Are you a feminist?

May 14, 2006 at 9:28 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

This weekend I went to a pretty cool forum on HIV/AIDS for youth. There were some great speakers, great discussion, and interesting insights.

One of the most interesting was how easy it was to forget about sexism.
Not for me to forget – but others to forget.

This after lengthy discussions on gender as a social determinant of health – the obstacles for women internationally to sexual health protection and products, the stigma involved, etc. Yet, somehow sexism continued to be forgotten throughout the weekend.

The best example of this came from a great speaker, a woman who spoke about her experience with the Malaika Project – an international volunteer project to help those in Tanzania. She had spent six months in Tanzania working and educating, and was struck by the prevalence of AIDS. As one person said to her – “If you come back to this village in a year, it will be gone.”

What she spoke primarily about was the inequality for women.
How one married woman, with three children – knowing her husband was promiscuous and had HIV – told her she doesn’t use condoms because her husband doesn’t like them. That if she goes against them she will be beaten, thrown out of her home, tossed on the street, and left for nothing. This is what society is. This is the option women there have. This was one woman, but she could’ve been any woman there.

After a half hour of sharing stories of the inequality for women there – after verbally saying we need to fight this inequality, she finished by saying “I’m not being feminist”.

It was like a slap in the face.
My friend and I stared at eachother in stunned silence as the woman continued to speak. As my friend later put it, she felt as if everything this woman had just said had been diminished. Disregarded. All because of that one sentence “I’m not being feminist.”

Everything she just said had been feminist.
This, in a place where we had just had a forum on inclusivity, on prejudice.

My friend spoke up during the question period.
“Your talk was incredibly inspiring and I’m so glad you spoke about this. However, I’m troubled by one thing you said near the end, and I want you to understand that I don’t mean to be harsh, and I hope everyone here bears with me for a minute. It might seem unrelated to everything we’ve been discussing this weekend, but I don’t think it is.

You said ‘I’m not being feminist’. Now, I know that there are at least three women in this room who consider themselves feminist. I wondered why you said that? Everything you just talked about is feminist. Feminism means fighting against inequality for women, against gender stereotyping – it means different things to different people, and a feminist can be a man, woman, transgendered person, straight, gay, bi, pink, blue, yellow, whatever…”

She put it well. Another woman spoke up afterwards as well. The speaker herself, apologized and commented that she was speaking in terms of the stereotype of feminism – braburners etc she said. Again, we had just had a workshop on getting rid of our stereotypes in which she took part.

It struck me afterwards that several people were discussing feminism. How their moms were pretty feminist, but they would never call themselves a feminist. It’s a bad word. It has a negative connotation. They wouldn’t want to be associated with it.

Shocking, in such an open space. Or a supposedly open space.

The thing about feminism – we can’t reclaim it, we can’t rid ourselves of these negative stereotypes, if we don’t try. If we don’t actually give our activism, give our fight against sexism, patriarchy, inequality – a name. We have to name it in order to reclaim it. Or its always going to be there.

I think a lot of people missed the point. But maybe in my friend stating “I know there are at least three women in here who are feminist.” and talking about it, was a start. It got people talking.

I think I’ll start wearing my “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” shirt again.

– Artemis.



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  1. i sure do agree with you. i am reminded of similar situations that i have gone through. so many times when people have actually felt comfortable not being named a feminist. that they’d rather be one of the many than the chosen few.
    by the way i am a feminist as well.
    good post!

  2. Good for you! Good for your friend!

    It’s always amazing how women turn away from the word “feminist” when it’s “feminists” who have given women so many of the freedoms we enjoy today.

    Also, as you note, on a very basic level, some women just don’t seem to get the definition of feminism. (i.e. Feminism = A women with a distaste for brassieres and an uncontrollable desire to set one’s unclothing on fire.) – 😉

  3. Great post! I don’t understand why so many women disavow Feminism..

    And you know what, it bugs me almost as much to see “But I’m not one of THOSE Feminists” as to see “I’m not a Feminist.” So many women are reluctant to phrase it “I am a Feminist.” Instead they say “Feminism’s okay with me,” but still feel a need to add “but I don’t hate men” or somesuch. Why not just say “But if you think that Feminist means man-hater, you’re mistaken” rather than let the listener assume that the hateful stereotype is the norm?

  4. Great post. I’ve added it to my Feminism 101 links. 🙂

  5. I just now wrote the following at midwestern transport, but it fits well here too:

    I can understand people wanting to avoid the feminist label because it mutates so much and often in the worst ways. I couldn’t begin to say what a perfect feminist if I had to take into consideration all facets and debates between people IDing as such. My mom was the first woman allowed into grad studies in physics at her university, but she’d never call herself one of those feminist. I like her anyway.

    I keep the label because I hope to be around when the connotation becomes more positive and inclusive, and because I want to remind people that it’s not all better now. Not by a long shot.

  6. I agree with you completely, and I proudly identify as a “feminist.” What other name is there to use for someone who believes women and men are equal, understands that women have been subordinated, and wants to work to promote gender equality?

    It’s important for their to be a name under which all people (women and men) who believe in gender equality can come together. “Feminist” is the obvious choice.

    Of course the name has been twisted into a stereotype of bra-burners or man-haters by the backlash against the movement. But this is a long fight that women have been fighting for arguably thousands of years all across the world. We will win in the end, and one way to get there is to keep standing up for ourselves as “feminists.”

    I had that shirt too, Artemis, but I need to get a new one.

  7. Artemis,

    Yes! It is so aggravating when patently feminist people say “I am not a feminist.” And sad that a patently feminist person, having heard about undermining stereotypes says “I am not a feminist” to mean “I am not a stereotype.” Be a feminist and undermine the stereotypes that way!

    Kudos to you and your friend – where do I get one of these t-shirts?

  8. Feminist Majority used to sell “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-Shirts. Check them out. There server is down now, but should be up again soon.

  9. Clearly, the woman speaking wasn’t using the word feminist in the way y’all are. So we have a dilemma: should she say that she’s a feminist, when her idea of her self doesn’t match with her idea of “a feminist”? Your response has to be that “feminist” doesn’t mean what she thinks it means… but that needs to be supported with evidence. At least one person thinks it does, and presumably so do those other women who seem like feminists to you but deny it. On the other hand, at least the commenters here thinks it doesn’t.

    But then there is the hope of “reclaiming” the word. Maybe it’s been dragged through the mud over the past thirty years and if only women like this speaker would take it up again, its _true_ definition would rise to common usage. This seems like the wrong approach for three reasons: 1) presumably there are people in the world who are, in fact, what the speaker would call feminists: mixing the speaker with these people can only lead to confusion. 2) An earlier commenter proposed that a feminist is one “who believes women and men are equal, understands that women have been subordinated, and wants to work to promote gender equality?” From a strictly etymological point of view, if gender equality is the central tenant, wouldn’t we be better served by a word which either had both genders in it, or neither? Say, a “gender egalitarian,” for instance. 3) I don’t believe that in-group, out-group labels are helpful, in general. “I am a woman who believes in gender equality” is at least as helpful as “I’m a feminist,” without carrying all the individual-destroying categorical properties of a label.

  10. Not to be disruptive, but the feminist label seems one sided to me. I accept it, as it is the only term we have available right now. But if I want equality, wouldn’t I be an equalist and not a feminist? There is a huge power dynamic at play, and I can see why the feminist label was created, but in that being said, I don’t want feminism to beat men at their game in order to give the false hope that we’ve defeated patriarchy. The game is what should be questioned. Why do we want equal footing in an oppressive game? (Who would we oppress next if the oppressed women were no longer oppressed? The system of this current ‘global society’ operates on power, which is the ‘value over another’.) This system of power and privilege needs to be disrupted. I don’t know how, exactly, but I can see that men as well, perform masculinity, which indicates to me that maleness or manhood is false if its goal is to make every male the same, which is impossible. Equality would, in essence, not only free women from oppressive practices in society, but free men from performing their oppressive practices on women (I am not suggesting that male privilege is an exhaustive burden for men). Their sense of self would not be threatened for supporting women and respecting women in a way that makes them equal. I guess what I’m saying is that instead of the “you push me, I push you back” approach, we could perhaps also work towards removing “pushing” as an option all together. (I am sure that this has already been discussed among academics and/or feminists, but I am new to understanding popular feminism even though I’ve always considered myself to be one.)

    -K Dub

  11. Excellent post and I’m very much enjoying all of your comments.

    The effort to diminish ‘feminist’ began about the same period as it did for ‘Liberal’ in the seizure of our culture by the least among us.

    The socio/political tide is turning and now is not the time to quibble over more acceptable labels, but rather to affirm our committments to the equality of all females and take up the fight of our mothers.

  12. I hate the way everyone assumes feminists to be a bunch of hippy, yogurt-eatig, wooly-jumperwearing women. My grandfather is a feminist(so am I) and people always say, you can’t be a male feminist- I don’t think feminiism is pro-women it is pro-equality.

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