“I don’t know why people are so reluctant to say they’re feminists. Maybe some women just don’t care. But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?”
—Ellen Page, actor
“If the word ‘feminist’ has negative connotations, running away from the word won’t fix that. Whatever new word you come up with will eventually take on the same negative connotations. Because the problem isn’t with feminists; it’s with those who demonize feminism.”
—Rebecca Cohen, cartoonist
With such an onslaught of pressing issues facing those concerned about gender justice today (for starters consider the recent actions to severely restrict women’s reproductive rights by the legislatures in North Carolina, Ohio and Texas, and by Clear Channel in Kansas), the current debate about whether it’s still appropriate to call oneself a “feminist”—or in the case of the magazine I edit, Voice Male , a “pro-feminist”—seems to me to be a huge, politically divisive distraction.
In our 24-7-365 online culture, there’s a tendency to overlook history, if not an outright attempt by some to rewrite it. The current debate about the usefulness of the word centers around concerns that feminism has been poorly “branded,” including having been irreparably smeared by conservative commentators. (What else is new? The effectiveness of a movement can in part be judged by the actions of those trying to squelch it). It is disconcerting to think some would abandon the word at a moment when rape, both in military and civilian culture; the sex trafficking pandemic; and the mainstream “pornification” of sexuality are such an ongoing threat. If ever there were a time calling for an explicitly feminist response it is now.
The fact that some longtime proponents of the ideas embodied in feminism are now shying away from identifying themselves as actual “feminists” is disappointing and contributes, perhaps inadvertently, to erasing the history of the feminist movement (including men’s supportive role in it)—a history that stretches at least as far back as the struggle for suffrage. For someone to proclaim they are articulating a vision of “gender equality” (the term some prefer), while distancing themselves from the “F word” by name, seems to me both nearsighted and shortsighted. It obscures the legacy of male privilege and helps erase one of feminism’s greatest contributions to social justice: creating and sustaining a space for ongoing dialogue and questions, self-critique and internal conflict in the service of a more nuanced understanding of all systemic oppressions. It also ignores, undermines—or both—the rich gender-justice history that’s been at the forefront of much profound social change, the impact of which is still being felt today with gains from Middle America to the Middle East.
On the wall in my office is a copy of a handbill announcing a meeting, “What is Feminism?” scheduled for the People’s Institute at Cooper Union in New York City. Nothing unusual about it except, perhaps, for the date: February 17, 1914. Among the dozen scheduled women and men speakers was Frances Perkins, first woman to serve in the president’s Cabinet when she was appointed Secretary of Labor in 1933, and the novelist, playwright, poet, literary critic and editor of The Masses, Floyd Dell. His July 1914 article (which appears in the current issue of Voice Male magazine begins with these words: “Feminism is going to make it possible for the first time for men to be free.” That was a century ago and it’s just as true today as it was then.
From my vantage point in the pro-feminist men’s movement—a movement active on every continent (see MenEngage)—a steadily growing number of men recognize the truth in Dell’s century old observation. Our lives are better since embracing feminism—as sons and brothers, partners and husbands, fathers and co-workers. Encouraged to leave the constraints of the “man box” that seeks to impose a rigid definition of manhood, more of us have begun to access a range of feelings—from finding our tears to accessing our hearts. I am particularly proud to see how many younger men are identifying as pro-feminists on college and university campuses. (I’m fortunate to have three serving as summer interns).
As I went to return the old handbill to my wall, I noticed more text describing a second feminist meeting scheduled as a follow-up to the initial “What is Feminism” gathering. It featured seven women speakers addressing a range of issues, including “The Right to Work,” “The Right of the Mother to Her Profession,” “The Right to Her Convictions,” “The Right to Her Name,” “The Right to Organize,” “The Right to Ignore Fashion” and “The Right to Specialize in Home Industries.” And the name they bestowed on that meeting? “Breaking into the Human Race.” It’s 100 years later and women still recognize its truth—from the state house in Austin to the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s not a branding problem that needs addressing; it’s sexism.
Perhaps some of the people who profess to be more comfortable with the term “gender equality” than the word feminism will rethink their position and step forward to recommit themselves to the cause. Imagine them joining a crowd filling a cobblestone square at dusk as the town crier calls out into the darkening sky not about the passing of a monarch but instead about an egalitarian movement growing stronger and stronger. “Hear ye, hear ye,” the crier intones. “The Feminists Are Alive. Long Live the Feminists!”