Do labels hurt us more than we realize?

Feminism is the only equal rights group that has a name that followers will often choose to adopt. The fight for racial equality doesn’t have a name that one can identify with; you can call yourself an anti-racist or an advocate for civil rights, but you don’t call yourself a “civil rightist.” The advocates for LGBT rights and disability rights don’t have a specific identifier; we’re not “gayists” or “genderists.” Why does the fight for equality between women, men, and everyone in-between get to be called “feminism,” but no others have a recognizable name, something that fellow activists get to call themselves? “Feminist” is an identifier as important to feminism’s followers as their gender, their age, their religion, their ethnicity.

A lot of skeptics and critics of feminism raise the point often. Why, for example, does someone fighting against gender-based oppression have to call themselves a “feminist” in order to be taken seriously as a true ally? Feminism is one group that really does require membership, in a way, by virtue of giving themselves a name. If you don’t call yourself “feminist,” you’re not really in favor of equal rights. Right? Well, of course not; reasonable people would say that the label is unimportant. But why does it feel like it is?

People who call themselves feminists, myself included, have grown attached to the name, and the label, and the identity and empowerment that it feels like the label gives us. When I hear another woman say she’s a feminist, I feel an immediate connection to her, and also to the men who feel brave enough to say it out loud, although they are few and far between.

Is the simple fact that the fight for equality between men and women has a name, and one that has been so demonized since its inception, the reason for the constant backlash? Could it be part of it? While it’s true that other organized efforts for equality are brushed off by skeptics or people who think the world has just gotten too “PC,” feminism really seems to take the brunt of the backlash.

Are you a “feminist”? Why do you embrace the label of “feminism” when you could opt for something more neutral, like “gender equality advocate,” or something similar?

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10 Responses to Do labels hurt us more than we realize?

  1. David K says:

    “Feminism” is a monolithic movement and identity.
    I assume you missed a “not” out of this sentence – feminism is one of the most diversified social/political movements in history! Conservatives, liberals, socialists, anarchists, radicals, lesbians, Muslims, Ecological/Green – because how you experience power and gender relations in your own life affects how you think about justice between men and women, there are probably as many possible feminisms as the are women (if not men and women.)

    I’d answer “Yes, but…” “I have my own opinions about how to get a more equal society/ I can call myself a ‘pro-feminist’ if that bothers you / I don’t hate men, I just find it hard to understand them.”

    • April says:

      I assume you missed a “not” out of this sentence – feminism is one of the most diversified social/political movements in history!

      No, I intended to say that it’s monolithic, for exactly that reason. Every feminist’s view on feminism may be a little different and certainly diverse, but all self-identified feminists have at least one thing in common: the goal of equality between women and men. I think “monolithic” is an accurate way to describe feminism.

      I also answered the poll with “yes, but…”

    • David K says:

      I think I see what your getting at. Me and anna and miriam-webster have a different view on what constitutes ‘monolithic’
      http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/monolithic
      but fair enough, that’s ok 🙂

      I think all feminists would agree that
      1.Women suffer from systematic in-justice because of their sex
      and
      2.they want to be part of a movement that tries to change this.
      Beyond the basic principles they have all kinds of disagreements on tactics, strategy, philosophy and long-term goals – it’s not like the movements I would describe as monolithic, like the communist party or the roman catholic church.
      In my reading, I’d say that feminist is more a term of ‘unification’ and ‘fraternity’/sisterhood – because as you say, it counter-acts the feeling that you are alone in your objections to the status quo – “everyone else is happy, why don’t you shut up and not make trouble?” – that there are other people to help you, and (ideally) you should be able to discuss your differences honestly, and come together to work on common projects, whilst being able to work apart on others.

      If you don’t call yourself “feminist,” you’re not really in favor of equal rights.
      Are there really that many examples of feminists saying – “you campaigners for gender equality there – why don’t you step-up and call yourself ‘feminists'”?
      To me, it seems that feminists what more often happens is feminists accusing other people who are calling themselves feminists of using the term fraudulently – e.g. “is Sarah Palin a feminist, if she doesn’t support X, Y, Z measures to achieve women’s equality? does she have ANY serious ideas for making men and women more equal?”
      I think, in the Palin case especially, that other feminists may feel she wants the political credit of the badge, but isn’t willing to suffer for any real feminist campaign or cause… (that’s what I think anyway, in case it’s not obvious.)

    • April says:

      I think I see what your getting at. Me and anna and miriam-webster have a different view on what constitutes ‘monolithic’
      http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/monolithic
      but fair enough, that’s ok

      Ok, ok! I changed it! 🙂

  2. Danny says:

    Why, for example, does someone fighting against gender-based oppression have to call themselves a “feminist” in order to be taken seriously as a true ally?
    I hope not.

    Well, of course not; reasonable people would say that the label is unimportant. But why does it feel like it is?
    That feeling is the result of pressure exerted by feminists themselves to convince people that feminism is the one true way for gender equality. In short a shaming tactic.

    I chose “No, but…”.

  3. annajcook says:

    I answered “yes.” I’ve been a self-identified feminist since my teens, and feminist in my actions and values long before that.

    However, I would also take issue with the characterization of movement feminism(s) as “monolithic.” I see feminist activism as incredibly heterogeneous and fluid, changing over time and with different meanings for most who identify with the collective memory and current-day activism of other feminists.

    Historically (and likely even today) there have been those who identify as feminist who do NOT believe in the equality of women, but in fact believe in gender essentialism and see the female/feminine identity and the attributes they attach to it as superior to those they identify as male/masculine. This has (usually) been a minority of feminists — but definitely a consistent sub-element.

    This is not my feminism … but it’s the feminism of some people.

  4. Lincoln says:

    *sigh* The “F-word” again…

    I was raised feminist. My mom and I read Ms. Magazine together growing up. The only new clothes I ever got were ones where the proceeds were going to support Title 9 activism stuff Ms. was raising money for! 🙂

    Then I got older. And some of my black female friends started telling me about how the white, middle-class, second wave feminism that is more or less the foundation of the movement here in the U.S. is dismissive of the voices and experiences of women of color. And I started noticing things I hadn’t seen before. Like what sort of stories were “newsworthy”, even in feminist press. Then I came out as a lesbian, and local feminist opinions about my right to exist were STRONGLY mixed. People ran the gamut from “How wonderful! Yay diversity!” to “Sit down and shut up! You’re making them think they’re right, and that all of us are man-hating lesbians.” (Um, they had that opinion before I came out.)

    Then I committed what is apparently the unpardonable sin of white feminism…I transitioned from female to male. The chorus spoke two words: get out. Followed by: don’t ever come back.

    I wandered, and then found womanists. Womanists believe that they can strive for equality without throwing away men, boys, or trans people. I learned from reading books that it’s apparently a priviledge of being white that women organize themselves thinking that gender discrimination is the worst or only problem they’re facing. Reading writers like bell hooks and talking to womanists has saved my sanity.

    Am I feminist? No way. Do I believe in equality around gender issues? As part of the trans community, I would be stupid not to. I’m not quite sure how I identify now. It would be cultural appropriation and disrespect to call myself a womanist. But I would betray myself by holding onto the word feminist when all it means to me is exclusion and a purity test.

    Maybe this is kind of like my transition. I’m not ashamed of the time I spent being seen as female. I learned some things during those years that are still very useful. The social label and identity doesn’t fit me anymore, but it’s part of my history. Maybe I can say the same thing about feminism. It’s part of who I was, but my life has transitioned again. I need a bigger word, one that truly means “all of us”, not just “ones who are like us”.

  5. Dominique Millette says:

    I hate to point out the obvious, but the people who read your post, especially if directed from a website like Feministe, will necessarily answer “yes” to the question “what do you answer when asked if you’re a feminist”.

    • April says:

      Readers sent from Feministe will likely say yes, of course. But Feministe also wasn’t the only place I put a link to the post/poll.

  6. Cessen says:

    No, but…

    I used to. Before I started reading the feminist blogosphere.

    The feminist blogosphere made me realize that as a guy, it’s impossible for me to take ownership of the label. It’s too easy for other feminists to say I’m not one, especially if I’m being critical of views held by many feminists.

    As an analogy, I do consider myself and animator. I am able to participate in the online animation community. I am able to disagree with other animators about technique and best practice and even what animation means, and not have someone say, “You’re not an animator!”. That will never happen. So I have some ownership of the label. I can take part in the community and do my part to shape animation and the animation community into the best it can be. Disagreement is seen as healthy and good and challenging.

    As a guy, this is not the case with the label “feminist”. Disagreement can easily result in a whole lot of “you’re not a feminist” or even “you’re an anti-feminist”. As a guy, you are relegated to listening and parroting.

    In short, I cannot even begin to take any ownership of the label. At least not with the blessing of a large majority of feminists. And therefore I have dropped it.

    But I think it’s actually really appropriate for women to adopt the label, because they don’t (as much, anyway) face the same issues. They are allowed to participate and disagree without the label being stripped from them.

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