too dangerous). They do wear glasses -- but not the cute colored ones from Coach or DKNY; we're talking full dark frames, ticket straight to ugliness here.
But perhaps the most strident feature of the stereotype involves an utter loathing and strong feelings of disgust toward the male gender. Because men suck. And they’ve kept us down since the beginning of recorded time, and have collectively waged war against our natural resources, made sure we’d have to give up a part of our soul for just a fraction of the rights they enjoy, and have even taken away our names.
So that’s the stereotypical feminist.
But what are our alternatives?
Well, there’s always the status quo. I’m guessing the vast majority of American women who don’t identify themselves as feminists do so because they enjoy personal hygiene and compliments from their husbands and boyfriends, and those three things right there are defining characteristics that firmly do not pass the feminist stereotype muster.
But as we're enjoying all these things, like lipsticks and boyfriends, I have to wonder: do we think we're not feminists because we've overcome the prejudices, we've outgrown the ideas the term stands for? Do we really think we’re better off than we were a generation ago, or four?
Yeah, we have the right to vote. But what good has that done us? We may have the ballot, but we’ve done a lackluster job at getting women onto it. We find it easy to dismiss Hillary Rodham Clinton because she’s cold or she’s perceived as an ineffective wife, and yet, she’s pretty much all we’ve got as far as a national political leader who looks like us. Politics is still a rich white man’s playing field, and no one’s drafting any girls.
We talk a lot about blacks or Latinos or Asians having equal representation in everything from baseball to politics, and it’s almost funny that gender equality is rarely mentioned. Women make up half the U.S. population -- and a very big chunk of those devoted to John Madden on fall Sundays –- and yet no one’s funding studies or giving media interviews about the need to involve more women on NFL coaching staffs or in their front offices.
Frankly, it’s offensive. It’s offensive that I’ve let irrelevant idiots like Rush Limbaugh sound-bite me into a defensive position about a label that I should be proud to carry. It’s offensive that an older member of a Democratic women’s club said to me, “oh, you’re one of those girls,” upon learning that I’m one of the apparently rare 2007 women still using her maiden name. It’s offensive that I have to constantly prove and justify my love of sports to total strangers, despite the fact that the majority of women I know obsess about scores and standings just as much as I do.
But a lot of things are offensive. And the one thing I’ve learned being a woman in this man’s world of ours is to suck it up and smile. Block it out when our favorite radio show DJs make snide comments about the dumb whores who disagree with them -- or sexualize the ones who don’t. Ignore the way "bitch" has been co-opted as an insult to any woman, an insult now suitable for the family hour on network television. Be happy that I can live in a place where I can wear makeup and cheer for the Red Sox and hold a job and voice my opinions in a monthly column and not be punished for committing any or all of these actions while being a woman.
I memorized a Linda Ellerbee article back in high school that referred to feminism as the F word. I remember being young and idealistic, thinking that by the time I was a grown up, I wouldn’t have to deal with any of the inequality that Ellerbee’s generation did.
Well, it’s now 2007, and I don’t know if I can honestly say that yes, we’re better off now than we were twenty years ago. Feminism is still the F word, still a word that 71 percent of us refuse to claim as our own.
Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw
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8.10.07 @ 9:04a
I consider myself to be a feminist, because we *do* still have a lot of cultural prejudices that keep many women from reaching their full potential, although since I'm not the target of it, it's something I have to consciously remind myself about. I think that the term, though, has been degraded from association with specific movements or, worse, persons.
The term "feminism" has been very much associated with an upper-income, white, educated academia, which tends to come across as privileged to begin with, compared to lower-middle and working-class women. There's a tendency in humans in general to denigrate that which doesn't seem to apply to you (see also male knee-jerk reactions to feminism as a concept).
I suppose that it's true, though, that I don't shave my legs.
8.10.07 @ 10:01a
As a proud feisty chick, I am a feminist- tell me I can't compete as well in some instances (playing pool, pouring a drink, coming up with one-liners, hitting debate tournaments) just because I'm a girl, and I will purposely and personally refute those.
However, I must admit, I personally don't use the term. Like Brian, I think the term has been associated with and degraded by extremes (bra-burning, and- yuck- armpit hair). But I am mostly put off by anti-male rhetoric feminist groups spew, and don't like that feminism seems to implicitly endorse hating guys. With all the cultural prejudices that are already present, the anti-guy stuff doesn't help.
In the term's original sense and purpose- believing in women's rights, rolling up my sleeves and doing as a good of a job as a guy where I can, being proud of my competence and sexuality- I'm a proud feminist. But, I would much rather call myself a crème de la femme. (And sometimes, an Amazon.)
8.12.07 @ 1:01a
In addition to the comments I made in my column of the almost the same name (shameless promotion!), I'd like to add that according to my 21-year-old niece, who just returned from Cairo, American women have it pretty good. Yet, we don't use that power to our advantage.
My niece spoke in great detail of how horribly she was treated in Cairo not because she was an American, but because she was a woman. The attitude was so bad, it affected her decision as to whether she should pursue work in the Middle East.
How can our American female culture claim to be so independent when we don't do everything we can to achieve equality? Why do we not support each other? Why is it that you get 5 women in a work enviornment and it turns into a catfight? And, like 'Chelle said, why do we not do more to put more women in positions of influence?
It's hard to criticize other cultures when we're barely above some of that oppression ourselves.
8.12.07 @ 7:17p
The biggest indicator that the US is way behind on equalling the playing field between the male and female of the species is the simple fact that a woman gets paid less than a man doing the same exact job. I've experienced it in retail and in corporate America, and it makes me sick to my stomach to know that I work my butt off, but I will always make less than the guy throwing a football around with the same job description as me.
Even in the most undevelopped countries, and the countries with bad reps when it comes to human or women's rights got that right! India has a woman for a president now... and how many horror stories have you heard involving women's rights there? Women get paid the same amount of money as men do doing the same job EVERYWHERE else but here, because they're not pro-rating the pay based on your productivity being affected by PMS or pregnancy... they hire you and pay you based on your qualifications for the job, not what you have between your legs.
I am with Alex on feminism... I don't label myself as a feminist, but I do believe in the ideals of true feminism that celebrates women and their individual abilities. Hating men, and wanting to turn women into men practically is not my idea of empowerment as a woman.
I believe that the first step for this country to help women and their rights is to make pay equal between the sexes and THEN I think we could bring a woman into the oval office with flying colors.
8.12.07 @ 10:31p
To cite a similar point Reem did, the Philippines is another country that has politically recognized women in its highest station of power. Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo are past and current Presidents. Even though the nation has a lot of work to do within its cultural attitudes (I blame the church- again), it's nice to know that my karaoke-happy culture is capable of recognizing political moxie in a woman enough to elect her, and I wonder if Hillary can be recognized similarly. (Of course, American and Philippine elections are light years apart from one another, but Hillary has the same gender tasks GMA and Aquino did, and a few more).
However, even though I'm proud of my own culture for electing women, I also know exceptional circumstances surround their presidencies. Former housewife Aquino was elected in protest to the Marcos regime responsible for the assassination of her husband, Sen. Benigno Aquino. Former Vice-President GMA walked into her first presdency because of then-President Joseph Estrada's impeachment and ouster. In addition, GMA is the daughter of a former Philippine President, Ramon Macapagal, a woman born to a Kennedy-esque privileged station of power.
Thus, when I look at all of the facts, it makes me kind of disheartened-- no matter what country, the Average Joe, Ramon, Boris, or Kim has a fighting chance of getting elected just as a man. In comparison, a woman has to be a Not-So-Average-But-Equipped-With-Access Jane, Maria, Svetlana, or Mei-Ling.