October 31, 2011

I'm Not a Feminist but...;

McGann_pic Kim McGann

Assistant Professor of Sociology, Nazareth College

I was sitting in a sociology of law class at SUNY Buffalo talking about rape cases. The professor asked whether we thought women were treated fairly in the legal system. My classmate Sarah raised her hand and when she was invited to share her comment she began quite adamantly “I’m not a feminist or anything but I definitely think that it is unfair to allow a woman’s sexual history to be used against her in a trial.”

Huh?

I remember being more than a little bewildered. Had I gotten the “gist” of feminism wrong when I first learned about it? Weren’t sexual assault and the sexual double standard things that feminists were very much concerned about?

That was many years ago, yet I have heard this phrase countless times since then in teaching my own classes. The pattern is always the same: a student gingerly raises their hand, begins with the “I’m not a feminist” disclaimer, and then goes on to express a point of view that is 100% in keeping with a feminist perspective (i.e. women should get equal pay for equal work, rape is not the victims fault, women are capable of doing things other than raising children and cooking dinner.)

This isn’t just limited to the classroom.

So what’s going on? This is a classic case of what sociologist Erving Goffman calls the “management of a spoiled identity.” According to Goffman, during any face to face interaction we present a self to the other participants. Think of a self in this sense as an identity or role that we play during a social interaction. A stigma is an attribute that is (or is potentially) discrediting to whatever self we are trying to portray.

A particular identity is “spoiled” by having a stigma associated with it. Stigmatization is entirely social; stigma is not inherent to specific attributes. A 5’5, 150lb woman might be considered fat, or she might be regarded as athletic, or she might be thought of as curvy. All three describe the same physical features, but only fat is a stigmatized identity. (Click here for the well known South Park take on this particular stigma.)

“Feminist” is a stigmatized identity, which explains why so many students are careful to preface their comments with the disclaimer “I’m not a feminist but…” They are trying to protect the self they are portraying in class from being spoiled by the stigma associated with being a feminist.

Stigma has powerful social consequences. As Goffman points out, “by definition…we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human.” Those with stigmas are deviant rather than “normal” and normal is where power resides (think of the negative connotation in politics of “special interest groups”. The implication is that those groups are outside the norm and are a dire threat because they don’t represent “regular folk.”) For feminists, it is much harder to work toward equality between men and women if the name for those efforts is something people avoid like the plague.

So can you “unstigmatize” an identity? The answer is yes, and there are generally two different ways of doing this. The first I call rebranding, which is simply given the same set of traits a new name. This is equivalent to a company changing its name after bad publicity (Value Jet became Airtran, Blackwater became Xe, Philip Morris became Altria to name a few.)

The term “humanist” is essentially a rebranding of the identify atheist. Curvy and big boned are terms that rebrand fat. African–American is a rebranding of the term “colored”. The underlying belief is that the way that we talk shapes the way that we think, so changes in language should result in changes in thinking.

The second approach is reclaiming an identity by intentionally making public and “wearing” the stigmatized identity. An excellent recent example of reclaiming is the slutwalk. Being called a “slut” ranks high on the stigmatization scale. Yet thousands of scantily clad women around the country have been marching under slutwalk banners to bring awareness to the “blame the victim” philosophy that still permeates the issue of rape. You can see the full story on how slut walks began here, or sign up on Facebook to participate in a slutwalk.

 

 

If feminists aren’t the hairy, bra-burning, short-haired, man-haters that Rush Limbaugh envisioned by calling them “feminazis”, who are they? Feminists vary considerably in the specifics of their social and political philosophy, but they all see gender as one of the central organizing feature of social life (think this isn’t the case? Check out the hubbub over a couple trying to keep their babies gender a secret.)

They share a common interest in creating an equitable society where all individuals are treated fairly regardless of their gender (or lack thereof!) Feminism isn’t a competition. It isn’t about individual men being jerks. It’s not a war between the sexes and it has nothing to do with turning the tables on men.

But do we even need feminism at all anymore? Hillary Clinton ran for president and is now Secretary of State. We’ve had a female Speaker of the House. A woman runs the International Monetary Fund. Aren’t these all indications that men and women are now equals (or at least well on their way to being so?) As sociologists, it’s our job to show how social traits and social structures influence the lives of individuals (what C. Wright Mills calls the sociological imagination.)

Take a look at this video from the Women’s Media Foundation, which shows some recent examples of sexism directed at successful women in the news (you can also check out some of the statics on gender at the U.S. Census.):

What words do you associate with “feminist” or “feminism”? Where do you think these ideas came from?

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Comments

I don't understand why you have a problem with someone not labeling themselves a Feminist but believing certain things that Feminists do. I agree with many things that Feminists do; I disagree with other things. I disagree with them enough that I would not call myself a Feminist. Why would you be bewildered by this?

Very good post!
I agree with you very much in this. All they are trying to do is keep it equal between men and women.

A very thorough and informative post!
I agree strongly with this perspective and severely dislike the stigma associated with Feminism today.

I agree with your post, and think that many people today view feminists as having nagative deviant behavoir, and cannot look past this stigma. More people need to be aware of this stigma and its falsehood, and work to replace it with a more realistic view of feminism.

I agree with your post, many people have a false view of feminism.

I am a graduate student that teaches a discussion section for an intro to sociology class and I hear that saying all the time from my students. I agree it has to do with the negative stigma attached to feminism. Just recently I was discussing what male privilege was and one of my students accused me of being one-sided because I was a feminist. Right away this student was being defensive about the topic based off of assumptions about feminists. I just don't understand why people still have a false view of feminism, it is not as if I created the term male privilege. Facts are facts.

I am taking Sociology through an online class in my high school. I am also friends with a few feminists, and I do not understand why the feminist stigma is so negative. Often, these friends have some of the clearest and wisest views on subjects without being biased. It seems that as the roles that women are now adopting become more independent of men, the more desperate and offensive men get. Womens' rights are just as important as men's rights.

Many people have negative views against feminism. Even though I know nobody who is a feminist I do see news that is based around that topic. People need to keeo their negativeness away from this subject. They say mens rights are more important bu they are just the same.


While everyone is busy worrying about how they're perceived by their peers, there is still the more important issue of the glass ceiling women encounter in American society. "Feminist" has become a scary label--nobody wants to be that crazy person who thinks women should rule the world. However, feminism doesn't have to be the scary mindset people think it is. In my opinion, feminism should be the movement of people who agree that women deserve equal choices in the workplace, as well as no discrimination. Though we have made significant improvements in women's rights over the years, considering we now have a female Secretary of State and Supreme Court judges, there still exists the underlying discrimination against women. Will those stereotypes ever die? Probably not, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

In this chapter, we have been learning all about inequalities of age and gender. This post discusses how inequalities of gender have existed and still do in our culture. There are a lot of times when the norms of our culture degrade one gender over the other. However, a lot of this has begun to change and is still changing. Our society is becoming more concerned about giving everyone equal treatment. A good example of this is, as you said, equal pay for equal work no matter the gender. This article was very helpful for my class, thank you!

There are still many inequalities between genders in the world. But despite some barriers (treating genders differently), it is changing all the time. Maybe soon we'll be able to accept that both genders are equal, even if we are a little bit different.

As long as feminism is infused with sexist terms such as "mansplain" then I can understand your friend's point. I am for women's rights completely but, as a man, my gender does not make me flawed, bad, evil, incompetent, or wrong. Contemporary, political feminism turns a lot of people -- even those of us on the far left -- completely off with its sexism and anti-heterogeneous chromosome attitude.

Most people agree with what feminism stands for. They support women's rights like voting, holding office, working etc. With this in mind, most people would be considered feminists. The problem, like this blog mentions, is that the term feminism has a spoiled identity and an attached stigma. We are cautious of other people's opinions of us and don't want to be associated with radicals or bra burners. On the other hand, we do appreciate women's freedoms, equality, and what the feminist movement stood for. Out of the two approaches to "unstigmatize" the identity associated with feminism, I think "rebranding" would be more successful. Many women would associate themselves with a new word that was not connected to all the negatives that "feminist" is. What could a new word be?

I believe in equal rights between the sexes, preferably precisely the same rights. However, I do not share the very-common-among-feminists belief that women are heavily disadvantaged relative to men in modern first-world liberal democracies. Sexist stuff that harms and restricts and benefits men abounds; sexist stuff that harms and restricts and benefits women abounds. Both are equally bad, and should be cleansed without prejudice.

Therefore I consider myself egalitarian, not feminist.

I believe egalitarian is indeed the right term Sev.

Nothing wrong with being a feminist, since of course women are still being marginalized, but perhaps the term has become outdated.

I also agree with Sev. And in a lot of ways I see holding those views, especially strongly so (and IMO, most activism of any kind stands out largely because of their strong stances; perhaps my bias towards impartiality biases me though ;-) ) as counterproductive and patronizing. So, paradoxically, I often wonder I think more highly of women in general than do many feminists! Am I a white, privileged straight man with my head way too far up my arse to realize that I'm asking too much of women to take on all responsibility a man does today? Because I've always been of the notion that privilege cannot truly be granted without responsibility -- something that is often told to children and teens who want, for instance, to be able to choose their seats in school, or not have a curfew at home? (Do you see how this is starting to seem like a condescending way for anyone of any race or gender, to view women..of any race or gender? I heard recently someone say that we sometimes expect more of children than we do of women!)

For what it's worth though my dad is Jewish, which I actually seem to forget in the midst of all this, because it's hard to tell if someone's Jewish if they just look "white", lol. But I think it's funny that I not only seem to forget this, but would prefer not to acknowledge it, because I don't want to start being treated a certain way because of it...not sure what it is, must've been something about my upbringing that even if someone were to just say "oh that's cool", or even when people ask me "Is that your real eye colour? -- wow you have such nice eyes!" (I have green/hazel eyes, but for whatever reason it's not something people usually notice unless up close)--something about that kind of leaves me peeved. "That's cool" in my mind is like saying "oh, I didn't know that, but I don't have a problem with Jews", or "you have pretty eyes" is like "that is a strange colour for eyes, I've never seen that one before! You're really not wearing contacts?" I guess this is all to say I'm not hypocritical in where I stand. ;)

My other issue with "feminism", is with the word itself. It implies that the entire perspective is in fact one-sided, or at the very least highly partisan. And referring to partisanship in this context, reduces the entire modern female population in the West to a "party." So to me it's a very weighted word; I was nonexistent in the 60s and 70s when feminist movements truly began to change things; however the way I see it, the terminology has failed to evolve with society (as have a good number of feminists who also seem entirely unwaveringly convinced that we are still as we were when feminism began to take hold.)

I'm not sure I have a term for myself; I have libertarian leanings on most things -- I don't even really want to label myself politically though, goes back to the impartiality complex-type issue I seem to have, lol -- but in any case, I've often just considered myself an individualist, because of that. Similarly, I hesitate to consider myself egalitarian, because in many political sectors that is also stigmatized, if I am not mistaken, as it has been associated with socialism, Marxism/communism, statism, etc.

But whatever it's called, I believe the law should be blind, and if the law is discriminating, it is de facto discriminating against *someone*, somewehere...

Many men will never like the term feminist and most women, including the staunchest feminists, know this. Men in general dislike the term feminism, but also feminism itself. The common male view is that feminism makes women think and act more like males and less like women and mothers. Women may not like the idea, but many men believe women and mothers are needed by society more than the kind of female that feminism is promoting – I don’t think I need to define the ideal human product of feminism, however, it is not a mother who puts family values first. Feminism represents a vast sea change away from traditional society and has ushered in a new world where the family unit has become less of concern than egalitarianism for the sake of itself. Women deny the “feminist” label because they still want and need men in their personal lives – this is human nature after all, and some facts of life are harder to abort than others. Women will find that men have less and less interest in them over time, from a commitment point of view, as women give up the role of mother and sustaining the growth of our population. If women want to be treated equivalent to men, surely they can be, but the price will be giving up many of the things that women with values from the past had. You may or may not want to figure out what those things are for yourself. Feminism may work to empower particular individuals for a period of time, but ultimately will result in a diminished and perhaps indefensible society for one and all. A woman that can produce two or more children, and do so in an intact home that includes a father, will be worth more to society in the long run than any single individual male. A culture must first and foremost be able to sustain its population and socialize its males. If not, that society will degenerate and crumble. This will be the long-term legacy of Feminism. As society weakens from its decadence, it will eventually be overrun by a more dynamic culture which demands strength through fecundity of life. This is basic Sociology, yes?

Most men might not so exactingly define the issue in their minds as it is described above, but I think men in general view the results of feminism as a breach of the social contract between men and women. Thus men are therefore free to abdicate, without stigma, those aspects of their lives which traditional society of the past required of them. Women will more and more be viewed as equals and competitors for scarce resources, and less and less as essential to the increase and well being of society. The consequence of this cheapened attitude towards the culture, on the part of men and women, will be that there really isn’t very much to defend when ultimately the barbarians appear at the gate. Have a nice day!

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