I’m not a feminist but...

These American teens look up to their strong mothers and believe in equal rights. So why won’t they use the F-word?

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A woman working on the nose section of a B-17 aircraft, Douglas Aircraft Company, California, 1942
Photo by Alfred T Palmer, courtesy Library of Congress

A woman working on the nose section of a B-17 aircraft, Douglas Aircraft Company, California, 1942 Photo by Alfred T Palmer, courtesy Library of Congress

Pamela Erens is a novelist whose short stories and essays have been published in the Chicago Review, the Boston Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her latest novel is The Virgins (2013).

My teenaged children and I were hanging out in our kitchen, just as we’d done thousands of times before, when one of them said something that made me retort: ‘Well, I consider myself a feminist.’

My 14-year-old daughter looked at me in surprise: ‘You do?’ My 16-year-old son seemed equally startled. I was startled in return. Was this some great revelation to them? Had they never before connected the idea of feminism — absolutely central to my identity — with me, their mother? Evidently not.

The conversation that followed, in which I attempted to give my definition of feminism and understand theirs, was a rocky one. I pride myself on being the type of parent who doesn’t get riled by my children’s opinions — they are beings in flux; it doesn’t pay to panic — but I lost my cool on this. I’ve called myself a feminist since at least my senior year of high school. Even earlier, as a kid growing up in the 1970s — and as the daughter of the author of Issues in Feminist Film Criticism (1990) — I absorbed feminism’s basic values and aims. Women should have the same job opportunities as men and be paid the same for their work. Women are and should be treated as men’s legal, moral and intellectual equals. Women should have control over their bodies. And so on.

When my children were very young, I made a conscious decision, one that I began to regret that afternoon in the kitchen, that I wouldn’t make a big deal of the ‘girls versus boys’ issue, nor give them pep talks about girls being just as good as boys. Why even put into their innocent heads the thought that anyone had ever considered otherwise? But now I wondered if I’d fallen down on the job. Maybe I should have introduced the F-word some time ago.

When I pressed my children further, it became clear that my son associated feminists with girls in his high school who, to hear him tell it, were constantly complaining that they were victimised because they were female, yet seemed to him to have every advantage the boys had. My daughter simply felt equality between men and women had been achieved, and so didn’t understand why anyone today would identify herself with the fight for it. To her, being a feminist seemed to make as much sense as being an abolitionist. By this time, I had tears in my eyes. How could I explain that, for me, feminism is not just about laws and job access but is something much larger: a philosophy and a point of view that is informed by a careful study of history, anthropology, biology, sociology, and psychology?

In a blog on The Guardian’s website this June, a 17-year-old British girl named Jinan Younis described being subjected to a barrage of Twitter abuse from boys she knew after attempting to start a feminist society at her school. The comments included statements such as: ‘feminism doesn’t mean they don’t like the D [dick], they just haven’t found one to satisfy them yet’. And the abuse increased when Younis’s feminist society took part in the online project Who Needs Feminism, in which girls hold up signs completing the sentence ‘I need feminism because…’. As Younis reported: ‘We were told that our “militant vaginas” were “as dry as the Sahara desert”…. details of the sex lives of some of the girls were posted beside their photos, and others were sent threatening messages warning them that things would soon “get personal”.’

Do such nasty comments reflect widespread teenage male attitudes to feminism? Do they show what teenage girls will be subjected to if they identify themselves as feminists? Was my own children’s indifference the most benign face of a generalised teen hostility to the idea of feminism?

Disturbed by such questions, I decided to conduct my own small-scale investigation into what teenagers today think of feminism and feminists. Do they feel indebted to the feminist movements of the past, or do they see feminism as a fringe tendency and an irrelevant history?

It would take an enormous study and years of reporting to get durable answers to such questions, but I could still get a glimpse of the truth. Rather than try to achieve a diversity of gender, race, and class in my small group of interviewees (15), I decided on a certain degree of randomness. I asked my neighbours and the members of my book group if I could talk to their children, and ended up with nine girls and six boys, including my own two children, whom I interviewed last, asking the same formal questions I’d asked the others. The age range was 13 to 19. Eleven interviewees were white, two were African-American, and two were mixed white-Asian. Seven attended private schools, six attended public schools, and two were public-school graduates. The demographic was solidly middle- to upper-middle class kids, although at least a couple of the families were experiencing financial strains due to a parent being out of work or in debt for their own or their children’s schooling. Our town skews heavily liberal and Democrat.

When I asked my interviewees what they knew about the history of women’s rights, their knowledge was extremely sketchy. The slavery, emancipation, and civil rights eras are given great attention in our local schools; the various women’s movements less so: only the battle for the vote had been covered in the curriculum. Nor are these teens getting information from extra-curricular clubs. Although six local schools were represented in my interview group, only one hosted a club that might be considered feminist. An article published in the school newspaper claimed that the group had more than 30 members of both sexes and was set up ‘to detach from the stereotypes that are commonly identified with feminists’. All that my interviewees knew about it was that it had petitioned to allow girls to wear spaghetti-strap tank tops, currently prohibited by the school dress code. I found this immensely disheartening.

Teens weren’t hearing about feminism at home either. I could hardly tsk-tsk at this, as I had chosen the same tack myself. So where were they getting their information and opinions about feminism and gender equality? Mostly from an amalgam of received wisdom, personal observation, the media, self-questioning (when prompted) — and, as I found out, the examples set by their mothers.

When I asked my interviewees if they believed inequalities still existed between men and women, nearly all the girls and about half the boys said yes. The workplace was identified as the locus of inequality, in particular the paucity of women in the highest-paying and highest-profile jobs. I don’t know if this was because Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In (2013) had been getting a good deal of attention at the time, or because, as children of affluent families, they projected themselves into the most influential work bracket, but there wasn’t much awareness of the struggles of women lower down the economic ladder.

One brother and sister, 16 and 13, tried to puzzle out why it was that their mother had been the one to leave paid work when they were young. The brother: ‘In most families, like in our family, once the mom feels the kids aren’t having enough time [with a parent] she will leave work. It’s always the mom, why is that?’ The sister: ‘My mom worked until she found out that she wanted to be with us more than being out full-time, so I guess they agreed that my mom would retire and my dad would keep working. But I’m not really sure why. It’s not that my dad had a better job or anything because they both had similar-paying jobs.’ The brother: ‘Why wasn’t it Dad that came home, why is it the mom who has to give up her job?’ The sister: ‘Cause moms are more warm. Moms are more mom-y.’

One boy named sports as another area of inequality for women, saying that women’s sports were underfunded and under-attended. A couple of my interviewees, including one graduate who had spent time volunteering and working abroad, had a global perspective, and pointed out that forced prostitution, rape without consequences, and virtual enslavement of women still exist in many other countries.

In general, the teenagers I spoke to were shaky on recent developments relating to women’s rights. They knew of isolated incidents that attracted much media attention, such as the comments made in 2012 by Todd Aiken, the House of Representatives member who said that ‘legitimate rape’ could not result in pregnancy, and the all-male panel that led a hearing on birth control in the House earlier that same year. National Public Radio (NPR) was most often the source of such information, with the kids hearing news items when their parents had it on. Parents take note: there is still at least one way to make sure your children are absorbing the news.

I suspect that these teenagers are no more ignorant of the political scene than their earlier counterparts. I don’t remember having much grasp of the US political process or current controversies until college, even though my friends and I, unlike most teens today, regularly read the daily newspaper and watched the evening news on TV. However, I was taken aback by my interviewees’ lack of knowledge about the women’s movement. Political history of the past 20 or 40 years was a near-blank to most of them. One senior had more information due to a school elective in which she had done a presentation on the legal and social history of violence against women. Only four teens, one a boy, mentioned the Roe v. Wade court case of 1973, which legalised abortion in the US, or the battle for reproductive rights in general; only one invoked the term ‘second wave’ and the women’s movement of the 1970s. When I asked her where she’d learnt about these things, she said it was mainly from an article on Jezebel or from ‘checking around on Wikipedia’.

This same boy said that abortion was once a feminist issue but, since Roe v. Wade, it isn’t any more

While most of the teenagers claimed that they didn’t see gender inequalities at their schools, a few reported that boys sometimes didn’t take girls’ opinions seriously inside or outside the classroom, and that boys spoke up in class more than girls. One 15-year-old girl complained that, in her first week of high school, the teacher of her accelerated math class, a woman, expressed surprise that the class had more girls than boys. ‘They expect guys to be more intelligent,’ this student said.

The issue that girls — not boys — alluded to most often after the workplace and social disrespect was what a couple of them called the ‘rape culture’ or ‘slut-shaming’. They meant the encouragement of male sexual aggression and the blaming or shaming of women who are sexually violated or seen as behaving in an overtly sexual manner. If there is one second-wave feminist idea that seems to be held as an article of faith by teenagers who have never heard of Susan Brownmiller it is that rape is not a crime of sexual desire but of power. I remember how that formulation shook me when I read Brownmiller’s Against Our Will (1975) as an 18- or 19-year-old. It is simply taken for granted now. A 15-year-old girl told me that rape was ‘a form of a male thinking that they need to be superior to women and that’s the only way that they can.’ A 16-year-old boy said that rape had to do with ‘the fact that some men believe that they have power over women or can take over women. It shows that they think of them as lesser beings.’

The three interviewees most vocal about the problem of rape culture were among the oldest. One of the graduates told me that ‘rape is a big issue on college campuses’. She spoke of a woman at a college near hers whose reports of rape were disbelieved and who afterwards developed post-traumatic symptoms. She mentioned that her freshman orientation included presentations which amounted to ‘How you women can avoid rape.’ The hypothetical scenarios presented to her group seemed to blame the woman: ‘She should have been clearer about what she wanted.’ ‘She should not have drunk so much.’ The graduate added: ‘Girls sometimes learn from a young age that they need to be scared about rape. I’ve talked to friends who are really nervous about getting raped even though they aren’t even in potentially threatening situations. They’re just worried about it in general, as a kind of abstract thing. And that’s the most terrible thing! That should not be something that people are walking around worrying about.’

The other graduate related a similar story. In her senior year of high school, her health class read a story about a girl getting raped at a party. ‘After the reading,’ wrote the graduate in an email to me, ‘I and two other girls spent the remainder of the class trying to convince a group of boys that, no matter what the victim in the story had said or been wearing, the rape was 100 per cent the fault of the rapist. We were unsuccessful. We were not the only girls in the class, which was quite large. The teacher never once stepped in to say that we were in the right; instead, he participated as if he were facilitating an abstract philosophical debate, and actually suggested that people assign each character in the story a percentage of the blame.’

The high-school senior said that rape culture has to do with ‘the mindset that sex is a commodity’. She elaborated: ‘It’s the idea that sex is something that men should want and that women should give in exchange for emotional support or nice dates. From the male perspective, it’s: “OK, if I do this and this, then now I deserve sex… If you are not having sex with me or in a romantic relationship with me then I am somehow cheated.”’

For my interviewees, rape culture and slut-shaming seemed more like atmospheric pressures than forces they’d run up against in their own lives. But that might be only because my interviewees weren’t jumping to offer me details about their own sexual and romantic experiences. Some of them were too young to have had any. When I probed a little with the older ones, they claimed they’d experienced few gender-role dilemmas with their opposite-sex partners (none of them self-defined, at least to me, as gay). I was told by a 15-year-old boy that traditional gender roles still kick in when it comes to cars. ‘I don’t usually see a girl driving around a boy unless the girl is older and the boy can’t drive.’ When I asked him to speculate why, he said: ‘I don’t know, actually. It’s something that’s just, like, there. You always see in the movies that the guy picks up the girl from the house, the guy drops her off.’

So my interviewees were aware of gender inequality, and some of the girls were sensitised to the connections between sexuality and power. But did they actually define rape and rape culture as feminist issues? What about related body and sexuality issues such as abortion and domestic violence? For me, there is no question. You cannot fully understand the prevalence of these social realities, or their impact on women, without understanding how societies have alternately forbidden, encouraged, ignored, or covered up these acts. So I asked each of my interviewees if they saw rape, abortion, or domestic violence as specifically feminist issues. The older girls tended to say yes. One answered: ‘Abortion is a feminist issue in that much of the debate about the morality of aborting a pregnancy undervalues the opinion and the well-being of the woman with child. In a similar sense, rape and domestic violence are feminist issues not because they are unique to women, but because of the way they are discussed in the media and dealt with by the law.’

But some of the boys and the younger girls were puzzled by the question. They seemed to think that ‘feminist’ meant ‘matters only to women’. More than one responded — sometimes with annoyance — ‘No, that’s a human issue.’ It was pointed out that men get raped and beaten too, so rape and domestic violence could not be feminist issues. As we talked more, some said that abortion, rape, and domestic violence could be seen as feminist issues in certain cases — for example, if the police or courts refused to pursue a rape case. One 16-year-old boy said that even the latter wouldn’t necessarily make rape a feminist issue. ‘My feeling is that if this happened, it would not be because the rape wasn’t taken seriously but because it’s very hard to prosecute rape. You have to get physical evidence fast, and [if you can’t] it’s one person’s testimony against another, unless there are witnesses. What prosecutor would want to take a case they can’t win? It’s right that you shouldn’t get a conviction on those grounds.’ This same boy said that abortion was once a feminist issue but, since Roe v. Wade, it isn’t any more. When I pointed out that many US states are cutting back access to abortion, he changed his mind, saying that he hadn’t known this, and that he could see protecting what had already been obtained as a feminist goal.

If our schools are offering mixed messages, if feminism isn’t discussed at home, and if some gender stereotyping still holds force, where are these teens getting their basic acceptance of the idea of women’s equality? They did, to a person, say they believed in that idea. Many had a simple answer to this question: their moms. It didn’t seem to matter whether or not those mothers worked outside the home. One girl said that ‘growing up in my household, my mom always had a career. I always thought that men and women should be equal.’ When I pointed out that her mother had left paid work to have four children and had returned to employment only when my interviewee, the third of the four, was about nine years old, she replied: ‘I don’t know how to explain it. She just somehow always has been a working mom; she’s always been very ambitious.’

Another girl told me: ‘My mom has a high-powered position at work. And she just got promoted. So I’ve been around women in higher positions. She’s a good influence on me to make me want strength and independence. A lot of my friends have parents who are divorced or something happened, so they have moms who are strong.’ Yet another girl said that her mother, who was not employed, had never spoken directly to her about feminism but was ‘a strong-minded mom’ who had passed along the message that ‘You shouldn’t let people hold you back; you can do whatever you want.’

One 15-year-old said she couldn’t call herself a feminist because she had other priorities — in her case, an interest in government and what she called ‘leadership’

Does the transmission of such attitudes lead these teens to define themselves as feminists? I returned to the question I started with — what do teenagers really think of that term? If I had feared that many of these young people would say that feminists were angry man-haters who burned bras, I was pleasantly surprised. The charge that feminists were whiny or complained too much was as bad as it got. One 16-year-old boy declared that feminists are ‘extreme — they’re, like, “Women aren’t given any opportunity that men are.”’ Some interviewees could not come up with a mental picture of a ‘feminist’, but among those who did, Rosie the Riveter was the frequent answer.

This Second World War-era American propaganda figure, with her rolled-up sleeves and developed biceps, has somehow become a generalised icon of female strength and competence. The kids had learnt about Rosie from different sources — some from school; one brother and sister because their mother had received a toolbox for her birthday with a Rosie (‘We Can Do It!’) card. I was happy that their association was such a positive one, but am not sure what to think about the fact that almost no one came up with a more contemporary figure. Hillary Clinton? Alice Walker? Tina Fey? One 17-year-old said she thought of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Barack Obama, as he had appeared on the Ms. magazine cover montage in 2009, ripping open his shirt to reveal the slogan: THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE.

As for whether my interviewees saw themselves as feminists, the responses were split. None of the boys did, with the exception of one 18-year-old who answered ‘Yes and no’, suggesting that he wasn’t sure ‘feminist’ could apply to a man. I was told by other boys, and one girl, that a boy or a man could not be a feminist. But two-thirds of the girls said they were feminists. Age made all the difference. All of the girls aged 16 and over said they were feminists, while all but one of the younger girls said they were not feminists or had trouble answering the question.

I came away from my conversations feeling reasonably optimistic about today’s teenagers, at least those who are getting decent educations and living in stable families. If many of them didn’t have a particularly accurate or detailed concept of feminism, most seemed to have developed the habits of mind — curiosity, self-questioning, respect for new information — that are likely to lead them to thoughtful positions on these matters.

Yet, in some respects, I remain uneasy. I don’t see how the term ‘feminist’ will ever gain more acceptance than it has now — not nearly enough — when adults and teens alike continue to define it in narrow ways. When I asked the girls who didn’t consider themselves feminists why not, they said either that it was because they were not ‘activists’ or because other issues were more important to them. I see feminism as a lens through which to view the world, or as a set of interpretive tools. But most of these young people see feminism as an act. It’s about ‘holding up signs’ and rabble-rousing. It’s also an exclusive designation. One 15-year-old said she couldn’t call herself a feminist because she had other priorities — in her case, an interest in government and what she called ‘leadership’. She did not see being a feminist as something that could coexist with and even inform those passions.

At the same time, a lack of grounding in feminist history and thought can also produce a ‘feminism’ so broad as to be meaningless. One 17-year-old told me that she believed we were at a stage at which feminism is ‘whatever you want it to be’. She explained: ‘If you [a woman] find something empowering for you, fantastic. If you want to be a housewife and make cookies all day, great. If not, great.’ I asked if there was anything she wouldn’t call feminist just because a woman declared it to be so. She mentioned a report about a woman who’d auctioned off her virginity online. The woman stated that this was a feminist act because she was turning the value patriarchal society puts on a woman’s virginity to her own benefit. ‘But if it is just you that is benefiting,’ she said, ‘you can’t really call that feminism. It is still promoting patriarchy.’ This student is clearly sophisticated enough to draw distinctions, but ‘feminism is whatever you want it to be’ is a pop-culture-friendly notion that could lead to some perverse outcomes.

When I asked this clearly passionate and motivated student if she had read any of the seminal books on feminism, she hadn’t — not Susan Brownmiller nor Susan Faludi nor Naomi Wolf nor Betty Friedan, although she had heard of her book The Feminine Mystique (1963) and planned to read it eventually. It might be a lot to ask of high-schoolers that they steep themselves in this literature, but if even this special case — a 17-year-old girl who said she’d called herself a feminist since the age of six — not only hadn’t read but didn’t seem to be aware of most second- and post-second-wave feminist literature, I do think there is cause for concern. She might get to these books in college — I wouldn’t be surprised; I didn’t get to them until college myself. But most of her female peers, and nearly all of her male peers, probably won’t ever read them. They won’t take women’s studies courses; they won’t ground their reflexive impulse toward equality with a knowledge that will make it more flexible and durable, so that they can draw coherent conclusions about the next rape case or budget debate or discrimination lawsuit in the news.

Today’s young people are probably more egalitarian than any generation that has come before. But they might not have any greater understanding of that elusive term ‘feminist’, and that’s a loss to us all.

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  • Lester

    Thanks for the article, most thought provoking and interesting. Here are some thoughts that occurred to me as I read it, but I am no expert.

    Partially these are problems of definition. In an ever changing world what feminism means also changes, and as every small advancement of the basic aims is made other values come into play and again the definition continues to be in flux.

    And those on the progressive side of feminism (or any movement) are not the only ones defining the term. The depth of infiltration achieved by an all-encompassing media into the creation of values should never be underestimated, especially when the capital driven media is naturally not in the least bit enamoured with any philosophy other than its own and consequently literally makes war on these philosophical threats. It may be a weakness of the feminist umbrella that gender rather than power is seen to be a centralised theme, not that feminism is favouring gender over power but it is seen to do so.

    It is very easy to turn already acutely balanced human gender relations into a sexualised war and the media does it incessantly and very effectively. In fact, all the positive results of the struggles for equality and opportunity are presented today as a natural state of consumer capitalism. It is not centuries of people’s movements and political engagement that improve equality and opportunity, it is the market and the choices we make within it, we are told. For teenagers it’s easy to imagine that
    feminism and politics are just another identity choice in a range of offerings. No wonder they say things like “feminism can be whatever you want it to be”.

    It’s my feeling that equating progress with mothers staying at work, for example, is the wrong way to look at it. Progress would be where both parents worked less and more family time was available, where both parents had the opportunity to be take at least two years paid leave when their children are born and up to twenty years after then at any point they chose. When the battles within gender equality are fought around whether women or men take more time off then exploitative debt-driven capitalism is the winner every time.

    Especially when the real application of power is merely being pushed over your horizons, but which you benefit from nonetheless. There is something disheartening about the level of political engagement when a group of middle class people are discussing unfair power inequalities dressed in clothes made in special economic zones in the distant sweat houses of the West. Can we ever claim any measure of success when this kind of cognitive dissonance is so prevalent?

    • Pamela Erens

      Lester--thank you, very interesting comments on how capitalism figures into (and disfigures) the discussion and perception of gender relations. And I agree that the most healthy society would be the one in which both parents work less and have sufficient time for raising their children.

  • Tom Steele

    Gender equality is not what feminism is about, I hope. We live in a world of the DIE culture - Domination Individualism Exclusion. Women are as much a part of this culture as men. (Thatcher went to war on Argentina, broke the unions etc). Equality sounds like women want MORE of the Domination action - the break the glass ceiling to get to really Dominate via the boardroom.
    In fact, the more feminism is equated with gender equality, the worse you make the whole situation as you up the stakes in the dominate - exclude war.

    What we want to see is the ushering in of the PARTNERSHIP culture, a healthy and healing culture. Do you think you will get that if more women get to share the current domination paradigm. Give me break and get your thinking straight.

    • Nancy Vedder-Shults

      Most feminists agree with you. They realize that gender equality is just a step on the road to a partnership culture. Most women have been socialized to be cooperative and nurturing, so the more of them in powerful positions, the more we move in that direction. And some feminists agree with your stance that even this intermediary step can be dangerous to the ultimate goal.

    • Marge

      While I see what you're saying, I can see this thinking keeping women in helping/healing professions and males making structural decisions that affect us all. We do live in hierarchy?

    • greg

      Probably wont happen. Women who succeed are like men who succeed.

      The partnership culture is unrealistic wishy washy hippy claptrap (and I'm firmly of the left by the way).Also it fundamentally ignores the way the world actually works. We don't live in anything like a DIE world in the west anymore (and probably never really did when D and E were common I wasn't).

      There is an immense amount of both competition and collaboration the world is a much more complex place than DIe would have you believe. Capitalism is as much or more about cooperation as it is competition and we live and work in co-operative communities. We evolved to both co-operate and compete

      Also there isn't a shred of evidence this will happen if women were culturally dominant they'd fall under the same pressures and incentives and would probably react in a shockingly similar way. Maybe a bit less risky a tad less aggressive due to the lack of testosterone but really I don't think it'll make much difference.

      We can do things better but I think the partnership culture idea is just absurd.

      Also just technically Agentina invaded British territory and went to war with us, Thatcher responded as opposed to ignoring it. She didn't go to war.

  • Nick

    Perhaps they don't identify as feminists because they've seen what happens when people create their identities around ideologies. Feminism has certainly achieved monumental improvements in women's lives and liberty. Perhaps they now enjoy the freedom to identify as pilots, lawyers, drivers, or whatever motivates their little souls. Perhaps feminism has run in its course and now we need to be moving toward an ungendered gender discourse that is interested in equality to examine the unique struggles all genders face. Or maybe feminism has always been too exclusive excluding many women who didn't share some or all of their core views, or for whom none of it was applicable. Its hard to say.

    • Pamela Erens

      Thanks for your comment, Nick. My own opinion is that "feminism" just means being conscious of the ways gender has an impact in the workplace, school, romantic relationships, family dynamics, etc. Until gender has no impact, we need to examine it--in the case of men and women both. I don't believe "feminism" has excluded anyone--for one thing, "feminism" is not a unified entity. But I do believe some women have been scared off either by a disinclination to examine certain dynamics at work in their own lives... or by a misunderstanding of what feminism is.

      • http://www.saloforum.com/ Niccolo Salo

        Hi Pamela and thanks for the article. I can't agree with your desire to see 'gender not have an impact' especially in family or romantic relations.

        Can you explain to me why I should agree with your proposition?

        • Pamela Erens

          Niccolo Salo, perhaps I should have stated that more carefully. I wasn't holding out the goal of gender having no impact. Gender will always have an impact--and so we need to be aware of it, and so we need feminism.

          • UncommonWisdom

            The role of feminism should be limited to the public sphere; an evening out of opportunity. The problem with feminists is that they keep trying to stretch the meaning of the concept to hammer out other things that make them cranky. If some woman has a problem with her husband/boyfriend, this is something that she should address with him. This isn't a problem amenable to a dialectic form of critique. Feminists are just cranky people.

          • http://www.saloforum.com/ Niccolo Salo

            Thank you for the reply, Pamela.

      • Steve the Dingus

        "I don't believe 'feminism' has excluded anyone"

        A big cadre of Marxist-Feminists would beg to differ.

        • Pamela Erens

          But there are many types of feminism, just as there are many types of, say, Catholicism or Judaism. The fact that Orthodox Jews exist, and hold to premises and an authoritarian culture that I do not accept for myself, doesn't mean that "Jews" have excluded me. If you are educated about feminism, you know that there are many ways to be a feminist.

          • Shanna Mann

            You make a good case for why *you* don't care that the other people who call themselves feminists have views you disagree with. But for people like myself with no attachment to the movement, it's not compelling at all to join a group that is so fractured and at odds with itself. And the people that self-identify as feminists, in my experience, are the very worst advertisement you can have-- like Christian fundamentalists taking over the "Christian" brand.

            And so, not having any real reason to call myself a feminist, I take the parts I like and join the group that calls themselves 'egalitarians.' The name itself is a lot better and none of the baggage comes with it. Rather than defining myself against some huge amorphous notion of feminism, I just take the parts I agree with and leave the parts I don't. I think it's a lot like how people are leaving organized religion to become "spiritual-not-religious." I agree with the kids. It's a human issue. Not a women's issue.

          • jessicapancakes

            I think the big issue here seems to be that people imagine feminists as like, a borg, with ID cards and meetings or something. Being a feminist is just the opposite of being a sexist. It's not an organization. I mean, there are organizations that form to advocate for feminist issues, but they are generally pretty boring and staid. So bizarre. Do you consider yourself a democrat or republican? Do you agree with every single one of them? They are certainly fractured groups...

          • kyle

            most people are independent and very moderate, they just don't know it, because they are constantly bombarded with epic politik battle royale with cheese

          • UncommonWisdom

            You had me until you veered off into "authoritarian culture" and Judaism. You had me with you (albeit tenuously) until the sharp left turn.

      • UncommonWisdom

        I am a disabled person. Employers with seeking "bindersful of women" (see Romney, Mitt) have no place for the "wrong minority" like myself. Feminists may be perfectly nice people but this concept has become toxic to the majority.

        • jessicapancakes

          As a Women's studies major in college, it was constantly reiterated and hammered into me that feminism is about equality in all respects, including gender, sex, sexual preference, race, class and ability. All the most passionate able fighters for Disabled rights have strongly identified as feminist.

          • UncommonWisdom

            I can tell you from personal experience, that ain't how it played out. Disabled people have the highest poverty rate (28%!) in this country, edging out more traditional groups such as African-Americans and Native-Americans. Our lot has decidedly NOT been ameliorated by cranky feminists railing against "the problem with no name." If anything, modern feminism has proven the original critique--feminism is a tool to promote the middle classes at the expense of the poor and otherwise disenfranchised--true. While I wish you well, the theory you learned is very different from reality.

    • Lapin

      Well, let's start with "their little souls"...

  • Original Sin

    You paint a sad picture. I find it incomplete, but heading in the right direction to heal. Thanks for thinking about these issues. I cannot offer any solutions that you haven't already mentioned. I'll just add another voice to the healthy respect that this topic deserves.

    • Pamela Erens

      Thank you for chiming in.

      • UncommonWisdom

        Pamela, I didn't want to sound this full of rage. You seem to be a thoughtful person but I have had to live this half-life in the shadows since childhood even as groups in the middle-class have inserted themselves into the civil rights discourse.

        • Pamela Erens

          Not at all; thank you for your input, UncommonWisdom.

  • Trimegistus

    I expect what has made people reluctant to identify as feminists is the way that the "feminist movement" has become so blatantly hypocritical, blatantly anti-male, and shackled itself to the political Left. A woman who works, has the respect of her husband, and raises kids is denigrated by modern "feminists" but someone who spends her day seeking more and more excuses to claim victimhood is a heroine in their eyes.

    • Pamela Erens

      I have to disagree, Trimegistus. This is a common accusation--that feminists denigrate women who stay home. There may have been a tendency toward this in the early days of the women's movement, but I absolutely don't see it happening today. Where do you see evidence of this denigration? Who are the feminists you are referencing? (What people or organization?)

  • FactChecker

    Maybe HS students don't identify with "women being systemically oppressed by men" because that's a blatant lie based on life in Upper Middle Class White America in 2013. Please, look at statistics, which you seemed quite reluctant to use in this article. Who graduates high school more, boys or girls? Who goes to college more frequently, boys or girls? Who gets accepted to more PhD programs, boys or girls? Who is more likely to be incarcerated, assaulted, or murdered boys or girls? Who is more likely to commit suicide, boys or girls? Who is more likely to be taught that they don't need a partner of the opposite sex, that they can do no wrong, that they're victims and every triumph is a major success since they're systematically exploited?

    18 year olds don't give a shit about feminism in Upper Middle Class White America in 2013 because it's core tenets are fictitious in light of facts.

    • Anonymous

      And where are quotas to hire boys? I am a computer programmer and I lost a computer programming job opportunity to a woman who had never programmed. They said they had quotas to fill and that I was highly qualified. Go figure.

      • Johnny Democracy

        If you'd like to be an elementary school teacher or a nurse, I will stand by your choice and even support a quota for you to get hired.

    • UncommonWisdom

      I fully agree with you. The civil rights discourse in this country has shifted to promote the goals of the middle and upper middle classes. Not that the poor have gone anywhere mind you, the latest onslaught about how women are underrepresented in computer programming is disheartening. It distracts from the original goal of Martin Luther King's civil rights crusade--to help the poor and downtrodden. Feminists have tainted our country's formerly proud civil rights record. I can say that as the grandson of black Hispanics who came to this country to start a new life.

  • Howard K

    Funny... she says she asked the kids about inequalities between men and women, but they all apparently immediate dive into female oppression and rape culture. Did she ask them about whether they think boys are doing equally well as girls in school? Whether more boys or girls go to college and seem interested in science?

    • UncommonWisdom

      Rape should always be a crime and I feel morally dirty for defending criminals but according to the Department of Justice's Office of Crime Statistics (website down due to the Federal shutdown) there is a huge gulf in opinion of women who have been reported as raped and who had sex without her consent (the two are legally equivalent). Rape is bad and blame resides with the perpetrator but women appear to have difficulty in discerning what it is.
      As a disabled person, the feminist discourse has excluded me altogether--I spent most of my life in poverty and one thing that feminism has been uniquely shitty at has been improving the lot of the poor and disenfranchised.
      I don't know how feminists can look at themselves in the mirror. Their problems are not legitimate.

      • Abi

        'the feminist discourse' has not excluded you. Poverty and disenfranchisement are the result of a society that values power and dominance over collectivism, cooperation equality etc. The same society, we could call it patriarchal, dichotomises masculine and feminine and values attributes of the one over the other. This structuring of society best fits into capitalist modes of production. Feminist discourse is many things, often contradictory, because it doesn't have a specific agenda. All feminism claims to do consistently is to address the dichotomy of our concepts of masculine and feminine, which affects every single person; black, disabled, white, blind whatever. To move towards an egalitarian society we have to address the root cause, this dichotomy. How can any egalitarian society have vast amounts of its population valuing domination, power, strength etc? This is not to say in any way that all men are domineering, oppressive etc or that no women are, but that our concept of what it is to be masculine entails these things. Any man can be compassionate, cooperative, etc and most are, the same with any woman being oppressive, power hungry etc but while we live in a society that values power more highly we cant have true equality. Feminism, or at least feminism that goes by this most fundamentally 'feminist' idea, does include you.

    • Pamela Erens

      No question that males are losing ground in higher education and, some argue (e.g., Hanna Rosin in The End of men), in the work economy also, at least for those below the upper-middle class. I suppose I could have asked those questions, and I wonder what the answers would have been.

  • David

    "Perhaps feminism has run in its course and now we need to be moving
    toward an ungendered gender discourse that is interested in equality to
    examine the unique struggles all genders face."

    I agree wholeheartedly with this comment from Nick.

    Feminism is of course not one monolithic being, but represents a broad range of, often conflicting, stances. Nonetheless, I think that a lot of young people have a limited amount of time for Feminism, because of the term being associated with the more militant, man-hating end of the spectrum. Indeed, I am constantly surprised by the number of people who claim to be feminists, and long for "equality", but who consider rape, sexual harrassment and gender inequality to be uniquely women's problems.

    Nick is also right in saying that Feminists have made huge progress in the struggle towards equality. However, until people realise that gender equality is about helping people of all genders with their particular issues, I don't think we are going to make much more progress. And as long as such a large proportion of Feminists fail to recognise that men, while they might have dominated most societies for time immemorial, also have issues with which they need help, I think the word Feminist is going to have dirty connotations for many who would otherwise be willing partners in the struggle for equality.

  • Joe

    I think the biggest hurdle for feminism right now is the name itself. It sets up a dichotomy where femininity and masculinity are diametrically opposed because the name implies an overriding focus on women's issues. A more neutral name for the movement, like gender equality or egalitarianism, might have helped its perception in the long run, because nowadays most people think of feminists as "insane men-haters who bash anyone who doesn't conform to their ideals" or "unrealistic idealists who ignore the practical consequences of their demands." The men's rights activists have the same thing going, where the guys who have valid points about paternal rights, alimony, and custody are stuck with the dead weight of the vocal anti-women brigade.

    As for slut-shaming and all that, I really have no idea. My best guess is that it's a misdirected reaction to the tidal wave of sexual imagery and the trumpeting of sex as the greatest thing ever we get in just about everything nowadays. It also doesn't help that media seems to be portraying over the top sexuality as something admirable or at least attention-getting, so you see women emulating celebrities that people don't have high opinions of and that results in people transferring those opinions to the emulators instead of blaming the media machinery that promotes this stuff in the first place.

    • Pamela Erens

      These are interesting speculations about the media's role in the slut-shaming phenomenon.

      I would so like to believe that we could go beyond "feminism" to focus on "gender equality." Maybe that "rebranding" would help. But I believe that there are still issues of sharpest concern to women, just as there are issues of sharpest concern to men. Putting all this under the heading of "egalitarianism" might fuzzy things up. The ideal to me, would be a robust feminism, a robust male equivalent (andrism?), and an overlapping area of inquiry that's focused on gender dynamics generally. Actually, there does already exist an area of academic study called Gender Studies.

  • UncommonWisdom

    Feminism has outlived its usefulness. My mother benefitted from the first wave of feminism (version 1.0) by getting an advanced degree in the sciences from a school that did had not previously accepted women. I was, and am, immensely proud to have a mother with a Ph.D. in science.
    While she was finishing her Ph.D., I was diagnosed with an "orphan" disease. There still is no cure for it but the treatments for it in the 1970's were barbaric. When I became an adult and tried to get a job, I quickly learned I was "the wrong minority." Women and minorities have a "plus factor" in applying for work and in school. THIS WORKS AGAINST DISABLED PEOPLE, A GROUP THAT HAS THE HIGHEST POVERTY RATE IN THIS NATION (U.S. Census, 2012). I did everything possible to make myself marketable to employers (Harvard, Georgetown) but I was unemployed for 4 years and became a public charge (don't believe me? It happened--SSDI baby). Beyond pay equality, feminism has no place in this country. Like Communism, eugenics, and prohibition--feminism is a relic of mid-20th century progressivism.
    All concepts that should be relegated to the ash-heap of history.

  • SRWG

    Feminism is a movement which would naturally be extinguished by it's own success - there's no need for an equal gender rights movement when gender rights are equal, right?

    I think what we're seeing with feminism today is the movement dealing with the consequences of its successes. This explains, in large part, why feminism has radicalized quite a bit in recent years. The movement has, by and large, won all of its major battles, leaving members to either move on or keep fighting the smaller and smaller fights because they've been immersed in a conflict culture for years and continue to see the world through that lens in spite of the great gains made by the movement. That's where the hypersensitive misandrist brand of "tumblr feminism" has come from - and it's this radical evolution of the movement that is turning off many in the younger generation whose impression of feminism is entirely based off of this offshoot whom they perceive to be short-fused, bitter, angry, and deeply sexist.

    • Jay

      Gotta be careful with this line of logic - it assumes that men and women are considered equal by today's standards when they're unquestionably not. But I get where you're coming from (and I agree!), and it's why I get uncomfortable when people start to ask 'is the existence of BET racist' - in theory it is and is ultimately a hindrance to true elimination of racism - but in context it's not.
      In the same way, feminism - and a highlight on women's rights - is theoretically a hindrance to true gender equality - but in context we need to keep it up for a while longer.
      Think of it like training wheels on your bicycle, or a cast on your arm. The problem will never truly be fixed while its still there, but until we're very close it's still necessary.
      I look forward to the day when we truly don't need to discuss gender equality and the word feminism can be relegated to a footnote in our history textbooks, but we're not there yet, no matter how annoying it is to talk about it.

  • Jay


    I'm a millenial - a little older than your sample but more or less just as informed (or ill informed) as the kids in your pseudo study. And, while I believe in gender equality, I will never identify as a feminist.

    In my eyes, feminism has changed. Feminism was a battle to end the war of the sexes: now its a battle to turn the tides in the war of the sexes. Look at Jezebel.com and you might see where I'm coming from. Or better yet, Thinkprogress.org recently posted an article attempting to pin the american government shutdown on men, using articles that were common place during the women's rights movement. The reason people think that men can't be feminist is because we've become the ones under attack!

    That said, the cause isn't lost: just the word. From my observations: our generation is not one of feminist rights issues and black rights issues and so on and so forth: we're the generation of human rights issues. We still look down on ignorances of all breeds: we've just stopped fighting them individually and started facing them all down as a single entity. We still have tough questions in front of us of which we are divided (is everything depicting women being sexy "misogynistic"? How do we close the gender wage gap without unfairly penalizing the males in the workforce? How do we balance the whole 'different but equal' and more importantly, how do we avoid the extremist groups on both sides of the isle who want to claim one of the groups is superior?)

    It's not that this new generation is uninformed on the issues, it's that the issues our generation faces have taken on a new tone that sounds unfamiliar.

    • Pamela Erens

      Interesting pov, Jay; thank you. And I like your list of "tough questions."

  • http://www.anamericanhousewifeintexas.com/ Leslie Loftis

    I agree with Joe that the term "feminism" is a hurdle right now. It has two aspects, often confused. Intellectual, equal opportunity feminism has broad support. But political feminism, far more active these days, is angry and exclusionary. Think of trying to be a pro-life feminist, not crazy when one considers how much abortion is used for male gender selection but non-sensical to declared feminists. Or the condescension aimed at housewives. Or the recent #solidarityisforwhitewomen trend. A lot of what the young see in the name of feminism is this exclusionary and elitist behavior from the women at the top of the feminist pyramid. Tease out what the young agree with, and equal opportunity is almost universal. The rest is not.

    As for what the young learn, having the news on, reading in front of them, etc. are the best ways to teach our children as mentioned. So why don't they know about modern feminist history. Why haven't they read Friedan and Wolf? In part because too many of us, their mothers, haven't. Back during the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique coverage, I was shocked to learn that even women who made their living as feminist opinion drivers hadn't read it. http://www.anamericanhousewifeintexas.com/2013/04/25/the-book-that-was-seldom-read-after-its-first-printing-the-feminine-mystique/
    Feminist leaders haven't studied feminist history. As a result, they’ve spent 40 or so years essentially telling us what feminism means to them, cherry picking the bits they liked and denying the bits they didn’t, which kicks us right back to the first problem of definitions. The young are feminists. But they aren't elite, white, Boomers. While that older group dictates the feminist approved positions, the young will continue to be skeptical of the label. They believed us when we said it was about choice. And having not read the Second Wave works or had the ideas in the background like we did, they really think feminism means any choice they want.

    • Pamela Erens

      Same question I asked Trimegistus... who are these feminists who are condescending to housewives? Can you point to any individuals or groups? What "angry and exclusionary" politically feminist groups are you referring to? There are hardly any politically feminist groups at all these days. There are groups that are fighting a rearguard action to preserve abortion rights in the U.S. ... beyond that, not much. Again, who, specifically, are these individuals "at the top of the feminist pyramid" who are being exclusionary and elitist? I can't conjure up any faces or names.

      • http://www.anamericanhousewifeintexas.com/ Leslie Loftis

        Ok, a short sampling off the top of my head. Forgive bullet points, but I'm in a rush.

        Friedan's rhetoric of housewifery being a comfortable concentration camp and domestics beneath an intelligent woman opens the Second Wave. Trashing housewifery is part of the foundation upon which modern feminism was built.

        A rather infamous quote about just staying home and baking cookies comes to mind.

        More recently came the article in the Guardian that women with Ivy League educations owe it to the sisterhood to not go home, as housewifery and motherhood are beneath their education levels. And then there was Hilary Rosen and the Ann Romney has nothing of value to say because she "never worked a day in her life" kerfuffle from the US elections last year.

        Linda Hirshman and her Get To Work manifesto. It's harsher than Lean In, but neither have much patience for women who don't aspire to the boardroom.

        Google anything about how thrilled feminists were with Caitlin Flanagan after she published To Hell With All That. Or check out the comments and the many articles responding to the NYT's Retro Housewife from last spring.

        From a recent interview of two young rising feminists: "I don’t know how many times I’ve had to say something along the lines of, “not every choice you make is a feminist choice just because you ID as a feminist” to someone, but I’d be thrilled if I never had to say it again." http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/how-two-young-feminists-are-using-radical-feminism-to-pave-a-new-way-forward/

        During a webcast a few months ago, Anne Marie Slaughter talked about the run up to her Having It All article in The Atlantic. She sought editing advice from many women. The young women told her she had to publish it, while older women told her she must not publish it. She told us she gets frozen out by those women these days. She said things she was not supposed to say. She didn't name names though.

        i also have tons of anecdotal experience. As a writer on such issues, I have been invited to groups and asked for follow up based upon my posts on women or motherhood...until they find out l don't claim the label feminist. Then comes the troll treatment. And its not just me. Most of the women I know are feminists in the equal opportunity sense. And those of us who are housewives, we get the most push back and condescension from older feminists. They are the ones who avoid talking to us at cocktail parties. The message is clear: if you aren't a working, pro-choice woman, you aren't welcome. (And if you are, then hopefully you are white and highly educated as their problems of boardroom parity, work/life balance, and the complete reproductive control necessary for boardroom parity take precedence.)

        • Pamela Erens

          Thanks for the examples, Leslie Loftis. I'd quibble with some, but I can't argue with your personal experience, of course.

  • Naomi J

    I actually just have some questions to ask. Your article heavily insinuates that a woman who decides not to work to raise children or decides to leave work to raise children is somehow against the feminist idealism. Why is going to work and leaving your children a sign of being a true feminist? Why is believing that women have the ability to nurture in a way that simply doesn't come naturally to men (not that it is impossible for men to do, mind you) wrong and anti-feminist? I have always felt that feminists rail against the traditional role of women in the home, but many (maybe even most) women believe that staying at home, and perhaps even sacrificing one's career to do so, is a noble and worthy cause, and shouldn't be looked down upon by men or especially other women, as I feel the feminist culture generally does. I feel that is very exclusionary, just as some people in the comments have said already. It is one of the main reasons I don't and never have identified with feminism. How do you feel about this?

    I also would like to share my views on abortion and the feminist movement for your consideration. I feel like the feminists have got the cart before the horse, as it were. I think it was great that feminist pushed for the wide availability of birth control and now it is something women who chose to be sexually active have access too. I personally don't believe in sex before marriage, but I believe that people have to right to choose that path if they will. That is a right that I can understand women would fight for; the right to have sex with whomever they wish, and to not be looked down upon for it, and to have a way to prevent unwanted pregnancy should they choose to do so. What I don't understand is why abortion is treated as a choice a woman should be able to make about her body, as if abortion is on the same level as pregnancy prevention, which it isn't. An unwanted pregnancy may be unwanted, but it is a consequence of an action. A woman has the choice to have sex, she has the choice to use birth control. That is how she has control over her body. When she engages in sex, she knows that a possible consequence is getting pregnant, no matter how many precautions she takes. If she gets pregnant anyway, shouldn't she be expected to live with that consequence and take responsibility for it? Does she really have the right to terminate another's life simply because the consequences of her actions aren't what she had hoped them to be? I think that, as well as many other things we do in our generation, are only teaching our youth that it's okay to do what you want, because you won't have to worry about any negative consequences that come along. This is why I don't buy the idea of pro-choice that feminism circulates. They already won the fight for their choice: the ability to have sex and be able to try to prevent pregnancy. Their choice has been made; they chose sex. This is another reason why I don't identify with feminists. What do you think about my views on abortion?

    And pardon if this sounds rude now, but the next person to ask me "what about rape victims?" gets a punch in the face. I think abortion for rape victims is an entirely separate issue that needs it's own separate attention. I think that rape victims need to look inside themselves to see if they could possibly be strong enough to raise and love a child that came of such a horrible traumatic experience. If they can't see through to that, then I would hope they'd at least be able to carry the child to term so that someone who does want a child may adopt it. If they can't even do that, then I would argue that abortion should be available to them once all other options are exhausted. Some women are so traumatized by their rape experiences that they couldn't possibly live with the reminder for the rest of their lives, or even for 9 months, and I don't judge them or look down on them. However, abortion in cases of rape is a COMPLETELY different issue, and I don't understand why feminists (and liberals) continue to make "what about rape victims?" their only defense in pro-abortion arguments. This is one of the reasons I don't identify with uber-liberals. You can comment on these ideas if you want, I just wanted to clarify that I view abortion and abortion pertaining to rape victims as different.

    Thank you for this well-written article, it was thought provoking and helps me to understand a little more why someone would identify with the feminist movement.

    • Pamela Erens

      Thanks for all your thoughts, Naomi J. I regret it if it seems like my article "heavily insinuates that a woman who decides not to work to raise children or decides to leave work to raise children is somehow against the feminist idealism." Perhaps it seems that way because many of the teens I interviewed made a connection between their mother's working lives and their own pro-equality opinions. But I am not myself of the opinion that staying home to raise kids, if you are a woman, is "not feminist." I myself left the paid workforce when I had my first child, because I wanted to be involved in an hour-to-hour way with my kids' upbringing. (Though I did, always, employ some paid, part-time help so that I could have a little time to write and exercise during those early years.)

  • Ari

    Feminism is no longer associated with equality of the sexes. It has become associated with misandry.

    If you want to look at what a society with a high degree of gender equality, look at countries like Finland. Women would had land could vote for the Diet before independence and at independence, that country had universal suffrage.

    In finland, everyone is expected to have http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sisu which mean strength of will or "guts" regardless of gender and work as hard as they can.

  • iliketurtlez

    "It’s always the mom, why is that?"

    Because gender roles go the other way too. If the father were to quit his job to be a homemaker, his wife would have left him. What's feminism doing about male gender roles? Nothing. Nothing but blaming it on "patriarchy", which amounts to victim blaming. This is why the Men's Rights Movement has to exist now.

    • SlickMc

      Er, what? Blaming the victimizer amounts to victim blaming? Do you work for the Ministry of Truth?

      I'm guessing you've never read any feminist literature or talked with many feminists, especially male feminists. Feminism is, at its purest, about how gender roles forced on us by society trap us into being what we're not and don't want to be. Any feminist worth his or her salt knows that neither sex is truly free without the other also being so. Men's and women's rights are not mutually exclusive.

  • ThePeanutGallery

    I think the problem is that authors like this only like to recognize the positive elements in feminism, and they have a very short memory for the racism, misandry, transmisogyny, transphobia, homophobia, anti-kink and general sex-negative attitudes from past feminists as well as tons of modern blogger feminists. The examples are not hard to find, both present and historical. Feminism isn't just the good things it's accomplished, it's a community that I commonly disagree with. Especially when you consider the internet's flair for pushing certain trollish bloggers to say increasingly extreme things just to link-bait people. Sometimes a group can even have noble goals but go about trying to solving them in very broken ways as well. (Prohibition anyone?)

    I won't self identify as a group that has so much baggage and internal issues. I don't think gender equality changes in any way because I call myself some group or another. I think sometimes ideological collectivism creates cultural narratives that can then become weird enforced dogmas which are very resistant to logic or rationality. If you ignore the history of those, it can become easy to think modern feminism doesn't have anything that will look similarly incorrect or intolerant in 50 years. Just take the historical morphology of feminist views on transgendered women as an example.

    I don't want to be a part of weird echo chambers that commonly includes putting me down because of my skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or what happens in my bedroom.... even if the expressed goal (for some) is to stop exactly such kinds of behaviors.

    You can't just take everything that's good about a group of people, and ignore all the flaws. You certainly can't hold it against others if they refuse to put on rosey colored glasses with nice big blinders either. Some people know the flaws and think self-identifying as that group is just polarizing and unnecessary. Most self-identifying ideological groups have the same kind of problems.

    So in the same way that I'll spend an hour cleaning up a park instead an hour telling people how I'm 'totally an environmentalist', I will vote for candidates that support resolving issues that are unique to women in ways that are sane and equal, and will support gender equality in my actions personally and professionally.

    Lets also not forget, gender equality isn't the only type of equality or rights I support. Ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, political, animal rights, the rights of ecosystems. Should I give a big list of words describing myself as someone who identifies as each of those things when I meet people now? Why is that even important, especially if each group (lets just say animal rights activists as an example) commonly do things I disagree with personally? Should I label myself as a member of all of those things, but then give a big list of corollaries outlining the idiosyncrasies of my varying support for each group's actions (split by whatever region I presently live in as well... because those self-identified group definitions are commonly geographically dependent). What's really the point of all of that, isn't it just talk?

    I think actions matter more then the trivialities of which things I call myself. I can't imagine this position is unique to me. I am more then just a collection of things I support, what I actually do in life matters more then the groups I claim to be part of during small talk at parties or on blogs.

    • Pamela Erens

      Thanks for this, ThePeanutGallery.

  • Sandra

    As a teenager who happily identifies herself as a feminist and who was fortunate enough to attend a top all girls school in Australia, which did in fact have a Feminist Collective, I was never truly aware that being female would make a different to anything I set out to do until I left school.

    It saddens me that there I have a good friend who suffer anxiety over their physical appearance and always feels a lack of self worth because she has lower social status because she does not have a boyfriend. Yet it frustrates me that she is committed to her monthly subscriptions to FOUR women's magazines (Cleo, Cosmo, Vogue etc) and contents herself by absorbing herself in the projections of the commodified woman. It disappoints me that she cannot see the root of her undue stress when it seems so clear to me. I feel weak when I cannot even convince my friends that feminism is still a necessary cause and there is no shame in wanting equality between men and women.

    So while I feel weakened by my own attempts to spread feminist conversation, I also feel shame from those older role models who do call themselves feminist. I read these articles and I feel guilty that I call myself a feminist but have not done my "homework" and read up on "Susan Brownmiller nor Susan Faludi nor Naomi Wolf nor Betty Friedan". But so what? Does this make me unqualified to call myself a feminist? I have tried to read feminist literature but I can't. I can't finish the book, is it because I don't align myself with their values? Is it because deep down I secretly think feminism is an outdated movement? No, it is because the central ideas in these books are not new to me. They are telling me things I already agree with and know, I do not need to read the Beauty Myth to know that the idea of female attractiveness is a social construct. I am already sick to the gut about these inequalities, how can I bring myself to read about it?

    How can older feminist lament over the younger generations when they are so keen to intellectualise and place an elitist barrier between calling yourself a feminist and just wanting and agreeing with "feminism's basic ideas and aims"?

    • Pamela Erens

      Thanks for your pov, Sandra. I'm particularly interested in why classic feminist books don't engage you. They still feel relevant to me--in the same way that, say, a classic work of political theory written 100 or 200 years ago still has something to teach me, even if I've totally absorbed the notion of democracy or capitalism--but I would never say you're not a feminist if you haven't read certain books.

  • babymaker00

    i'd like to assert that the kids espousing the "feminism is whatever you want it to be" idea do not sound to me like their application is so broad as to be "meaningless," but more like they are misconstruing the popular idea right now that feminism is the RIGHT TO CHOOSE what you want, with all choices available and valid - whether that choice is to enter a male-dominated profession like politics, enter a female dominated profession (teaching, nursing, etc.), or to stay home and raise babies...
    Its a very popular definition of current feminism, particularly in some online women's communities, that feminism is all about having ALL the choices available valid and being free to choose whats right for you.

    I think you may have given those respondents in particular less credit than they deserve - they may have been unable to articulate it, but if that's their definition of feminism, they are at least out there looking into it!

  • Thomas

    The situation is much worse. Among younger people, it is decidedly uncool to care about any issue at all. Moreover, it is 100 times easier to argue against something or cast doubt on something or ridicule something than to explain something's importance. These middle-class kids have everything, they have their iPhones, will surely go to college, can have sex easily, what else would they want? Why would they care about anything at all? All the big issues like global warming, problems with capitalism, discrimination against women, exploitation of Bangladeshi workers, illegal immigration, mining out the seas are too diffuse, far away, and their consequences cannot really be felt right now. There are so many lolcats on tumblr and facebook updates that in the midst of this minutiae the big issues disappear. Young people are docile and don't care, completely apolitical and could not be bothered about anything, especially when in highschool when everything is still paid for the parents. In college, things start to change a bit, but not by much.

    • Joe

      As a young person (millennial), I don't find those issues to be "uncool," there's simply nothing I can do about them when I'm struggling to find a job in a terrible job market and the people at the top aren't likely to listen/care about the problems affecting my demographic.

  • Paul

    As a young (recent university grad) straight male and newly minted convert to the feminist cause, I'd like to point out one factor that I think goes a long way in explaining the distrust both adolescent males and females show toward "feminism": developmental biology. The teenage years are a time when hormone levels spike, yet the prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain which allows for rationalized restraint, doesn't fully mature until about age twenty-five. From my own experience, I can say that teenage males desire sexual gratification in a more carnal, impulsive way than adults do. Add to that their underdeveloped ability to sublimate their passions, and it becomes less surprising that boys might react indignantly and abrasively when "feminists" check their lustful (and misogynistic) fantasies. Moreover, with secondary school often an unregulated playground where hormone-fueled bodies are allowed to collide haphazardly, it's also little surprise that the boys, with their testosterone-driven urge to achieve rank and dominate, end up directing the flow of adolescent culture. The girls, for their part, have their own desires to be liked, and, being similarly impulsive, may not see how going along with the misogynistic norms that the boys encourage actually harms their long-term interests as human beings with real desires for meaningful, fulfilling, equitable lives.

    I don't know that there's any easy solution to the problem—whatever the solution is, it probably requires smart and conscientious adults to implement it—though I appreciate the consciousness-raising done here in this article. I just think it's important not to pin the blame primarily on either male or female adolescents themselves. A more effective strategy might be to design an educational system that does a better job of rescuing adolescents from the consequences of their decisions—decisions which they themselves may recognize to be poor but which they may struggle to avoid anyhow. (And it seems like you were leaning toward something like this in your article—just thought I'd spell out the biological case for it.)

    • Pamela Erens

      You raise some great points, Paul. Many years ago I was dismissive of the idea that there was any biological underpinning to gender roles--in keeping with the reigning attitude in the 70s and even 80s. As science is showing us more and more about hormones, etc., I've revised that stance and do think there are biological influences on gender. We need to be very careful not to give those influences a distorted weight when we look at gender roles, however.

  • mferrier

    I think it's appropriate that the teacher did not enforce a certain point of view in the rape blame debate, but unfortunate that he encouraged the students to view it using the percentage paradigm. Instead, I think the terminology needs to be expanded: there are two different types of blame. If a girl goes to a frat party wearing next to nothing and gets wasted, then gets raped, it's 100% the rapist's moral fault, of course. The moral blame is 100% his. But it's also 100% the girl's stupid fault. She acted like a complete idiot. The same would apply to a man who walks through a crime ridden neighborhood at night wearing an expensive suit and a fancy watch. When he's mugged, the moral fault is completely with the mugger, but the stupid fault is 100% his own.

    • Pamela Erens

      Right now there's quite a to-do about an article by Emily Yoffe of Slate in which she says, let's face it, girls have to learn not to get so drunk at social gatherings. I happen to agree with her (and therefore you). The rape is the man's fault, but girls have to learn that excessive drinking makes them vulnerable, and why would they want to be vulnerable? Your crime neighborhood analogy works for me.

      • FosterBoondoggle

        It doesn't seem to work for a lot of the "feminists" on Jezebel, Salon and elsewhere, who assert that Yoffe is making excuses for the "rape culture". Apparently being a feminist means never ever talking about what women can do to make themselves safer, and only talking about how we can change a culture that fails to always obtain a criminal conviction of any man accused of rape. Including of a husband whose wife thinks he might have had sex with her while they were both drunk, after she encouraged him, though she can't quite remember. Apparently Yoffe's response to her is a case of victim blaming.

  • ayahush

    The reason lots of equality-conscious males can't be feminist is that to accept the label is to accept the principle that their personal gender-related struggles aren't as bad as they feel them to be and that their privileges are far greater than what they feel them to be. And further: to accept that the reason they can't see things this way is that they are cosseted so constantly in deferential treatment and free lunches by life that their ability to view the world as it really is has been subtly, but fatally, compromised.

    Hence: "Check your privilege". That's exactly what it means. Accepting feminism is accepting that the difficulty level of being a man is however difficult feminists say being a man is.

    Men are told they can never ever judge a girl's behaviour, emotional reaction or level of entitlement as unreasonable, because they don't know what it feels like to be a girl. But feminists will unhesitantly tell them that they know what it's like to be a boy, and that in virtually every circumstance, it's objectively easier than being a girl. We've done the math, trust us.

    Listen to what your son is telling you. He's not saying he doesn't care about women's rights. He's saying he feels to accept feminism would be to trivialise and marginalise himself. And he's right.

    He knows that feminists will continue eternally fail to address the male suicide rate, educational gap or the many other miseries riddling masculinity at the moment, and so that accepting it would be endorsing a position that thinks his problems are no big deal. But that CEO ratios matter hugely.

    Do you have any idea how it feels when you're young to see huge efforts being made to empower the other gender, and constantly fuss over their self-esteem, and tell them they're special, and celebrate their "beating the boys!", without nothing equivalent existing for you? To see pencil cases with "boys are stupid, throw rocks at them" flourish, while constantly hearing that girls have such a huge struggle to get respect in the world that extra sensitivity must be shown to them at all times. But that there's no reason you should feel especially fragile?

    And to see all this deliberate prioritisation of women happening on top of a culture that already taught you that's all that's beautiful and sophisticated in the world is "their" thing and all that's crude and nasty is yours? (Snips and snails etc)

    It deforms you. It doubles down on the "suffer in silence" role men get forced into by society. Society tells boys when they're kids they shouldn't cry or share their feelings because it's unmanly, Then as they start to grow up they start seeing how they've been hurt by this, feminism comes along to tell them, nope, they shouldn't get upset about being hideously emotionally neglected by the world actually, because they're being whingy and melodramatic, as girls have it, always, much worse. And you're misogynistic if you disagree.

    You seem like a good person. If everyone feminist in the world was like you, then there wouldn't be a problem. But even the fact that you list only female problems as arguments for why people should be feminist suggests you don't get it really, suggesting that no matter your efforts to raise the kids the same (which I commend, honestly I do) you subconsciously assume your daughter has the harder life. It angers me when you automatically dismiss your son's claiming otherwise as such obvious nonsense that it only emphasises further his need to be feminist. You don't take it as a differing viewpoint you oppose but respect, but as not a valid opinion whatsoever .

    Stop this. Feminism don't have an omniscient point of view. You need to drop the assumption that people aren't feminist because they don't care about sexism. Some people aren't feminism precisely because they care about sexism. I'm not feminist for the same reason I'm not Republican.

    Feminism may be ultimately about equal rights (and that's arguable), but it certainly does not invite men to join it as equals. A gender equality movement should be a safre space for all in a non-judgemental atmosphere with no status stratification. Feminism absolutely is not. Male feminists are tolerated, but not allowed any kind of independent voice.

    I became feminist originally because for me growing up it meant a place where people meet in the middle after they've finally overcome all the gendered nonsense they've had indoctrinated in them from birth, where they can see everyone at a deep human level, as they truly are at last. I wanted to get closer to people.

    I left because every single second engaged with feminism makes me feel irreversibly trapped, identified and limited by my gender more than I have ever felt in my life, and I refuse to go along with something that treats me like like a second-class citizen and is gleeful in it's every disrespectful gesture to my gender. This is how men feel about feminism.

    • Jon

      It's like you pulled my raw, unrefined thoughts out of my head and smoothed them out into a fine piece of work. Kudos, my friend. This is perfect.

  • Clarke

    Wow. What a great article. Really well written with a really well developed point.

    I can't help but agree with the kid who said rape it not a feminist issue. I think it's useful to detach the issue of rape from feminism. After all, if you include the prison population, more men are raped in the USA than women. But the fact that these youngsters were realising that it was about power, not sexuality was encouraging.

    A real shame that some boys still can't put 100% of the blame on the rapist. I wonder if they would feel the same if someone with an attractive Ferrari got their car stolen? Surely the owner was asking for it by buying such an attractive car.

  • Joanne Fineberg

    I taught my daughter, and now am teaching my granddaughter, that being a feminist is the right to choose your life, whether it be in a board room or in the home or both. The point is to look at all the choices one has and take the one that makes her the most content, happiest and satisfied, that women before them worked to make sure they have the freedom to make the choice. I also teach that there is still inequality for women especially in underdeveloped countries and/or rigidly religious societies and that I believe the males in many of these countries and societies, and in our own country, also face inequality due to lack of education and income, religious, societal or political beliefs. I'm lucky and blesses my husband shares my views. But most importantly, we teach that ALL people, regardless of gender, station in life, beliefs are equal and deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.

    • jessicapancakes

      Thank you for that, Joanne.

  • clea

    Under "Article Topics" for this article are listed - family, gender, society - no mention of "women." In my opinion, when the women's liberation movement was renamed feminism, and when women's studies was turned into gender studies, all was lost. I think the words feminism and gender should become obsolete, maybe then we could get back to the real problem of "women's" liberation. Who or what is a gender??? What is gender equality??? The world is not suffering from a lack of gender equality, it is suffering form a lack of women's equality.

  • feloniousgrammar

    Apparently, many people perceive a feminist perspective to be antiquated, as if we live in a post-feminist world in which sexual discrimination and misogyny no longer exists. It's similar to the way that a lot of people believe that we live in a post-racist society in which the only real racists are the people who point out racial discrimination and racial animosity.

    How awful it is that some people bring up "feminism" as if a conscious movement to attain social equality really had anything to do with the fact that police officers in the seventies started to answer domestic violence calls and even to arrest men who beat the crap out of their wives, because feminist fought for that--- equal protection under the law. And it also became not only illegal but apparently possible for men to rape their wives.

    Let's not even get started on women having to have higher grades and make higher scores on tests to get into colleges. That's just crazy talk. History only moves up and forward, so all the legislation going on states right now to define personhood as beginning at conception has absolutely nothing to do with a patriarchal entitlement to control women and force pregnancy. How gauche to bring it up as a "political" or Civil Rights issue!

  • greg

    "absorbed feminism’s basic values and aims. Women should have the same job opportunities as men and be paid the same for their work. Women are and should be treated as men’s legal, moral and intellectual equals. Women should have control over their bodies. And so on."

    That is one thing

    " How could I explain that, for me, feminism is not just about laws and job access but is something much larger: a philosophy and a point of view that is informed by a careful study of history, anthropology, biology, sociology, and psychology?"

    is a very different thing.

    Deciding they are the same thing and imposing the later on the former when they aren't the same. Particularly when the latter comes with a hell of a lot of baggage and competing (often opposing) ideologies that a lot of people don't agree with buy into even if almost everyone male or female under 40 accepts the stuff in the first quote from the article and will fight to further that cause but they drop the moniker because it is associated with something else.

    One of the other big problems with feminism ironically is the massive paternalism of many prominent feminists or strands of feminism who say regarding matters of choice that 'not only this is wrong but you are wrong to do it' in some cases it extends to 'I also think it should be banned and your freedom to do x or y restricted'. I personally know some female friends who get really rubbed up the wrong way because of attitudes like that and would never call themselves feminist as a result.

    I think more feminists need to read John Stewart Mill (himself a major early proponent for equality of the sexes) because far too many seem all too willing to reduce liberty either through hectoring or through legislation and people are rightfully wary.

  • Kevin

    The thing about feminism is that while they are trying to obtain same rights as man does, they do not want to give up rights that they have as woman. Such as on the social level, men have to act "gentlemen", ladies first, be gentle with them. On a large part, women actually have it better than men. Feminist has only done more harm then good by drastically increasing divorce rates and causing friction between the two genders. I'm all for gender equality, but not women superiority, sorry.

  • sweetbyrd

    And people wonder what role women's colleges have in the modern era ....

  • jessicapancakes

    Pamela, I just must simply applaud you for you kindhearted and thoughtful responses to some of these comments. Personally, I am crying as I read through them. It really shows how much further we have to go when people understand so little about what feminism really is, and what the lives of women are like in this world. I'm reading this after watching someone be incredibly victim shamed for coming out about her attempted rape as a teenager, and may god. It's a bit too much for me.

  • Kahryl

    Read Salon.com for a while. You will see why young people hesitate to call themselves feminists.
    Originally a 'feminist' believed that woman could be whatever they wanted to be.
    A modern 'feminist' believes that a woman is not allowed to act like a woman.

    An original feminist believes that men and women deserve the same rights.
    A modern feminist believes that men and women ARE the same (except in the ways men are inferior)

  • Miller Childrens Hospital-gay

    feminism, like homosexuality, is a gender-identity issue. a
    mistaken-identity issue. before i get into that, though, i would like to
    express that feminism is genderism, genderism is sexism, feminism is

    feminists are like just like satan because, as lucifer/satan was and is
    spiteful towards god and his abilities, feminists are spiteful towards
    men and their abilities. case-in-point: vaginas sue if they're not
    regarded as masculine (virginia military academy, anyone?), and, just
    like satan, they are wannabees. we should not be allowing vaginas in
    combat (or anywhere near our national defense), because doing so weakens
    and compromises our national defense every time the physical
    requirements for the military are lessened so that the little gender can
    be represented in the military. in addition to that, new barracks just
    for the SPECIAL gender had to be built with taxpayers' money because,
    unlike the football-playing men in the locker-room who don't care if a
    vaginal sportscaster is in the room with them, the "strong" women in the
    military DO need their privacy and are too vulnerable to shower with
    men. they are physically-breakable pipsqueaks. every time i see a
    vaginal sportscaster in the locker-room with the men, i just want to see
    her egg-provider violated by a penis and decapitated by a muslim...and
    then penis-violated again. maybe, like the muslims posed with daniel
    pearl's decapitated head, the football players could pick up the
    "strong" woman's head and use her open mouth as a blowjob-provider.

    women are physically-breakable pipsqueaks with a breakable sense of
    pride. kind of like "gay pride," which (if you've seen one of gays'
    in-your-face parades) is the same kind of spite that lucifer had before
    he was kicked out of heaven. gay "men" are masculivoids who aren't even
    worthy of being regarded as legitimate men, just because their own
    presence keeps them lonely FOR a man. gays have such a real sense of
    self-love, self-respect and self-esteem (insert nanny fine's nasal
    laugh). gay "men" disrespect self because they look to other men to
    complete their senses of masculine gender-identity, feminists disrespect
    self because they look to their unmasculine selves to complete their
    senses of masculine gender-identity (justified by the "a woman can do
    anything a man can do" bullshit), gay "men" and feminists are all a
    bunch of masculine insufficiencies/wannabees, and it's time that they
    were exposed for the mistaken identities that they personify.

    christ will never send for careless sinners, such is heaven. as god
    hates pride, god hates gays and feminists because they PERSONIFY the sin
    of pride. just like satan.

    another case-in-point regarding members of the lesser gender needing to
    be regarded as SPECIAL: the "coney island hot-dog-eating competition"
    went and added a "ladies' division" because the lesser pipsqueaks would
    not triumph if they had to compete against the greater gender and
    against greater appetites and bigger stomachs. additionally, this
    lackluster vaginal gender is not special...that is unless "special"
    means "special ed." or retarded. members of the
    egg-bleeding/milk-spouting "MOMMY" gender are lackluster in everything
    they do, their accomplishments pale in comparison to mens'
    accomplishments (sports teams and olympic events are gender-based for
    the same reason that the aforementioned eating-competition made a
    SPECIAL division to accommodate the lesser abilities of smaller
    stomachs, etc).

    i know that feminism is sexism, i know that feminists are sexists, and i
    also know that any vagina who refers to a member of the
    bigger/taller/stronger gender as a "guy" is also a sexist. it's like
    members of the little gender all expect to be referred to as "women,"
    while they refer to a man with a word as androgynous as "guy" is.

    the next time a member of the shorter/smaller/weaker gender refers to a
    man as a "guy," as if to say that the bigger/taller/stronger gender is
    not worthy of being acknowledged with any word that is gender-specific,
    the man should either violate the pipsqueak's vagina until it spews more
    blood than her monthly egg-leak...or he should just never stop
    addressing her as a vagina "what's up, vagina" or "how's it going,

    mens' penises should forcefully enter any member of the lesser gender
    who thinks that shorter/smaller/weaker equals superiority. men should
    get into a daily habit of entering a "strong" woman, just to teach the
    little vag a lesson, and that lesson is that men are the superior ones.
    taller, bigger, stronger, hungrier, hornier. there is nothing superior
    about the little, lesser, inferior gender.

    oh, how many things have i used today that were invented by members of
    the little gender? well, not facebook...which i will be using to send
    this letter out. ebay probably is the only vagina-inspired invention i
    used today. i know that the car was invented by a man, the computer was,
    windows operating-system was, steve jobs was a man...although his
    "garden of eden" bitten apple (and the original pricetag of $666.66)
    relates to satan as much as feminism does. jobs' glorification of satan
    is the actually the reason he died so young. dare i mention the
    masculivoid formerly known as matthew wayne shepard. such a faggot with
    such a cross-eyed sense of gender-identity. speaking of cross-eyed
    gender-identity, did you hear the one about the vag who said "a woman
    can do anything a man can do" - insert nanny fine's nasal laugh.

    women are lesser people,. women are not superior to men. until society
    realizes this, until society realizes that liberalism is a vag standing
    on her head while telling the rest of the world that they're the
    upside-down (or inferior) ones, society will always be under the
    delusions of the father of lies ...and society will be destroyed by
    these pro-woman and pro-gay lies that stem from the first deadly sin

    dylan terreri, i


    http://www.jaggedlittledyl.com, LLC


    "When I'm hungry, I eat. When I'm thirsty, I drink. When I feel like saying something, I say it." - Madonna



  • Phil Maguire

    The final thing that stopped me describing myself as a feminist was when I was doing a little family history research recently and looked into what my mother did during World War II. That picture of the woman building planes - that could have been my mother. She, and thousands of ladies like her, went into the factories to make the guns, bullets, tanks and planes that stopped the men from just being target practice. After their long shifts, they would go home, try to forget their worry about their children who had had to leave the cities for their safety, and make themselves presentable so that they could entertain the GIs that were stationed over here, making sure all of them were looked after and no one was forgotten. On top of that they would volunteer to help in hospitals and caring for the elderly. And they did all of that whilst living with the constant fear of being bombed. Then I remembered that she never had any time for feminism or feminists and I can only guess, having seen what she and her generation achieved, that she thought that feminism was too wussy. After all, what had feminism achieved since the end of the last world war that my mother's generation hadn't already achieved during the war?

    Then again, the so-called second wave of feminists were the daughters of this generation rising up against the society that their mothers had worked so hard for. So maybe, just maybe, they thought that these feminists were being just a tad ungrateful considering how easy they had it during the 60s, 70s and 80s.

    Perhaps feminism should wither so that it no longer blocks the sunlight from this greater female quality. I don't know what to call it but we can all identify it when we see a tigress protecting her cubs

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