Call Me the F Word

“I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don’t, I think have, sort of, the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that.”

“We don’t need to be feminists in my generation. There are pioneers who paved the way. I am not at all a feminist activist…On the contrary, I’m a bourgeois. I love family life, I love doing the same thing every day.”

“I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”

Another day, another woman who has reaped the benefits of feminism renouncing any personal affiliation with the label, while simultaneously displaying a gross misunderstanding of the movement and women’s current standing in the world. Quoted above are merely the most recent well-publicized examples: singer Katy Perry, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, former French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and singer Taylor Swift responding to the question: “Do you consider yourself a feminist?”

The fact that the question is posed at all to high-profile women — the above answers emerged from interviews with the PBS-AOL series “Makers” (Ms. Mayer), French Vogue (Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy) and The Daily Beast (Ms. Swift) — is proof enough that the answer is as loaded as the question. (Ms. Perry, for her part, chose to reject the last century’s pursuit of gender equality while accepting the Billboard Woman of the Year Award.) To call yourself a feminist, loudly and proudly, is still, for many people, a brave act of defiance.

But let’s be clear: these disavowals are not about feminism. Certainly, there are legitimate reasons that women may avoid association with the movement; the first and second wave of feminism were largely led by and benefitted middle- and upper-class white women, something the third wave of feminism has attempted to amend by making inclusion and intersectionality a cornerstone of its credo.

Yet the “I’m not a feminist, but…” disconnect is not about in-depth critique of the movement. It’s an out that allows women to embrace the more popular spoils of feminism (things like, say, the ability of a pregnant Ms. Mayer to become CEO of a major tech company, or of Ms. Perry to adopt a lucrative performance persona founded on same-sex liplocks) while ensuring that none of those icky “feminazi” stereotypes are applied to them in the process. And while they’re distancing themselves from those tired stereotypes—the feminist as a chip on the shoulder, anti-family life, boy-hating militant — they’re simultaneously reinforcing and legitimizing them.

“I’m not like those feminists,” they’re saying. “I’m cool. I’m fun. I’m feminine. I’m loving. I’m natural. I’m safe.”

Whether or not Ms. Swift calls herself a feminist is her business, though if someone like Martha Plimpton or Ashley Judd were to pull her and Ms. Perry aside at some Hollywood function and gently explain the actual meaning of feminism, I wouldn’t be adverse.

But whether or not women as a whole understand, embrace and proudly wear the feminist label is something with which I’m very concerned. So while I’m loathe to tell someone else what identity they should embrace, I do cringe whenever I hear the “I’m not a feminist, but…” preamble emerge.

Surely, part of that is because feminism and feminist causes remain extremely relevant and under threat today. One needn’t look any further than the 2012 election to see evidence of this claim. Every bill that limits women’s ability to control their own bodies; every comment that suggests women be held responsible and bear, literally, the burden of rape; every introduction of patriarchal moral posturing into women’s healthcare; every denial of the pay gap was proof of feminism’s continuing relevancy.

If we look just further, we find, to make a short list: America’s standing as the only developed country without mandated paid maternity leave; countries in which rape is a devastatingly common weapon of war; child marriage and lack of access to family planning resulting in pregnancy as the leading cause of death in women ages 15-19 in developing countries; statistics that show that one in four American women will be victims of sexual assault, yet less than 6 percent of rapists will ever spend a day in jail; that stubborn pay gap that continues to exist across every educational level and industry….you get the idea.

Sometimes, these things hit a nerve and are well-publicized. But more often than not, they begin, occur and end as just one more of a thousand injustices. For every Malala Yousafazi or Lily Ledbetter or Savita Halappanavar or Eman al-Obeidy or Lizzy Seeberg, there are dozens, hundreds, thousands more women who suffer similar remnants of gender inequality in silence and anonymity.

And it is for those anonymous women, the ones about whom a newspaper article will never be written or a bill never named, that I call myself a feminist. And why, yes, I wish that more women and men would, too.

“Women’s issues” are too often sidelined, pushed off into niche interest territory about which only women are supposed to care. What’s more, because the topics that they touch on are so illogically controversial and taboo in our society, women are often nervous to publicly embrace them as well. Only “certain girls” find themselves in those situations, the logic goes, so it’s not something that non-certain women need to concern themselves with — that is, until it happens to them. And so, these issues are surrounded by silence and shame, and when they are spoken out loud, they are met with shaming, quickly and swiftly, for daring to speak them aloud. (See: Rush Limbaugh to Sandra Fluke.)

We should call ourselves feminists because there is activist power in expressing solidarity with a cause that continues to pulse through almost every aspect of women’s lives in the world today—whether not people like Carla Bruni- Sarkozy and Marissa Mayer, women whose privilege means they should certainly know better, acknowledge it.

We should call ourselves feminists for every woman we care about who has been or will be a victim of sexual assault, or need to seek an abortion or discovered gender discrimination at their workplace. Perhaps if they see an army of support gathering behind them, they will find the courage to come forward with their stories. And over time, those stories will lessen in number, not because the storytellers are cloaked in silence, but because the root cause has been cut off at the source.

We should call ourselves feminists because when we refuse to speak up — when we accept the idea that to stand up for women’s issues is unseemly, or shameful, or even hateful — we give these problems fertile ground to thrive. We should call ourselves feminists because it’s possible to celebrate the achievements of a woman like Marissa Mayer while still acknowledging the plight of less fortunate women across the U.S. and around the world.

We should call ourselves feminists because women are still treated like 2nd class citizens — or worse — in many corners of the world. Despite the fact that women comprise 51 percent of the population, these affronts to human rights are too often treated like a special interest in foreign policy; women’s rights are something to be addressed only when all the other problems have been solved, rather than recognized as the solution to many of those very problems. We should call ourselves feminists because our politicians should believe they will not earn our vote unless they pay more than fleeting lip service to the basic human rights of women and girls.

We should call ourselves feminists in spite of the fact — because of the fact — that the word has been painted with ugly and false stereotypes. The authors of those lies stand to benefit the most from the movement’s demise.

I certainly have many personal reasons that I call myself a feminist — things I want in my life, values I consider important, goals I want to achieve. But they’re not the most important reasons for claiming the label. Like any social movement, it’s about something bigger than you, outside yourself. It’s about the people looking in, needing a place for support, understanding and change.


About Cassandra A. Gaddo

Cassandra A. Gaddo is managing director of Step Up Women's Network in Chicago. A passionate advocate for gender equality and the advancement of women and girls, she is also a board member of Rape Victim Advocates, and a Young Professionals Ambassador for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She writes and speaks about local, national and international women's issues, including in her blog, "Twice As Well."