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Nothing to Fear Here, It’s Just a Little Feminism

After five years of functioning within the pseudo-reality of “Big A” Academia, I often ponder questions of identity formation and self-understanding. In the process of studying the Jewish American immigrant experience and conceptualizing women as agents for sociopolitical change, I find myself asking questions about my own identity and how future scholars will define the major factors in the twenty-first century narrative.

So far, I have established a few points: I am a proud member of what some call the “millennial” generation. Women my age are the direct beneficiaries of feminist action and advocacy. For the most part, we have never known state-sanctioned sex-based discrimination on the same level as experienced by the generations of women before us.

Yet, for many of my female peers, feminism is a dirty word: a word to be used sparingly and with the upmost caution for fear of being misunderstood. Additionally, some fear being identified with “undesirable” traits such as aggressive behavior or radicalism.

Unfortunately, I came to this realization from personal experience and discussion with fellow students. The men in my classes were more than willing to embrace feminism, whereas the women were hesitant and even disdainful of the very word itself.

One discussion, in particular, shook my previous understanding of feminist identity as the natural state for educated women. Towards the tail end of my undergraduate education, I belonged to a Jewish Studies research cohort which consisted of students from various socio-economic-cultural backgrounds and disciplines within the university. We came together to pursue our own individual research projects within the field of Jewish Studies while also using the cohort to facilitate discussions focusing on Jewish identity, history, and experience at large.

On the last day of class, one of the professors posed this question to my largely-female cohort: “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” Within seconds, most of the young women in the room responded in the negative.

I was shocked. Speechless, even, possibly for the first time in my entire life.

Sitting around the table with me was the very evidence of how far women have come in the last century. We were a wonderfully motley crew of women who could confidently discuss issues ranging from historiography and national memory to identity formation and surrealist painting. We were thriving within a co-ed university structure and breaking into disciplines which, traditionally, belonged exclusively to the menfolk.

When pressed for further clarification, a number of my classmates said that feminism had such a negative connotation surrounding it that they actively chose not to use the word at all. Ignore the fact that these women were, in action and in belief, actually feminists.

Immediately after this discussion, larger questions grew in my mind: Why is it that an ever increasing amount of men are willing to identify as feminists, yet so many women shy away from even using the word? More specifically, what scared the livin’ feminism out of these ladies and how the heck can we get back to the state where feminism is a point of pride?

Quite simply, there is no danger in men declaring themselves feminists. Some people will even applaud a male for being progressive if he chooses to list “feminist” amongst his many identifiers. A woman, on the other hand, is not viewed as enlightened if she openly takes pride in the fact that feminism allows for choices and opportunity, for equality of the sexes without caveat. Women, as I witnessed throughout my college years, are expected to embrace the feminist cause in spite of societal misrepresentations of what a feminist “looks like” or how she may behave. Thus, even in academic circles, female students are afraid to be seen as overly aggressive or protective of their rights. Some are hesitant to be proud of the women whose efforts lead to a greater societal expectation and acceptance of equality.

The entire situation is simultaneously tragic, hypocritical, and yet completely rectifiable. We cannot allow self-consciousness to strong-arm us into denying our right to equality. Women can easily connect to the feminist identity if we stop defining feminism in the negative, unappealing terms society throws at us. Feminism, at its very core, is all about choices rather than forced positions, right? Then let’s make a choice to define for ourselves what feminism means in the twenty-first century. Let’s take pride in the very fact that feminism allows us to choose for ourselves what we want from life, what we need to feel satisfied within our roles as friends, lovers, mothers and students of that intimidating thing called existence.

Running from the word merely compounds the difficulty surrounding feminism as a concept and complicates the ability of future generations to proudly say, “Yes, I am a feminist and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Rather than shy away from feminist identity, we must complicate and challenge the negative imagery society attaches to the word. If we can adapt feminism without dismissing the past or being embarrassed about our decision, then feminism as both a word and a concept is no longer dirty. Rather, it will become infinitely more meaningful through its complexity and become a point of pride for female and male students alike.

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4 Comments

Thank you for such an eloquent, lively, and thoughtful post, for acknowledging the efforts of generations of women to create a better, more fair society, and for alerting us to the ambivalence and concerns of rising generations. I hope that young men are embracing feminism because they are beginning to get that fairness and flexibility are better for everyone. I have never been able to wrap my brain around why feminist values and politics continue to be associated with women, as if the well-being of our sisters, daughters, lovers, mothers, and friends is not a life issue for everyone, regardless of one's own gender.

Thank you, Lori, for your support and wonderfully articulate argument in favor of a more nuanced understanding of who is a feminist and what that can mean. Gender equality certainly does not mean gender favoritism in the opposite direction, though some critics of feminist-inspired advocacy see it that way. Ì¢‰âÒFairness and flexibility.Ì¢‰âÂå Surely I strive for that and ask for it in every aspect of my life. I can only hope that my generation will come to understand feminism as advancing that ideal rather than hindering it.

I wish this were a new phenomenon, but I experienced it in the early '80s after college. You might say that back then feminism was associated with somewhat radical behavior (though in the face of suicide bombing, self-immolation, or shooting little girls, what's a burned bra?)Ì¢‰â‰۝but we also saw and felt more concretely the effects of overt sexism in the workplace, the home, and the street. I guess once something has been painted black it's hard to color it anything else.

What is interesting to me about your post are the men. My presumption is that admitting to feminism makes a woman unmarriageable, especially in religious circles. But if the men claim to be feminists themselves, what's the risk? Are these men perhaps feminists in the classroomÌ¢‰â‰۝but in the kitchen, not so much?

Hi Shelley,

Thank you so very much for your reply to my post; I appreciate that you took the time to continue this conversation. ItÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s a conversation that needs to be had, certainly.

I honestly do not believe that 1980s feminism was more radical as a general rule, rather, itÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s the unfortunate reality that many people who stereotype feminism and/or feminists often latch on to images of radicalism which make the whole movement seem less Ì¢‰âÒsafeÌ¢‰âÂå or appealing for your non-politicized crowd. I wish more students my age would take the second and consider how many good things came out of feminism (not just Second Wave either, IÌ¢‰â‰ã¢m including First Wave in there too!) rather than buy in to the negativity of those who disapproved.

As for the men in my post, you hit the nail on the proverbial head in terms of risk. There is absolutely no risk for a man to claim to be a feminist (at least here in the US), but I strongly believe that the real truth of it all is in our actions. So for those male classmates who identify as feminists, I hope they take that mindset to the kitchen and the chuppah, to their relationships and scholarly work.

Desks Arranged in Lines
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Desks with red and yellow tables arranged in lines.

Photo by Christopher Sessums (cdsessums) via Flickr.

Feminist Fist
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The feminist fist.

Photo by ludwig van standard lamp via Flickr.

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How to cite this page

Hinderliter, Jillian. "Nothing to Fear Here, It’s Just a Little Feminism." 23 October 2012. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 25, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/nothing-to-fear-here-it-s-just-little-feminism>.

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