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Why Feminism Is Still a Dirty Word

Friendship_400Why does the radical, bra-burning, male-hating stereotype of feminism still persist? From Brave Girls.

The media’s use of the derogatory term feminazi, combined with the actions of a few small militant groups of women, has made it the new F-word, as the majority of the public succumbs to the stereotype that feminists are lesbian man-haters hell-bent on destroying tradition. In a recent CBS poll, 70 percent of women said they do not consider themselves feminists; 17 percent deem the label an insult.

Yet, when read the dictionary definition of a feminist (“someone who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes”), 65 percent of women identify themselves as feminists! Once they realize that being a feminist simply means you believe women and men should be treated equally—once they realize the F-word is positive and not negative—they are on board. But without a dictionary on hand, the radical, bra-burning, male-hating stigma remains. This ambivalence (supporting feminist goals but resisting the label) has given birth to what is being called the “I’m not a feminist but . . .” generation.

Feminism and sisterhood are largely aligned, fundamentally similar. During the feminist movement’s heyday, the word was the epitome of “sisterhood,” exemplifying what is possible when women and girls are not polarized or fragmented. In the beginning, being female was the defining factor; there was no right or wrong way to be a feminist. Despite divergences in opinion and approach, the bond created in the promotion of equality across social, economic, and political landscapes was powerful. An increased sense of responsibility for fellow women and future generations trumped an individual’s personal quest, although it was all entwined. When spoken at protests, rallies, and grassroots meetings, it signified us.

Historically, feminism has been divided into three waves. The first wave began in the 1830s, when women began demanding the right to vote. At one of the first women’s rights conventions, in 1848, suffragists outlined their platform. Besides wanting the ability to vote, they expected civil liberties such as the opportunity to own property, receive an education, and have a career. Once legislation permitting women to vote passed in the 1920s, the first wave’s sense of activism diminished.

Then, in the 1960s, icons such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem reactivated the women’s rights movement, lobbying for gender parity in the workplace and family; paving the way for progress in sexual equality, reproductive health, and abating violence against women. Before subsiding in the 1980s during the Reagan-Bush era, critical legislative and judicial milestones such as Title IX and Roe v. Wade had been achieved and legacies such as The Feminine Mystique and the National Organization for Women had been created.

The third wave—the most controversial era of the feminist movement—began in the early 1990s and continues to the current day. Much contention exists because there is a huge divide. Some women feel we are in a “postfeminist” age, basking in our foremothers’ success at creating true equality; others see a continued need for feminism because of vast differences from men in pay, health care, economic stability, and career advancement (in addition to the problems faced by women across the globe such as human trafficking, slavery, mutilation, and absence of all human rights); a third set has no idea what feminism is and remains completely alienated from discussions.

Modern feminism continues to fight for equality in health and child care, self-esteem, media portrayals, and sexuality, encompassing everything from Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth to the film Thelma and Louise; from The Vagina Monologues to Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards’s Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Yet, it lacks a “movement” and a leader. Radical strands have alienated the everyday woman from this historically groundbreaking revolution. Girls and young women who were raised to believe they could do and have anything are now turning their backs on the ism that changed their world. Intergenerational conflicts are widening the wedge in the solidarity among women. Younger generations, beneficiaries of past activism, and the “wavers” who sacrificed, do not see eye to eye and are as a result plagued by inertia.

Many seem eager to pronounce feminism dead and irrelevant, yet its primary goals remain unachieved. Women receive less pay for the same work as men; access to contraception and a woman’s right to control her own body remain politically contested; and sexual harassment, rape, and human trafficking remain problematic. In third world countries, females are considered property and can be traded for cattle, raped in war, or killed for not wearing a burka. In the United States, when a woman speaks out, as Sandra Fluke did when lobbying House Democrats for insurance coverage of contraception in 2012, or when Katherine Fenton asked about equal pay during a presidential debate the same year, she is branded a slut21 and has her privacy invaded to the point where she is forced into hiding.

Despite that some feel the battle is over and believe we have settled into a postfeminism moratorium, in truth our society is in dire need of gender equality and reformation.


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