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feminist: i know you are, but what am i?

It goes like this:

A glossy lifestyle mag interviews a swish “It” girl. She’s at the top of her field. She’s worked hard to get there, and has plenty of tips for goal setting, confidence and “keeping calm, carrying on”. The journalist fawns over this success, and asks if maybe the equal rights movement had anything to do with it.

‘Do you consider yourself a feminist?’ the journo asks.

‘Oh, no,’ replies the prodigy. She pauses. ‘I mean, I feel like men and women are equal and stuff, but I don’t see myself as one of those!’

The above might be exaggerated, but conversations like this are being played out in online news and newspaper supplements across the nation. The “Not a Feminist!” headline is click bait for many an otherwise run-of-the-mill profile piece.

It’s problematic to make it compulsory for public figures to identify with any “ism”, so it’s probably best not to condemn these pieces outright.

That said, the anxiety held by stars about the F word does indicate a disconnection between the opportunities women have today and how these were achieved. If you are a female CEO or an entrepreneur, how can you not identify with the movement that secured everything from your vote to opportunities for work and the expectation you’d participate in it?

How could naming yourself a feminist be damaging to your brand?

This was the question thrown the way Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. The internet didn’t hold back in sensationalising her assertion that the feminist movement didn’t apply to her. This was despite her ascension to one of the most powerful jobs in the world, a step up the career ladder that she’d achieved while being pregnant.

Mayer’s reaction to the request for feminist pride featured an interesting barb: her refusal to associate with the idea because of the ‘militant drive, and the sort of, chip on the shoulder that comes with that’.

The idea of feminism as militant isn’t new, nor is it particularly original. So why would a wealthy professional woman refuse to redefine it in softer terms? When you’re on the pedestal and have the power, surely you can define the movement however you like?

There seem to be a couple of schools of thought on this one.

The reaction to Mayer’s comments has seen anti-feminists galvanised and social commentators flummoxed. Regardless of one’s stance on the movement, the idea that Mayer could be so groundbreaking on one level and so conservative on another seems to be a big deal to the zeitgeist.

Add to this the reality that she’s but one in a string of women successful in male dominated fields who shy away from feminism, citing a concern about “labels”. Jackie O, Lady Gaga and actress Melissa Leo have all provided sound bites that refuse identification with the equal rights movement.

It’s been posited in the press that these ladies are simply uninformed and ungrateful – that they don’t get why feminist movements were and are important, and that they don’t really care how they gained their own success, as long as it continues. Perhaps there’s some truth to the lack of understanding, but it seems a large leap to assume that all successful women are fundamentally selfish.

Then there’s this notion: that feminism is still bad for your brand. If Marissa Mayer was to rebut the militant nature of the movement and fly a flag of solidarity, would this have overshadowed her achievements? Would the assertion influence how people responded to her decisions in business? Even if she explained that she supported equality and discussion rather than militancy and protests? In short, would the feminist label be used against her in the press and business worlds?

It’s hard to tell. The interesting thing about famous women who talk about feminism is that they don’t condemn what it has brought them. It could be categorised more as coyness towards the question than an outright dash away from it. But the ladies are cautious to put their names to the cause.

Perhaps their managers are afraid of how women are pigeonholed once they endorse to F word. The question is, should they just take that risk and do it anyway?

What do you think when you hear women you respect say that feminism doesn’t apply to their lives?

(Image credit)

5 thoughts on “feminist: i know you are, but what am i?

  1. I’ve noticed the link bait trend of ‘X is not a feminist’ too. I think it’s good that more people seem interested in feminism and think it would be good for successful women to acknowledge the role of feminism. At the same time, I think it’s just an easy angle for writers. It would be like writing a profile of Paris Hilton and condemning her because she doesn’t read. It is good to read, and one should read, but it’s hardly surprising when certain people don’t.

  2. When I used to ask female musicians if they were feminists and what feminism means to them, I think only two or three women responded saying that they identified with feminism. When I started asking whether they’d felt inequality in the music industry or felt like they were treated differently to their male peers, the situation reversed, and I’ve only heard a few say they see no difference. So I think it’s the association with the F word that they’re trying to evade, rather than being ignorant of the movement and the pervasiveness of sexism.

  3. I think that the whole “feminist or not feminist” thing is a little stupid. With Marissa Mayer, just because she is a woman who has achieved success does not mean that she has to represent the whole gender. She’s just good at her job and has been recognised for it.

    It seems as though sometimes feminists actually do more harm to the cause than good. The whole, “she’s a CEO AND a woman! Wow look far a woman can go!”, to me, gives the impression that because she’s a woman she’s the underdog. What hope do we have that women will ever get completely equal rights if we’ve all got it in our heads that we are always going to be kept down because of our gender? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive to the way the world works, and I’m grateful for what our foremothers did to get us to this point, but really, if we keep calling common equal rights feminism, it will always be seen as something secular, rather than the norm.

    I’m sick of women saying “oh she didn’t get there by herself, she should thank feminism her success”. Bullshit. I’m of the opinion that if you work hard, you’ll achieve the success that you aim for, regardless of whether you are a man or woman. If Marissa Mayer were a man, she would be applauded for her success and not have to thank anyone else for it. Ironic, isn’t it? That’s why I’m a woman but not a feminist, because I reject the divisiveness and added expectations of the “us vs them” mentality. Just don’t tell my mother.

  4. @ Robyn

    It’s good that you believe you can, “achieve the success that you aim for, regardless of whether you are a man or woman”. I just hope you’re prepared not measure that success in terms financial compensation when you earn 77 cents on every dollar that your male counterpart makes.

  5. @NotAFeminist?

    I support the idea of feminism, I’m just really put off by the label. For example, after reading the article and referenced above on the Ms. magazine website, it gives the impression that if you believe in equal gender rights, you HAVE to be a feminist, saying “believing in “equal rights” for men and women but not being a feminist is like being an atheist who thinks the theory of evolution is hogwash”.

    No, I just believe in equal rights, I don’t have to be labeled. I also believe in human rights and not judging against race, sexuality or class among other things. Do I have to label myself with an “ist” word because I support these causes? The only ones I can think of are all for the negative.

    I don’t like the “if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us” mentality. If you tell me that because I believe in equal rights therefore I MUST be feminist, my immediate reaction is don’t fuck off, don’t you tell me who I am.

    Just calling yourself a feminist isn’t going to solve anything in the terms of the gender pay gap. Women will only get equal pay if we go into the workforce without the “I’m a woman, treat me differently” tag. The culture won’t change overnight, but if more women go into the bosses office demanding equal pay and respect, that’s when progress can be made. And that’s what Marissa Mayer did.

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