Feminism: Still Misunderstood Over 100 Years Later

Women

Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist , says, “It’s really easy to get a celebrity to say something stupid by bringing up feminism.” This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, much of what celebrities say about feminism today is eerily similar to quotes from the early 20th century.

Actor Evangeline Lilly told HuffPost Entertainment, “I’m very proud of being a woman, and, as a woman, I don’t even like the word feminism because when I hear that word, I associate it with women trying to pretend to be men, and I’m not interested in trying to pretend to be a man.”

Her statement echoes turn-of-the-19th-century sentiments of writer Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey: “It seems to be the fashion nowadays for a girl to behave as much like a man as possible. Well, I won’t! I’ll make the best of being a girl and be as nice a specimen as I can: sweet and modest, a dear, dainty thing with clothes smelling all sweet and violety, a soft voice, and pretty, womanly ways.”

Beyonce often calls herself a “modern-day feminist” and yet responded like this when asked by a British Vogue writer if she was a feminist: “That word can be very extreme…I do believe in equality…but I’m happily married. I love my husband.”

Even feminist Dora Russell was concerned that feminism wouldn’t allow for romantic relationships. She wrote in 1926, “Feminists have emphasized for a long time the importance of each woman’s individual entity and the necessity of economic independence…Life isn’t all earning your living. Unfortunately we fall in love and Feminism must take that into consideration.”

Geri Halliwell of Spice Girls fame said, “It’s about labelling. For me feminism is bra-burning lesbianism. It’s very unglamorous. I’d like to see it rebranded. We need to see a celebration of our femininity and softness.”

In 1916, Mrs. Thomas Allen, a well-known anti-suffrage speaker, wrote that, “this struggle for votes-for-women…is surely not making [women] any more lovely, or pleasant in their lives. They grow bitter, aggressive, and antagonistic, liking the excitement of campaigning and finding their natural, proper duties ‘flat, stale, and unprofitable.’”

Celebrities are not alone. Feminism is a word likely to generate a misinformed reaction from many people, with responses ranging from outright anger to a sad shake of the head. According to a 2015 Vox poll, while 85 percent of Americans say they believe in equality for women, only 18 percent of Americans identify as feminists.1 In many cases, these negative reactions stem from a misunderstanding of what feminism means. Merriam-Webster defines feminism as simply “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.”

A 2013 Economist/ YouGov poll found that when Americans who claimed they weren’t feminists were presented with the definition of feminism, roughly 40 percent decided that they were, in fact, feminists.2

When women began the first feminist organizing in late 19th and early 20th century United States, the notion that females could have equal rights was a novel idea. They fought to expand educational opportunities for women and provide women with access to better working conditions, improved health care, and the right to own and control property, as well as the right to vote.

Illustration by Rebecca Cohen. Printed with permission.

Fast forward a century or so, and, while many laws have improved, the Equal Rights Amendment still hasn’t been approved, and things remain decidedly unequal. For example, less than 20 percent of U.S. congresspeople are female.3 Among the Fortune 500 companies, only 23 have female CEOs.4 On average, women earn 79 percent of what men earn performing the same jobs, according to American Association of University Women (AAUW). Is there any question we still need to work for gender equality?

Karma Chávez, assistant professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says, “I think feminism is very misunderstood. I think it is imagined as an extremist movement full of man-hating lesbians on the one hand. Or on the other, it is seen as a sort of lifestyle movement that invites white, heterosexual, wealthy, able-bodied women to take control of their own lives by embracing heteronormative femininity, capitalist values, and individualism.

“It is hard to know why these misconceptions exist, but I think that it has a lot to do with the wide array of feminisms that exist: radical feminism, socialist feminism, power feminism, decolonial feminism, etc. I also think there is an active attempt by many men, some women, and conservatives in general to discredit any and all things feminist.”

The feminist movement has expanded to be intersectional, recognizing that gender, class, and racial issues share common ground, and must be addressed simultaneously if we hope to improve lives. We are fortunate to have many feminists working on these issues today.

Jenifer Cole, president of the Wisconsin Women’s Network, says “To me, feminism is a fundamental belief in gender equality. It is identifying and combating not only gender-based inequalities, but where gender inequalities intersect with oppressions experienced because of gender identity, sexual orientation, age, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic disparities.”

Karma agrees. “Gendered oppression is also always raced, classed, sexualized, etc., and so we have to understand how power works in its complexity…If we start to ask which women and which men, we begin to see that race, sexual orientation, and cisgender/transgender status make a huge difference.”

The statistics we mentioned earlier are much worse for women of color, who make up only 4.5 percent of U.S. congresspeople. Of the 23 female CEOs, only 3 are women of color. And a closer look at the AAUW statistics shows that while white women earn 78 percent of what white men earn on average, African American women earn only 64 percent and Hispanic women only 55 percent of white men’s wages.

Some supporters are encouraged by the growth of feminist representation and thought in mainstream popular culture, and see the new venues as a way to increase understanding and acceptance. Jenifer points out television shows, such as Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer , and Orange is the New Black , as examples along with news sources, like Everyday Feminism, Feministing , and HuffPost Women .

Others, like Victoria Boucher, a regional field coordinator for Planned Parenthood, are heartened by the many organizations working for gender equality in Wisconsin, including Wisconsin Women’s Network, 9to5 Wisconsin, Zonta Club of Madison, and the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Organization for Women.

A new generation is growing up seeing feminism as both a responsibility and a gift. Victoria says, “Feminism means equal respect and opportunity. It means women and men working together to make our communities better for all of us. Madison is a great city to be in to figure out your own path to feminism.”

1 Vox . vox.com
2 Economist/YouGov . today.yougov.com
3 Center for American Women and Politics . cawp.rutgers.edu
4 Wikipedia . wikipedia.org

Lisa Lombardo and her mother, Yvette Jones , have confronted many of the same misconceptions about feminism in their lives, despite the difference of a generation.