“I’m not a feminist, but…”: Unpacking the reasoning behind the phrase
It’s a situation that nearly every young person has been in. It could happen anywhere: a classroom, a party, idle conversation on the way to or from somewhere. It starts with a relatively young woman, expressing frustrations toward patriarchal forces, her argument exuding the very definition of that word.
And, then, halfway through, she catches herself, pauses and says, “I’m not a feminist, but…”
These frequently used five words have left many self-identifying feminists wondering, “Why?” To many, it seems illogical that one would agree with so many basic principles of feminism, yet refuse to actually label themselves under the term “feminist.”
Many scholars and educators within the field believe there are often reasons — occasionally with a dark root of sexism and stereotyping — that prevent many women from proudly identifying as feminists.
According to Kara Ellerby, an associate professor of political science, international relations and women’s studies, only about 25 percent of Americans self-identify as feminists.
However, when asked if they believed in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes — the definition of feminism in its most basic form — over 80 percent of Americans agreed.
At first glance, it is easy to write off this disparity as pure ignorance, and in some cases, it might have been. Ellerby believes that most of this refusal isn’t simply a lack of understanding; rather, she suggests that a dark history of stereotyping is the blame for women’s lukewarm feelings toward the term “feminist.”
“There’s been a concerted effort to demonize what it means to be a feminist,” Ellerby says. “If you ask people, ‘What are some stereotypes of feminists?’ none of them are very flattering, [like] they don’t shave their legs, they hate men, they don’t want to have families.”
Ellerby claims that many of these negative stereotypes were perpetuated by conservatives around the 1980s to prevent women from self-identifying as feminists.
“Feminism is around to challenge the status quo,” Ellerby says, “If there are those that prefer the status quo, then obviously they don’t want to find ways to change it.”
Meanwhile, Patricia Sloan-White, an anthropologist and the department chair of women and gender studies, has linked cultural differences to a misunderstanding of the priorities and scope of feminism.
“In my work, I study women in the Muslim world, and the term ‘feminism’ there has a really negative connotation,” Sloan-White says. “I know very few Muslims who, even [those] who actively support women’s rights, are comfortable with the term feminism.”
In her research, Sloan-White has found that many Muslim women hold the perception that feminism represents the West, whiteness and eliteness, and prohibits men from being involved with their lives. These ideas lead to an aversion to self-identification as a feminist.
Additionally, Ellerby acknowledges that women of color and women who are part of the LGBTQ+ community have historically dissociated themselves from feminism, due to the movement’s focus on white, straight, cisgender women.
“The feminist movement, in some ways, did itself many disservices by narrowly defining feminist causes,” Ellerby says. “[The feminist movement in the 1970s] didn’t reflect the realities of many women.”
Nevertheless, there is hope. According to an email interview with Margaret Stetz, a professor of women and gender studies, feminism has gained exposure like never before, allowing it to become more accessible to women.
“There has been a dramatic change in undergraduates over the past few years — more and more of them are now embracing the word ‘feminist,’” Stetz writes. “It appears to be a direct shift in popular culture, as iconic figures such as Beyoncé have declared themselves to be feminists.”
Similarly, Sloan-White believes that feminism has gained exposure like never before. She says that third-wave feminism, a movement she believes took place over the course of the last few years, allows women from marginalized communities to be heard and raise their issues with modern society, giving feminism a more intersectional approach.
Now, Sloan-White maintains that this generation is in fourth-wave feminism, defined by its use of social media to spread messages. She identifies this recent movement as starting social justice conversations that wouldn’t otherwise be raised, hearing perspectives and for the success and scope of events like the “Women’s March.”
“When women resist the term feminism, [they] refuse to see that women have been exploited,” Sloan-White says. “It’s impossible for me to understand how people can look at the extraordinary endangerment of women in this world today … and say ‘I’m not a feminist.’”