Why is “feminism” a four-letter word?


Mary Frances Pipino, Ph.D., Director of the Ursuline Studies Program 

The semester is coming to a close, and with it my course,  WS 201 Introduction to Gender Studies. It’s been an amazing journey for me, with 19 bright, opinionated, inquisitive, hard-working young women for travelling companions.

On the first day of class, I asked the group (by show of hands) who considered herself a feminist. Only one student raised her hand. I expected this response—as Lisa Maria Hogeland wrote in a 1994 article for Ms. titled “Fear of Feminism: Why Young Women Get the Willies,” young women distance themselves from that identity for a number of reasons, noting that “fear of feminism is fear of consequences.”

As the course went on, and we examined issues ranging from the performance of gender, to wealth inequity, to white privilege, to violence against women, the young women in the class developed a greater understanding of the meaning of feminism, and many of them proudly claimed the label of feminist by the last day of class.

What they came to understand is that feminism is a deep and abiding commitment to calling attention to and combatting injustice in whatever form it takes, and a recognition that “women’s” rights and issues are essentially human rights and issues. And while initially many of these young women saw gender roles as irrelevant in their world—after all, girls can play sports, and boys can wear pink—the course materials helped them to recognize and analyze the much deeper systemic traditions and beliefs that permit injustices based on gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class to endure.

So I was deeply distressed to read recent comments made by Shailene Woodley, the 22-year-old star of Divergent (in a strong female role) about whether she identifies as a feminist; in response to that question, Woodley said,

No because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance. With myself, I’m very in touch with my masculine side. And I’m 50 percent feminine and 50 percent masculine, same as I think a lot of us are. And I think that is important to note. And also I think that if men went down and women rose to power, that wouldn’t work either. We have to have a fine balance.

What bothers me is not so much her rejection of the label, but rather her fundamental misrepresentation of feminism as a political and philosophical stance. The persistence of the utter illogic that feminism=hating men is astounding to me; it’s like saying being Muslim=hating Christians, or being a vegetarian=hating people who eat meat. Confusing a political identity with hatred of its perceived opposite represents the laziest of thinking (as do all stereotypes).

Furthermore, the “fine balance” of which she speaks is not possible so long as men (in general) have greater access to wealth, power, privilege, and influence. How is balance possible if men aren’t willing to cede some power so that women can indeed rise to it?

I’m not saying that we should rely on figures from popular culture to make the case for feminism, and Woodley is certainly entitled to her views on the matter. But the lack of logic and critical thinking in her stance, as well as her failure to recognize the work of previous generations who DID identify as feminists, and helped create a world in which a young woman can claim to be “50 percent feminine and 50 percent masculine” without fear of censure (or being dropped from her studio contract), is at best disingenuous, and at worst intellectually dishonest.

I would hope that someone who has clearly reaped the benefits of feminist work would acknowledge that debt as well as the great amount of work that remains to create a just and equitable world.

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