“I’m not a feminist, BUT…” – What the feminist community can learn from “outsiders”

Working through all of these responses was DIFFICULT (which is why it’s taken me, like, two weeks to wade through all of them and write something semi-coherent). While it was a daunting prospect to classify and organize the responses of people who were confident that they were feminists, trying to sort the emails of people who were less confident in their answers was far more overwhelming.

Most of the responses that I received, though, were from people who said that, at the core, they are feminists – they think gender roles are silly; they believe equality is important. What is keeping them from calling themselves feminists? This post is set up to demonstrate that the feminist community has a long way to go in defining itself to “outsiders” – even if people who don’t call themselves feminists are drawn to the core message feminism, as a community, we may have failed to make the nuances of feminism accessible to people who aren’t searching for them.

I am not a feminist because gender inequalities are not what we should be focusing on in repairing inequality in the world. The argument that came up everywhere.

I believe that feminism as an ideology places far to great an emphasis on gender as a dividing line and ignores other serious divisive factors in society that cause inequities…I recently took a class that focused on sexuality and gender roles in medieval Europe. It was fascinating, but often when others were talking about how women were so oppressed simply because they were women, I found myself asking: what about the rich woman versus the poor man? People in the lower class at that time would have had absolutely no say in their role in society either: a man would do what his father did or whatever job he had to to make a living, and the woman would become a mother and a wife. A rich woman would have had access to more resources than a poor person, man or woman, ever could have imagined. In that sense and to an ENORMOUS extent in modern America, I think class and wealth have much more to do with inequalities than gender does at this point in time.

-F, 19, Georgetown

Just a brief sample of what was said on this topic. This is when it occurs to me that websites like Feministing simply aren’t getting their messages out far enough to make a real difference in the lives of people who don’t already identify as feminists. Feministing, as an entity, believes that the feminist community should fight for justice for all people, not just women or the LGBTQ community (those are all links from the Feministing home page). And you know what? So do all the feminist blogs that I read, and so do most of the women I know who call themselves feminists. We all want some form of justice somewhere. The problem comes in when we start disagreeing on what justice is actually comprised of – something I’ll have to get back to later, when I discuss politically conservative/moderate feminism.

To focus on this important class issue: who do we think is better off – poor men or poor women? Poor straight men or poor out gay, bi or trans men? I would put a lot of money on the straight man. To frame it through another lens, who’s probably having a better life: poor white men or poor black men (check out Race, Socioeconomic Status, and Health by David Williams as just one of hundreds of academic articles on the topic)? It’s true that class is a huge, important dividing line in quality of life, and I think most feminists have acknowledged this and are trying to fix it in the best way they know how (even if we don’t always agree on how to do this). But to then say that gender and sexual orientation do not also play a role strikes me as a bit disingenuous.

Granted, I don’t think that’s what this particular student is saying (although it was definitely implied by some other respondents). I think she would just rather focus on class inequalities than gender inequalities because she thinks that in terms of access to opportunity, that’s a bigger problem. I can absolutely respect that perspective (and to some degree, I agree). I don’t think you have to be a gender activist to be a feminist, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that some feminists focus on gender inequality as their primary form of activism – as I see it, it’s still a big enough issue that dropping it completely for another form of inequality would not actually be all that beneficial for the world.

I am not a feminist because feminism isn’t really about equality.

True feminists should be fighting for equality in all aspects. For example, fighting for near equal paternity leave as Sweden does. In addition, making sure that women can be drafted as well as men, would be an intellectually honest endeavor as well.

-M, 20, UPenn

An article about paternity leave in Sweden from the above respondent can be found HERE.

Agreed! I just read about paternity leave last night – did you know that Sweden is the considered one of the best places in the world to be a mom? From a June 15th Feministing post:

The results have been lower rates of divorce, higher likeliness of joint custody in the case of divorce and men re-prioritizing their lives to work/life balance as opposed to explicitly focused on career…I think we can deduce that increased opportunities for fathers to be better fathers, actually lightens the load for mothers allowing greater equality at home and at work…government support of “daddy” leave has had the impact of making families happier, moms happier and has the potential to change how masculinity is privileged in society. This is definitely something I think worth thinking about and comparing to our very family unfriendly system.

But feminists can’t like THAT! That’s about FAMILIES! And feminists don’t like FAMILIES or ACTUAL GENDER EQUALITY!

Except that we do! Generalized parental leave is better for men and women, who can now make individual choices about what makes sense for them, as a family, as to which parent stays home and for how long. I think feminism got over its fear of paternity leave a long time ago, and we would do well to be more vocal about it. Then again, we can barely get any leave in this country, so maybe not.

The concept of women being drafted is complicated. I don’t really feel like going into details as to why (I’m sure everyone can think of a ton of reasons on their own), but I support it, in theory.

The main point here is that feminism is about equality, is about people being judged on individual merits instead of being seen through a prism of gender- not, “she should be able to do this because she’s a woman,” or “he should have to do that because he’s a man.”

I am not a feminist because the past is over:

I stopped calling myself a feminist because I didn’t want to be associated with people who complained about the past excessively. Generally, I’m very happy with my life as a female in this place and time. I can’t point to any opportunities that have been overtly denied to me because of my gender, and I’m confident that I can do what I want in life basically unhindered by my sex. I just want to be treated as an equal, and, as long as I am, I see no reason to complain

-F, 19, Georgetown

Same student goes on to note:

Just the other day at work I got irritated (though didn’t make much fuss) because a male fellow intern took some of the boxes I was carrying without asking me, so that he was carrying a whole lot and I had about two, with this obvious you-definitely-can’t-carry-that-up-the-stairs look…But, still, I’m not sure I can quite bring myself to use the label “feminist” for myself, for the reasons I said before.

We need to make it clear that feminism applies to the here and now – that feminism means that we don’t need to be patronized. If you take boxes out of my hand, do it because I’m incredibly weak, not because I’m a woman. There are plenty of women – I’d say, most women – who are stronger than I am and can physically handle a lot more than I can. Treat me as an individual – I’m physically weak. Treat the other women as individuals – they’re physically stronger (and I can tell you that this particular student who responded is, in fact, rather strong).

I am not a feminist because men and women are inherently different.

Men and women are different. Generally speaking, they do have different skills. On average, women are better then men in language and spatial skills. On average, men are better than women in mathematics and computer science…very few women desire to work the 100 hour weeks that are necessary to become an investment banker.

-M, 20, UPenn

Very few women want to work the 100 hour weeks? I’d like to take a second to pose what I think is a very basic question: why? It’s easy to say, “oh, they just don’t want to,” but I’m going to use a personal example to explain that probably isn’t the case.

Apparently, women who are classically competent on their instruments just don’t like playing jazz music. Or, just aren’t as good at jazz as men. That’s a lie. Let me share a not-so-hidden secret: jazz is a boy’s club. Being the only girl in a high school jazz band was one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve ever had. Going back to East Meadow High School week after week and playing jazz for three hours was fun because I liked the music…and I was better than at least three or four of those boys (the third and fourth trumpet player, the third and fourth trombonist, and one year, the other first alto saxophone player). It took me about halfway through junior year to realize why I was constantly uncomfortable. I didn’t like admitting it: that’s not who I was. I was the girl who hung out with the boys! So I never really did admit it – I think this is the first place I’m acknowledging it to others, actually.

But the boys genuinely expected less of me. And my conductor, as fantastic as he was, expected less of me. He didn’t hold me to the standard he held the guys. I tried to find other excuses. It was because the boys were awkward! It was because they were immature! Eventually, that all fell flat in my mind. They had no problem getting along with each other and challenging each other. But acknowledging me as a jazz musician? That was beyond them.

I don’t think it’s because the guys were consciously like, “oh no, a girl! get her out!” I don’t think explicit sexism was in their personalities. But I think it was there implicitly. It’s not really that surprising, nor do I really blame them. The first time I learned about a female instrumentalist in jazz before 1970 was this year. Yes, it took me until 2010 to learn about Louis Armstrong’s wife, who played the piano on a lot of his recordings. They don’t talk about her in the boy’s club. How were they even to comprehend that women were just as capable as men when we’ve never acknowledged the existence of Lil Armstrong?

So yeah, I bet fewer women want to spend 100 hours a week surrounded by men who are accidentally brought up to believe that they shouldn’t be there. Sounds fun!

I encourage everyone to read this article:

What would be remarkably instructive in real life would be if women in various professions could experience life as men, and vice versa. If the same person got treated differently, we would be sure sexism was at work, because the only thing that changed was the sex of the individual and not his or her skills, talent, knowledge, experience, or interests.

Surprise! There are two trans people who are willing to be interviewed for an article about gender bias! Guess what happened? Ben Barnes transitioned at age 50 and was told that his work was “much better than his sister’s.” Joan Roughgarden had a scientist “scream at her for being irresponsible” in her attempt to disprove a Darwinian theory – despite the fact that when she attempted to disprove a different theory, as a man, no one seemed to care that much. “What she wants to be is proven wrong, rather than dismissed.” Whoops! Implicit gender bias says that you’re a woman now!

It’s true that right now, men are dominant in the top sectors of science and math, while women dominate verbally-things. But I just don’t understand why we’re so eager to just accept this is biological when so many women can tell you that they have experienced the implicit gender bias.

Whew! That’s a tough one for me. I’m not opposed to acknowledging that there might generally be a biological difference between people born female and people born male, but I am opposed to 1) using that information to dissolve all suggestions of gender bias and 2) using that information to assume that women all fit into a bloc, and men all fit into a bloc, without regarding their individual anatomic or psychological differences.

And if you need a further explanation as to why this particular sentiment pisses me off so much, check out this post on the Geek Feminism Blog.

I am not a feminist because feminism implies structural violence on people who are not feminists.

…when you imply that people who don’t identify as feminists should according to your definition, you impose a certain set of unnecessary and artificial limits and in some impose a certain sort of structural violence upon those who believe in equal rights but who don’t wish to self-identify as a feminist.

-F, 20, Georgetown

Yeah, you go to Georgetown.

But this Georgetown student does point out a bit of a contradiction. Feminism often discusses gender identity as something that one creates for oneself – as a feminist, you would never call a someone who listens to ‘N Sync and Idina Menzel a woman if he saw himself as a man. But then we try to determine if other people are feminists, thereby associating them with the label or not.

Then again, we primarily do this with celebrities, and we often do it as an exercise in defining feminism. I have a very good friend who responded to these questions by saying that she’s not sure if she’s a feminist. I didn’t expect that answer from her: if you talk to her, holy crap is she a feminist. But that’s not how she identifies, so she isn’t.

So maybe we need to add onto the definition of a feminist that a person must believe he or she is a feminist in order to be one.

I am not a feminist because political correctness pisses me off.

I thought it would be fun to follow up with the good old “I don’t care!” argument:

…the idea that I should replace all of my pronouns with “she/her” if I’m not sure of the gender is silly to me; there is nothing wrong with saying he/him and I shouldn’t be punished for doing that in academic writing. Because my personality is predisposed to think “really, who cares?” about things like this, it also distances me from how feminism often manifests itself in this country.

– F, 19, Georgetown

I have a tendency to switch back and forth between “hers” and “his” in my writing, usually by starting with female pronouns and then switching over to male pronouns. I’ll be honest: I don’t care, either. I have better things to waste my time with – like this blog, for instance! I think it definitely does betray a societal pro-male bias, but I’d be interested in hearing from someone who feels more strongly about the use of male, female, or neutral pronouns in academic writing.

I am not a feminist because I am politically moderate.

I think that feminism as a community has alienated women who hold conservative viewpoints in portraying them as anti-feminist. It seems to me that you cannot be pro-life and be a feminist, and if you are a conservative in some other aspect you are some sort of bible-obsessed gun-waving right wing lunatic who clearly would only support keeping women pregnant and in the kitchen.

-F, 19, Georgetown

This goes back to the feminist definition of justice. If we’re supposed to be fighting for justice, we should have some vague idea of what justice is, right? And the majority of people who actively identify has feminists have apparently identified accessible health care, less Arizona-like immigration policies, softer drug laws, etc. as “justice.” So yeah – if you expect to be part of a feminist community that fights for justice for all people, you can expect that one opinion might prevail, and you can expect to hear a lot about that prevailing opinion.

I personally believe that a person can be pro-life (given certain restrictions that I won’t discuss now), pro-gun and religious and still be a feminist, but that’s because I don’t see these issues inherently at war with issues of fixing inequality. When you start talking about the Arizona immigration law, it gets a little fuzzier. The law permits racial profiling – I think we an all agree on that much. Most feminists agree that this is wrong, and in their fight for justice, will probably attempt to end the law. It is possible to say that you are a feminist and that you think the law is just. But think about the contradiction in your labeling: feminism is all about breaking down these arbitrary boundaries, and yet suddenly skin color is an okay arbitrary boundary?

I think this particular law is an extreme example, but I want to use it to demonstrate why I believe that most feminists are politically liberal. If we, as a movement, aren’t accepting of those who aren’t politically liberal, but also don’t use arbitrary boundaries to make decisions about other people (I’m thinking of gun laws, in particular, here), then we probably need to make a change.

I am not a feminist because women cannot do anything they want

I have always told my daughters that they could be anything they wanted to be, but this turned out not to be true. One became a pilot and captain for an airline but had to stop working when her husband could not cope with raising 2 small children alone 3 or 4 nights and days a week. Going back to flying when the children are older would be difficult because of the cost of retraining.


I only hope that this couple was able to work out an agreement in which both parties were equally involved in raising the children. I do feel bad for the man in this situation – that was essentially what women dealt with until very recently.  I genuinely wonder what the situation would have been had her husband been a pilot, and the wife had to take care of children alone 3-4 nights a week. This arrangement obviously wasn’t working out for this couple, but I don’t think we should use this as an example of “women can’t be pilots and have families.” I think this particular scenario is one couple in which one man could not handle children for 3-4 nights. There are single fathers and single mothers who are able to raise families on their own, so while I ache for this woman, I don’t think her life is the proof that women can’t be pilots.

This was all very frustrating for me to read and respond to because ultimately, it demonstrates that as feminism, as a movement, is not being defined by modern, third wave feminists. It is being defined by the past, and it is being defined by outsiders who want to portray us as militant, scary, and picking at problems that just aren’t there. Why have we let the word get away from us?

Feminists need to know what they stand for and why, and we need to be willing to discuss it. If we don’t attempt to change perceptions about what we stand for, we’re going to find ourselves on the fringe, I think – and that’s not where equality belongs.

Ending on a light note, from M, 20, UPenn.

1. What is feminism?
To look at feminism we must break down the word. From feminism, we get mini me sf. Thus feminism is the study of midget clones from outer space.

2. Are you a feminist: why or why not?
Of course I’m a feminist, I believe in treating all women equally poorly.

3. Pick a celebrity, politician, or other famous woman. Is she a feminist? Why or why not?
Ann Coulter, feminist. demonstrating the true potential of a woman to be universally hated by everybody.

    • Eileen
    • July 7th, 2010

    Yay, another post!

    I had to comment about the jazz thing, since it reminded me profoundly of an experience I had in marching band in high school that seriously pissed me off. This one was related not so much to “women in jazz” as “women playing brass instruments.”

    We (the public school) and the parochial school three blocks away (Tommy Weeds’s alma mater, actually) both marched in the Memorial Day parade every year, trading off “cemetery duty” from year to year. I don’t know what they did when they were in the cemetery, but we always played “Taps” as a duet between the best trumpeter in band and the second-best trumpeter in band. Usually, both were men – there weren’t a lot of girls at my high school who played trumpet, probably no more than four or five during my entire four years there. One year, the best trumpeter was a man. The second-best was a woman.

    The director chose the third-best trumpeter (a man) to play the bottom half of the duet.

    Being me, I reproached him afterward, and he commented that he “would’ve” picked the woman, but he “didn’t think all the veterans could handle it.” I didn’t say so at the time because he still had to give me a grade, but I’m still pissed off about it – the veterans can’t handle the idea that a woman can play the trumpet? Well, they can fucking learnto handle it, then, can’t they?

    My mom played trombone in high school and college. They once took a trip down somewhere in the States (my mom went to school in Montreal; all “the States” blend together for her), and another band’s director actually asked her to stand up, marveling at the fact that there was a girl in the low brass section. Like, a chick who wasn’t playing the flute or the clarinet!

    I’d forgotten about instrumental sexism.

    To comment on the politically liberal marginalizing thing, yeah, I’ve felt it. I like Feministing but feel like the woman who writes it hates women like me, so it turns me off. Same with The Gloss. Libertarianism doesn’t have to come from a place of hatred, but prominent feminism doesn’t seem to want you around if you believe in free markets and free trade as well as free speech and free expression. That, in turn, tends to dissuade libertarian-leaning women from identifying as feminists, which keeps the feminist movement politically liberal. At least that’s the point of view from my couch here in my parents’ basement (god I am so bored…)

      • Melanie
      • July 10th, 2010

      Oh god yes, brass sections are boy’s clubs. Myles and I were just “reminiscing” about Mr. Byrne and how female trumpets could play 3rd or nothing.

    • Brian
    • July 8th, 2010

    “It’s true that right now, men are dominant in the top sectors of science and math, while women dominate verbally-things. But I just don’t understand why we’re so eager to just accept this is biological when so many women can tell you that they have experienced the implicit gender bias.”

    Well said.

    • Meg
    • July 8th, 2010

    I care about gender pronouns in academic writing. If you use “he/his” I will assume you are talking about men. More than that, I’ll probably be right, even if you are talking about animal studies: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v465/n7299/full/465690a.html

    I think it is important to distinguish between talking about half the population and trying to speak on a universal level. Too often in academia, as elsewhere, things about men are considered universal whereas things about women are considered to not apply to men. I will accept, for now, using female pronouns as generic because it is jarring and makes a point, but if you don’t want to make a point about the assumptions of universality I think we should find a gender-neutral pronoun (I use “they”, since it’s how I speak, but if it’s going to be reviewed by grammar snooty people I’ll use “he or she”). I have never been able to read “he” as potentially referring to me.

    • Melanie
    • July 10th, 2010

    “It’s true that right now, men are dominant in the top sectors of science and math, while women dominate verbally-things. But I just don’t understand why we’re so eager to just accept this is biological when so many women can tell you that they have experienced the implicit gender bias.”

    If I can find a link, I’ll send something that isn’t just me remembering things from psych classes off the top of my head, but as far as women’s mathematical abilities go, there is nothing biologically distinguishing men and women. Several studies have shown that men and women perform equally well on tests of mathematical ability if neither group thinks they should perform worse than the other. When women being tested are told that women aren’t good at math, they perform poorly, even relative to their own scores on similar tests.

      • Eileen
      • July 11th, 2010

      You know, I really really believe that. My parents are both biologists who really love math, and I don’t even know how old I was when I realized that girls aren’t “supposed” to be good at math and science…but when I did, I know I was very conscious of that “fact,” and while I can’t say my grades noticeably suffered, I was definitely wary. Luckily the best students in math and science at my school were girls, so I had other role models.

        • Melanie
        • July 14th, 2010

        Yep, theoretically if we had one generation in which that supposed fact was laid to rest, that generation would produce approximately equal amounts of male and female mathematicians/scientists/other math and science related fieldists. Also, as a sidenote, if you ask the women who fell victim to the gender bias for a self-evaluation of their performance, they legitimately think they did the best they could.

        What I find really interesting at the moment is how there’s a somewhat reversed gender bias in psychology. The current generation of licensed, practicing psychologists is heavily male, but women outnumber men in psych grad programs right now and people of both genders are more eager to trust a female psychologist than a male one, to the extent that the male psych grad students have difficulty getting patients when trying to do their internships and student counseling and whatnot. The only reason there’s the current male bias is because not too long ago, people thought that women couldn’t handle doctoral programs, being as they’re 5-7 years of additional schooling past college, also known as prime childbearing time. Back in the day, it would’ve been unwomanly to spend that much time on school. Now, if current trends continue, psychology may go the way of nursing as an unmasculine field. From what I see of my fellow psych majors at school, most of the male psych majors I know are gay, and of the straight ones I know, people generally consider them rather effeminate. Kinda cool to think that women now will dominate a field that requires a doctorate.

    • Jeremy
    • July 11th, 2010

    Great post, glad you were able to sort through all of that. The transgender article was really thought provoking, keep up the good work.

      • Mara Alyse
      • July 11th, 2010

      You have entirely too much patience for my ranting, given how much we disagree… :)

    • Taylor
    • July 12th, 2010

    My experience at Georgetown has definitely compounded my opinions about class divisions because I entered a world where so many people were so well off and so out of touch with, for lack of a less Palinesque term, the “rest of America,” i.e. where I come from. Of course there are all kinds at Georgetown, but I became even more aware of the serious divisions between the people I know at home and the particularly rich people I met at Georgetown. I don’t think that’s the majority of the Gtown community at all, but it really is so difficult to make it to college at all, especially an elite one, from an underprivileged community, and the one I came from isn’t even close to being the worst out there.

    Haha I could go on and on about this but I won’t. :) Good post, Mara, you accurately and fairly portrayed a lot of the other side of the coin on feminism. I definitely agree with the idea that at its core, feminism is about equality, but I also agree with the idea that some feminists and the label in general have some work to do on marketing their ideas to the everywoman.

  1. July 8th, 2010
  2. September 22nd, 2010

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