I'm Not a Feminist but...;
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.”
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?