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?

Feminism is the belief that men and women should be equal — and it is bigger than ever.

Millions of women marched to protest against President Donald Trump in January 2017. The #MeToo movement has exposed men who have been accused of sexual assault. Celebrities from Emma Watson to Jameela Jamil are outspoken about women’s rights.

Last year, when YouGov asked British women if they believed in gender equality, 81% said yes. And yet something strange happened when women were asked if they are feminists: only 27% said yes.

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

The academic Dr Christina Scharff has several theories. She points out that non-white and working-class women are less likely to identify with feminism. This suggests that it may not be inclusive enough.

When she interviewed young British and German women, she found that many still believed negative stereotypes about feminists, including “man-hating, lesbianism or lack of femininity”.

These stereotypes have a long history. Over 100 years ago, suffragettes were often mocked for being hysterical, “mannish” and cruel towards their husbands (that is, if they could convince anyone to marry them at all). Similar jokes about feminists still exist today.

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 seen by others — whether that is as man-hating killjoys or clueless rich white women? And if that is the case, are false stereotypes the problem? Or do feminists need to listen to the criticisms and be more inclusive to outsiders?

You Decide

  1. Are you a feminist?

Activities

  1. Write your own definition of the word “feminist” and share it with the rest of the class.

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 feminism was first used in the late 19th century 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. The “third wave” began in the 1990s.
What do we not know?
Why so many people reject the word “feminism”, or whether this will change as campaigns for women’s rights gain more attention.

Word Watch

Academic
University lecturer.
Non-white
According to Scharff, three quarters of women think feminism has done “some” or “a lot” for white women in America. Only 60% 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.