Still a ways to go

Tanya is one of my closest friends. We’ve known each other since we were 15, and it’s fair to say that we know each other better than our husbands probably ever will (okay, not in all ways). We have an arsenal of inside jokes, and a language that’s our own.

When Tanya told me last week that she does not consider herself a feminist, I was extremely surprised. Tanya is smart, liberal, independent, and gets totally ticked off when anyone is treated unfairly, especially her woman friends.

Tanya described a recent encounter: another woman wanted to know if she was a feminist, and Tanya told her she wasn’t sure. The woman practically jumped down her throat, insisting that Tanya is a feminist, and should be one. I agreed with my friend that the woman seems like a jerk, and shared my perspective: that feminists simply believe men and women should be treated equally. Tanya said she does believe that; she just doesn’t want anyone else to force a label on her.

Talking to Tanya reminded me that there are still a lot of women who just aren’t clear about what “feminist” actually means, and that the term continues to be associated with being radical and in-your-face and man-hating.

The last thing we need to be doing is coercing or threatening other women that they better start calling themselves a feminist. What’s important is explaining what it actually means and then allowing people to claim the name for their own.

Do you still find women weary of calling themselves “feminist”?

Topics: Feminism
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

I can sympathize with the woman who berated Tonya, although I agree that it isn't the best tactic. The excuse given - not wanting anyone else to force a label on her - is nonsensical. I would guess that Tonya accepts labels all the time; liberal, Red Sox fan, Democrat. People don't mind being labeled when the they like the label... She doesn't like the label because she has bought into the Right's definition of a feminist: angry, man-hating lesbian. Or even if she doesn't believe it, she knows that others do believe it and therefore doesn't want to expend the energy necessary to reclaim it for women.

This is a serious free-rider problem for the feminist movement; women can reap the benefits of advances won by feminists while disdaining the movement. Some, like Phyllis Schlafly, actually fight to take out the movement that created the conditions for their success. The anger Tonya felt was free-rider backlash; Tonya's independence is a product of feminism, and her failure to stand with feminists, to identify as a feminist, hurts the movements and places even greater pressure/responsibility on people like the angry woman in the story.

As for ideas on how to be constructive... I think it is useful to ask people what or who they think a feminist is; get them to describe a feminist first, then you can sort through the detritus and help them begin to form a new picture of feminism. Perhaps a picture of themselves.

I've definitely encountered this hesitation to use the word "feminist." Sometimes it comes from a desire to think about social justice more broadly than gender issues (which I think feminism does, actually), and sometimes from a backlash against the media's negative stereotype of feminists.

Usually, I think it's important to educate people about the diverse definitions and images of feminists, to combat the negative stereotype. I think labels can be powerful organizing tools for movements. On other days, I wonder how important labels really are, and if we're wasting too much energy trying to get people to define themselves as feminists, instead of just focusing on the changes that need to happen in the world around us. But mostly I believe that people's ignorance about feminism and their fear of the label holds us back from doing the real work in the world, so it is an important educational campaign.

How to cite this page

Cove, Michelle. "Still a ways to go." 15 August 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 1, 2023) <>.

Read the latest from JWA from your inbox.

sign up now