5, 2005 | A couple of years ago I interviewed a big-eyed activist-actress
whose work and politics I have always admired. I asked her
a question related to feminism. Her response? That she didn't
like the word "feminist" and preferred "humanist."
a crock, I thought, with the same disdain I once felt for
a high-school classmate who memorably piped up that though
she was "totally not a feminist," she wondered
if Mr. Rochester's willingness to treat Jane Eyre badly
and imprison Bertha in an attic might indicate a low-level
misogyny. It was a fair observation, I thought at the time.
Why did she have to preface it with personal disavowal?
Did she think that the expression of such a sentiment brought
her close enough to a militant conception of feminism that
her lissome 10th-grade body might dramatically sprout armpit
no great news that "feminism" -- the word and,
by extension, the movement -- has an image problem. Women
of all ages and colors have, at turns, bristled at the term,
embraced it, lauded it and disdained it, practically since
it was coined. However, after years of soldiering on under
the burden of a heavily loaded word, a new crop of progressive
and politically active women are finally addressing the
problem. Some are looking to reinvigorate "feminist"
by laying claim to the word -- a new magazine and a recent
book are both cheekily titled "The F Word" --
while others are contemplating new words and phrases to
employ in the fight for women's equality. After years of
quiet debate, women are tackling their own labels with the
energy of a movement anxious to make itself fresh again.
debate acquired a new urgency with Supreme Court Justice
Sandra Day O'Connor's announcement on July 1 that she is
retiring from the court. If Bush, as expected, nominates
a judge opposed to Roe. v. Wade, women's issues will move
to the center of the national stage.
almost remarkable that "feminism" has survived
as long as it has, stigmatized as it's been by a sneering
right, and criticized by groups on the left for its early
lack of interest in the concerns of poor and minority women.
Now, as second-wave feminists look to the future and see
a generation of women with a very different set of battles
than their own, the question becomes: What do we do about
"feminism"? Does it have anything to do with younger
female activism anymore, or is it simply an Achilles' heel?
Do we replace it, phase it out? Or do we embrace it with
renewed vigor and a spruced-up, all-inclusive definition?
asked to consider what other terms besides "feminist"
might be useful descriptors of the movement she helps to
Organization for Women president Kim Gandy laughed
and said, "Nothing has really swept anyone off their
feet, but 'egalitarian' is one that always comes up. There's
'humanist.' Sometimes 'womanist.'"
isn't suggesting that anyone rub the word "feminism"
off their bumper stickers or refrigerator magnets. But she
did acknowledge that she has had informal conversations
-- both with people who work at NOW and with those she meets
on the road -- about agitation from some within the movement
who believe it's time to retire "feminism's" number.
nothing inherently wrong with the word," said Gandy,
invoking Dame Rebecca West's famous assertion, "I ...
have never been able to find out precisely what feminism
is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever
I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat
or a prostitute."
she said, we cannot pretend that "feminism" has
escaped the fate of "liberalism" before it. "This
is what the right-wing has done to our language," she
said. "'Liberal' is a proud term. But at a certain
point, it became very difficult for people to call themselves
liberal. If you asked them about issues they would say,
'I'm not liberal, I'm progressive.' Excuse me, you are a
liberal! But the right made that a bad word. They've done
the same thing with 'feminism.'"
Gandy has had countless encounters with women and men who
open up a conversation by saying, "I'm not a feminist,"
and then go on to espouse feminist ideals. "It's like,
'Do you have a belief in the political and social equality
of women?' Yeah? Then you're a feminist," she said.
shifts have often transformed the struggle for women's equality.
Gandy recalled the way that the term "suffragists"
became the diminutive, mockingly feminine "suffragettes,"
as though those who devoted their lives to secure the vote
for women were actually a backup group for Ray Charles.
Then there was the time in 2003 when the National Abortion
Rights Action League changed its name to "abortion"-lite
Pro-Choice America. But language has strengthened
the movement as well. Gandy said that when she started at
NOW in 1973, "We didn't even have a word for sexual
harassment. We knew how women were treated at work and on
the street, but we didn't have language for it. Domestic
violence? You didn't even whisper words for that in public.
Now we have women's studies. Now we have a word for everything,"
she acknowledged, "I think that there's a new generation
that's looking for a word or a term they can call their
own. At some level they associate 'feminism' with their
mothers. Not in a bad way, but just in a way that's not
might seem like a simple suggestion. But the hyper-sensitivity
surrounding the "feminism" discussion makes it
an ideological fire-starter. Weeks after my interview with
Gandy, I called Feminist Majority leader Eleanor Smeal about
this story. When I asked her to respond to some of the comments
Gandy had made, I was apparently unclear, somehow leaving
Smeal with the impression that I was reporting that Gandy
wanted NOW to abandon the word "feminism." This
was certainly not what I was reporting. But Smeal alerted
Gandy to the possibility that my story might suggest that
Gandy was rejecting the word just days before her reelection
as NOW president. A very agitated Gandy called me to clarify
that her comments were not reflective of any formal discussions
within her organization. I assured her that I only planned
to report what she had told me: that she had had discussions
about the word with colleagues at NOW. She responded: "I
hear people talk about it. But they don't talk about it
that often. To say that 'there have been discussions within
NOW' would convey a really inaccurate thing." Gandy
emphasized that she can't imagine ever backing away from
some people didn't think the notion of ditching the word
was such a crazy idea at all. "I think it's very smart,"
said Erica Jong, whose use of explicit language in "Fear
of Flying' changed the nature of American women's fiction
in 1973. "The problem hasn't gone away. Women are still
second-class citizens; the problem of choice is still with
us -- in fact it's gotten worse. So if we need to change
the name to get people involved, we should."
Jong was stumped as to what a replacement could be, and
noted that "words always get degraded when associated
with something progressive or something female. This is
the way right-wingers capture the language, so we need to
be smart." She noted the right wing's use of the term
"pro-life" in the abortion debate. "If we
had called ourselves pro-life -- as in we don't want women
to die in illegal abortions -- we would have won on that
one, but they got there first."
thought that dusting off our lexicon was a natural generational
progression. "It's all so cyclical," she said.
"Mothers push forward, daughters pull back," she
said. "We have been in a period of backlash and now
we're ready to push forward again."
true that there is resistance to the feminist label from
some young people. Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, a Seattle-area
writer and author of "The
F Word: Feminism in Jeopardy -- Women, Politics, and the
Future," described a poll she'd done for her
book. Noting that the 300 respondents were self-selected
college-educated women between the ages of 18 and 34, Rowe-Finkbeiner
said, "Sixty-eight percent of young women didn't want
to be confined by labels, and the word 'feminism' chafed
other national polls
-- including a 1984 Wall Street Journal/Gallup poll, a 1986
Newsweek/Gallup poll, and a 2003 Ms. Magazine poll -- have
shown that the younger the woman, the more willing she is
to identify herself as a feminist. And, sure enough, many
of the young women contacted for this piece were more vociferous
in their defense of the word than their elders.
Berger, a 25-year-old college student in Philadelphia, launched
the new feminist magazine the
F-Word in late May. She said she chose the name
for her publication "because I was tired of tiptoeing
around the word, of saying, 'Don't worry about us, we're
not feminists, we're totally acceptable.'" Instead,
Berger has proclaimed herself a full-blown "Howling
is not alone in her affection for the word. "If I hear
one more person say, 'I'm not a feminist, I'm a humanist,'
I'm going to kill them," said 26-year-old Jessica Valenti,
founder of Feministing.com.
"How do you possibly think you're going to talk about
gender equality if there's no acknowledgment of gender?"
I told Valenti that there was even casual discussion about
the future of the word, she snorted, frustrated with what
she perceives as generational tension between second-wave
feminists and her activist peers -- many of whom don't align
themselves with feminist organizations. "When they
say they're interested in pulling in young women, I understand
where the sentiment is coming from because they feel like
young women don't like the word, but come on. How much are
we willing to give up?"
acknowledged that many young women are "afraid of the
word." "Part of me gets so angry at younger women
who are nervous about feminism because they're afraid that
boys won't like them," said Valenti. One of the reasons
she started Feministing is because she wanted to meet young
women and tell them, "I'm a feminist. And despite what
you may think, feminism is pretty fucking cool." In
addition, Valenti added, "Part of me wants to say,
'Yeah, someone's going to call you a lesbian. Someone's
going to say you're a fat, ugly dyke.' Suck it up."
did have a couple of non-linguistic suggestions about how
to bring older and younger activists together, starting
with how the older generation treats its daughters. She
described meetings for young feminists where the young women
talk "while famous feminists are sitting there taking
notes and watching you like you're some National Geographic
animals." She said that the very suggestion that "feminism"
could be disposable in any way makes her feel like saying,
"Hey! This is your word! You started this and I took
it on. I have been working hard for you. And now you're
going to just give up on it?"
Matson, the 25-year-old NOW chapter president in Minnesota
and a member of the Young Feminist Task Force, said, "I
wear the feminist label with pride and I love it. It's hard
for me to imagine leaving it behind or discarding it."
But Matson did recently write an article
questioning the notion that feminism is a word that can
describe a single, cohesive group, "all of us with
pierced lips and hairy legs and the same concerns. That's
simply not true," she said. Instead of the plaintive
10th-grade cry, "I'm not a feminist, but..." Matson's
piece suggested that the new disclaimer is "I am a
Plati, 32-year-old executive director of Choice
USA, said that at her organization, We use
[the word feminism] but we don't belabor it. We are also
open to other words.
continued, "More than looking at just one word, for
me it's about doing some listening for what kinds of language
young women are using to define their empowerment for themselves."
She also pointed out that it's not just young women who
are alienated by the term. "No matter what choice we
make about language," said Plati, "we need to
be building toward an inclusive movement, in particular
a movement that has women of color and young women in leadership.
Changing the word is not enough. We need to address why
an assertion familiar to women in the movement, who for
years have been reminded that second-wave feminism of the
1970s did not address the concerns of women of color and
women from lower economic strata.
a concern that activist and author Rebecca Walker -- whose
mother, Alice Walker, coined the term "womanist"
as an inclusive alternative to "feminist" -- said
she's been anxious about for a long time. In an e-mail,
she referred me to an interview
she gave to Satya
magazine in January. In the interview, Walker said that
in 1992, when she co-founded Third Wave, an organization
for young women activists, she worried that "the word
feminist had become too divisive and culturally loaded."
Walker also told Satya, "It seemed clear to me that
the term had more of a repellent effect than a magnetizing
one within my generation, and I did not feel the need to
prove my allegiance and gratitude to the women that came
before me by holding on to something that had meant so very
much to them, but did not mean that much to me."
the interview, Walker continued, "The left is getting
our collective ass kicked because of just this kind of romantic,
naïve attachment to movement narratives and aesthetics
of 20 and 30 years ago." She also pointed out that
"many women of color do not feel an affinity with the
term because, among other things, we know firsthand that
people who call themselves feminists are not always our
friends," she said. "They have not de facto done
their work around race ... though [they] would become appalled
if we suggested that some 'feminists' were also racist."
racial wound remains fresh for many women who spend their
lives thinking about and working on issues of female empowerment.
When Berger launched her F-Word site in May, she said she
was surprised that some of the anti-"feminist"
mail she got was from other women activists. Berger explained,
"The word 'feminist' alienated a lot of political allies
I wanted to be tied to," including women of color "who
told me that traditionally this word is off-putting because
of the predominantly white, middle-class vibe it had."
Others, she said, told her, "I hope you don't make
the same kinds of mistakes your foremothers did."
result, said Berger, is that a month after her launch, "the
word 'feminism' is on the site, but it's not the tag line
anymore. I've toned it down a little bit."
I asked her what words could possibly replace the pesky
descriptor of the movement, Berger was stumped. "I'm
not such a fan of the word 'humanist,'" she said in
an e-mail. "I think it's one of those 'well, duh ...
who ISN'T pro-human??' kind of concepts." As for "womanist,"
Berger wrote, "I like that it may be more
appealing to women of color ... However, I don't
think feminism is just about 'women' anymore." It's
these qualms, Berger said, that keep her "pretty attached
to the f-word." But she conceded, "Maybe it isn't
worth fighting to reclaim a word. There are much bigger
things we need to be fighting for."
what if we don't need to fight to reclaim it? What if we've
already begun to make it new?
is a camp of women who say, "'Feminism is just what
we determine it is,'" said Mandy Van Deven, 25, founder
of Altar magazine, a magazine about social justice, and
the director of Community Organizing for Girls
for Gender Equity in Brooklyn, N.Y. "'So if
we wear makeup and call ourselves feminists then we are
feminists,'" she continued, adding that she did not
necessarily identify with this multi-purpose definition.
Van Deven said that changing definitions is "part of
the evolution of political movements and the evolution of
language and how people are going to identify themselves
as individuals and in the scope of larger political context."
Deven said she thinks that there are a lot of young women
out there who -- while they may not like the word or embrace
the entire exclusionary history of the movement, "are
really anxious to grab the word and claim it and say, 'No,
I don't care, I am going to make this word work for me.'"
author of the book "The F Word," said that Van
Deven's attitude is typical of broader political and linguistic
patterns. "In the history of social movements, many
of the people who are most impacted by negative connotations
of a word are the ones who take that word back," she
said. Rowe-Finkbeiner pointed out that women have already
done this with "bitch" -- as in popular "stitch
and bitch" knitting circles and "bitch-n-swap"
clothing swaps. It's a phenomenon similar to a gay re-appropriation
of "queer," or African-American usage of "nigger."
Wave co-founder Amy Richards said she isn't too
worried about the women's movement agreeing on one word.
In her work on campuses, she said the number of projects
she sees young women taking on -- from prison reform to
AIDS funding in Africa to living-wage fights for university
staff -- is enough to satisfy her that there is tremendous
life in the movement, even if no one knows what to call
it. "The thing that's different from 30 years ago is
that young women are moving beyond organizing around reproductive
issues and violence against women. It's not that those issues
aren't relevant to them, but I think they're just tired
said that membership in her organization is bigger than
ever. "Eighty percent of people in the United States,
based on what they think now about pay equity and domestic
violence, would have been considered total feminists had
they felt that way 30 years ago. And the women's rights
movement is living in our daughters every single day. Whether
or not they consider themselves feminists."
said Richards, "Whatever we'd change 'feminism' to
would become a bad word too."