Declared feminists are indignant. Time Magazine included the term “feminist” in its annual poll of words readers would like to go away. Sandwiched between “disrupt” and “I can’t even”* is was that modern f-word.
feminist: You have nothing against feminism itself, but when did it become a thing that every celebrity had to state their position on whether this word applies to them, like some politician declaring a party? Let’s stick to the issues and quit throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade.
Within a week, feminists had gotten so furious about the term’s appearance on the list that Monday, Time apologized. Managing Editor Nancy Gibbs deleted the word and added this paragraph to the top of the poll:
TIME apologizes for the execution of this poll; the word ‘feminist’ should not have been included in a list of words to ban. While we meant to invite debate about some ways the word was used this year, that nuance was lost, and we regret that its inclusion has become a distraction from the important debate over equality and justice.
The nuance wasn’t lost; it is not allowed. Feminists have been protecting the term at the expense of the issues for a while. Fear for the term prompted the apology. By Thursday, “feminist” had a majority lead for banishment in a field of 15. Mathematically, that is an impressive show of unpopularity, a truth the movement is desperate to hide. They whip up illusions of revival using younger claimers of the title who haven’t done their history homework and pop stars who use the title to boost their own publicity, not vice versa.
Established feminists want to preserve the term to hold onto their status as arbiters of what women want. There are far more not-a-feminists out there than feminists, but they are split on a variety of issues. Established feminists support those splits by depriving women of a term to rally around. Just as lack of clarity was necessary to pass the Affordable Care Act, lack of clarity about feminism keeps power in the control of elite, white, liberal women. (Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber is right: lack of transparency is a huge political advantage.) They don’t want to talk about what the movement means, specifically, because clarity might unify some of the opposition.
Lack of Clarity Provides Opportunities to Quash Dissent
We need to have a conversation about the way the word is used. Time had good instincts. Right now, the title is just a cudgel. If you don’t claim to be a feminist, they mock you.
What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue,’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF SURVEY?
That snark is mild and fairly typical fare, a sample from British feminist Caitlin Moran’s 2012 book “How to Be a Woman,” which got reviews that opened like this: “It’s nearly impossible to dislike Caitlin Moran’s first novel.” I found it quite possible. What I found impossible was that the reviewer could have missed the insulting tone of the book. This is a recurring problem.
When they aren’t mocking dissent, they define it away: “You don’t disagree with feminism, you just don’t understand it.” Pop feminists repeatedly tell everyone that feminism is just about equality. Yet when some feminists stray from this line by being insulting, elitist, explicitly anti-men, anti-motherhood, etc. Pop feminists just start calling dissenters stupid for believing their eyes and ears. They do not confront the women who insult the term.
Do “good” feminists challenge Linda Hirsman on her dismissive views of housewifery, or Moran for the above? Do they notice the hypocrisy of calling for men to be more domestic while opposing reforms like shared parenting? Or do they even know that it was feminists who objected to flexible work schemes, which we now blame male-dominated corporate America for not providing? No, “good” feminists spend their time calling women like me stupid and giving Jess Zimmerman a pass. The occasional dissents (for example, this article on how Zimmerman’s ironic misandry harms the movement) hardly make a web ripple.
Deliberately Shrinking the Feminist In-Crowd
They don’t want to debate. They want to left-splain, or purport to tell us what the women of the Right think about feminism. That’s a lovely new term I found from Paula Matthewson (of Australia’s The Drum), who was writing of similar feminist lectures going on there now. (Harper’s Bazaar named Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop Woman of the Year. Bishop does not call herself a feminist. Then yet another argument about the term rather than the issues ensued. The obsession with protecting the term is not limited to the United States.) Worse, it is left-splaining from the Plastics. Cliqued-up declared feminists don’t even try to understand the position of their right sisters. From another opinion piece in The Australian**, “Outing the in-crowd of the feminism club“:
This shrinking in-crowd of feminists has a cultural footprint as deep as the shrill clique of teenage girls called the Plastics in the cult movie Mean Girls. Like those mean girls, the feminist Plastics have never put out the welcome mat to those with different views. Their synthetic feminism is a narrow, carping one, more interested in labels than the sexual abuse of child brides and genital mutilation of young girls. Much better to sledge a successful woman than fight for these causes.
I agree. Western feminists chose the easy, visible fights and little scrimmages with us their also-privileged sisters at the expense of women still brutally oppressed and of improvements possible at home. That’s enough to make the term unpopular. Constantly berating dissenters for having the gall to dissent makes the term notorious.
I offer a helpful suggestion for feminists to try and save the term’s popularity: spend more time figuring out why feminism has come to be seen as so many anti-things pop feminists claim it isn’t and confronting those women for hijacking the movement, rather than insulting the women you seek to bring into the fold. Otherwise, feminist “victories” will remain little PR achievements. Time might have stricken “feminist” from this year’s poll, but feminists didn’t win any converts by it. The more feminists fight for the term rather than the ideas, the faster they will lose both.
* Yes, Time’s poll should be “words or phrases,” as a few of the candidates for banishment are multi-word phrases.
** Note. If you seek fresh commentary in feminism, read Australian.