Despite #MeToo, feminism is still a dirty word

In the pink: Around 200,000 people attended the Women’s March on Washington in 2017. © Getty

Why do so many young women avoid calling themselves feminists? Surveys show that around half of young women believe in gender equality, but avoid using the f-word. What is going on?

“Feminist: A person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”

These words were spoken by the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a TEDx Talk in 2012. A year later, they were sampled in the Beyoncé song Flawless, and Adichie’s simple definition echoed around the world.

Now feminism is bigger than ever. Millions of women marched to protest the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January 2017. That same year, the #MeToo movement began exposing men who had been accused of sexual assault and demanding justice for women. Celebrities from Emma Watson to Jameela Jamil are outspoken about women’s rights.

Women generally seem to support these ideas. Last year, when YouGov asked British women if they believed in gender equality, 81% said yes. And yet something strange happened when a different group of women was asked if they are feminists: the numbers were far lower. Only 27% said yes.

In 2016, a similar survey by Survation found that only one in five young women aged 18-24 called themselves feminists. Half said they believed in equality but would not use that word to describe themselves. Similar results have been found by polls in America.

But don’t they mean the same thing? So what is going on?

The academic Dr Christina Scharff posed several theories when she tackled the question for BBC News this month. She pointed out that non-white and working-class women were less likely to identify with feminism, suggesting that the movement may not be inclusive enough.

Meanwhile, when she interviewed young British and German women, she found that many still associated feminists with negative stereotypes — including “man-hating, lesbianism or lack of femininity”.

She said many women “did not want to call themselves feminist because they feared they would be associated with these traits.”

These stereotypes have a long history. Over a century ago, suffragettes — the original feminists — were often ridiculed by their opponents for being hysterical, “mannish” and cruel towards their husbands (that is, if they could convince anyone to marry them at all).

Girl power

So does feminism need rebranding? If the word itself is putting people off, perhaps it is time for a new one, with none of the baggage from history — such as “equalism”. If most people believe in equal rights, does it really matter what this belief is called?

Or is the solution to change the way that feminists are perceived — whether that is as man-hating killjoys or clueless rich white women? And if that is the case, is the problem one of image and stereotypes alone? Or do feminists need to change the movement itself to make it more inclusive to outsiders?

You Decide

  1. Are you a feminist?
  2. Why do so many women who believe in equality avoid the word feminist?

Activities

  1. Write your own definition of the word “feminist” and share it with the rest of the class.
  2. Create a timeline of the feminist movement in Britain, beginning with the campaign for women’s votes.

Some People Say...

“I’m a feminist. I’ve been a female for a long time now. It’d be stupid not to be on my own side.”

Maya Angelou

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The word “féminisme” was first used in France in the late 19th century and soon spread to Great Britain. This happened at the same time as the campaign for women’s suffrage began to grow in Europe and America. A “second wave” of feminism occurred in the 1960s and 70s, focusing on issues like contraception, equal rights and equal pay. Many believe that the current “third wave” began in the 1990s.
What do we not know?
Why so many people who believe in gender equality reject the word “feminism”. We also do not know whether this will change as campaigns for women’s rights gain more and more prominence. While you could assume that the word will become more popular as a result of those movements, it may also experience a backlash from those who think they have gone too far.

Word Watch

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Nigerian author of Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah. Her talk was later published as an essay.
Marched
The first women’s march took place on January 21, 2017. They have been held around the same time each year since.
#MeToo
A movement first invented by Tarana Burke to draw attention to how many women and men have experienced sexual assault. It was popularized as a hashtag in 2017 after the actress Alyssa Milano shared it on Twitter.
Academic
Dr Christina Scharff is a culture, media and creative industries lecturer at King’s College London.
Non-white
According to Scharff, three quarters of women think feminism has done “some” or “a lot” for white women in America, compared to 60% who said it had done the same for other ethnicities.
Working-class
According to a YouGov survey in February 2018, 31% of middle-class people called themselves feminist, compared to 20% of working-class people.
Lesbianism
This is despite the interviewees saying they were not homophobic or identifying as LGBT.
Suffragettes
Campaigners for women’s right to vote. (Technically, suffragettes were the militant wing while non-violent campaigners were called suffragists.)