To Be or Not to Be: Confusion Over a Feminist Identity
Jean Cheng: Hi everyone, welcome back to Nosy News—where we talk about the latest research and what’s going on in the world. I’m your host Jean, and today we’ll be talking about my study titled, “To Be or Not To Be: Confusion Over a Feminist Identity.” In this study, I researched the reasons behind why many people nowadays don’t like calling themselves feminists, even when they support equality for women—which is what feminism is all about. I’ll first go over the motivations for this project, then previously done research, my new research, and finally, the implications of my results. We’ll also have the participants of my research on later to talk about the responses, and personal opinions on the topic.
To start off, the motivation for my research was a journal article that I had recently read that examined the “I’m not a feminist, but” trend; where women have a strong aversion to identifying as a feminist, despite their feminist beliefs. Researching the population’s tension around feminist identities is important because feminist goals are something a lot of people support, yet they refuse to get behind the identity itself and make real, institutional change. This contradictory, self-destructive behavior maintains the status quo that they themselves are against; so, my research question was, “what aspects of feminism or society make it hard for some people whose beliefs align with feminism to identify with it?” The hypothesis that I came up with was that people conflate female chauvinists—who believe that women are superior to men, with feminists.
After formulating my hypothesis, the next step was to see what the accepted state of knowledge in the field was. Through online journal research, I discovered that previous studies had found this phenomenon of a refusal of a feminist identity to be very prevalent among young women. One researcher I stumbled upon was Alison Dahl Crossley. In her study of female international college students in the UK, slightly more than half of them hesitated, and then expressed ambivalence and confusion about the meaning of feminism when asked if they were feminists. And even the women who had had experience with feminism, either inside or outside the university, were anxious to separate themselves from feminism. In addition, Cheryl Hercus’ research revealed that women who were already actively involved in feminist circles still had significant tension regarding their identification with feminism. Another category of women discovered by Pamela Aronson was the fence-sitters, who supported feminist ideologies, but would not label themselves as feminist. Aronson also found that women with higher education—specifically ones who had taken women’s, feminist, or gender studies classes were more likely to embrace a feminist identity.
One of the proposed reasons for why women resist identification is the negative stereotyping of American feminists, which includes descriptors such as “bra burners,” “lesbians,” and “man haters.” These stereotypes have traveled so globally that young women from around the world believe that lesbians—the bearers of feminist culture, and by extension, heterosexual privilege must be given up to become a feminist. However, this rationale given by women in Crossley’s study may in actuality be an aversion to, or fear of lesbianism, or an association with lesbianism. Another reason given by participants in Hercus’ research is the perceived restrictiveness of feminism in which feminism is limited only to traditional feminist identities. Adopting a feminist identity is difficult for those women because they simultaneously desire recognition by the feminist collectivity, as well as personal autonomy. Similarly, the women Crossley interviewed understood collectivity and autonomy as mutually exclusive and felt conflicted on how to support both. Other reasons given include ambiguity regarding feminism’s meaning with many women being unsure of what it encompasses; and whether they identify with it, feminism’s perceived incompatibility with marriage and motherhood, and disparaging comments about feminism from family and friends.
Following the background research, I decided to do a study regarding what both men and women think (instead of just women), as well as how their views may be affected through group discussion. That way, more of the population can be accounted for, and interpersonal interactions that were not part of previous research can also be studied. All in all, I hoped to clarify some of the reasoning behind this phenomenon of feminist identity rejection with a broader scope of gender and interaction; and on top of that, I wanted to encourage people to reevaluate their own stances on feminism.
My research method started with gathering a small group of two women and three men. Next, I interviewed them individually with the following questions:
What do you think of when you hear feminism?
What is the meaning of feminism to you?
Do you think there are many meanings or that the meaning is ambiguous?
What do you think are the characteristics of a feminist?
Do you consider yourself a feminist and why?
If not, are there any societal factors, or certain aspects of feminism that you think may influence your chosen identification?
Would you say that you support feminism or any specific feminist ideas?
The goal of feminism is to achieve political, social and economic equality between the sexes and ensure that no one’s rights are violated due to factors such as race, gender, language, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, political or other beliefs, nationality, social origin, class, or wealth status. Do you agree or disagree with this goal and why?
After the interviews, I then facilitated a focus group with all of them and asked the same questions one at a time, moving onto the next question whenever there seemed to be no more discussion. Throughout the focus group, I took notes on their interactions, opinions, and ideas, especially noting if someone’s answer was different from the interview. Finally, I synthesized the qualitative data by grouping the participants’ responses into categories based on similarity.
The result of the study was that all five participants agreed during focus group discussion that there were two groups of active feminists: the so-called “normal” ones who were fighting for equality; and the “crazy” ones which included ‘entitled’ women who took advantage of the feminist movement to further themselves, plus the women that were “too radical.” Also, five out of five participants supported the feminist idea of equality for women, but one felt that feminists nowadays were only trying to reach partial equality, stating that they were not willing to become equal in aspects that wouldn’t be beneficial to them—such as being eligible for the draft. Four out of five agreed that the meaning of feminism had been skewed in comparison to the beginning of the movement when it was more streamlined. Four out of five also felt that the label of feminist had a negative connotation because of the ‘entitled’ women. Only one participant identified as feminist during the individual interview, and after seeing the rest of the group not identify as feminist during the group discussion; that participant changed their identification to “in the middle,” between for and against feminism. After this change, there were two people who identified as “in the middle” because of their lack of active participation with feminism, two people who identified as “not feminist” because of their lack of active participation, and one person who identified as “not feminist” because of their belief that feminists today are not truly striving for complete equality.
Let’s talk to some of the participants from the study to see what they thought.
Gracie: Hello, my name is Gracie.
Karthik: Hello, my name is Karthik.
Kun: Hi, I’m Kun.
Maggie: Hello, I’m Maggie.
Rishie: Hi, I’m Rishie.
Cheng: Welcome to Nosy News, everyone. Thanks so much for coming on the show; so, what did you guys have to say about the meaning of feminism, and were there multiple or ambiguous meanings?
Karthik: In my opinion, feminism, in all honesty, has very little impact on me. If it happens, it happens. I can’t really change it. As long as no one abuses it, I’m fine.
Gracie: Yeah, it has a lot of different meanings, or people take it in different ways. Like, some people are with the whole “yeah, we support women’s rights” and stuff; or trying to abuse that and be like, “women should be treated like gods,” or whatever, and try and take advantage of that. But, in general, the whole feminism part… I guess the definition is up to whoever you ask. Like, how they take it.
Rishie: Yeah, different people will interpret and apply what feminism means differently.
Cheng: Okay, cool. So, what characteristics did you think feminists had?
Maggie: Mostly those that advocate for women’s rights in some sort of way or form.
Rishie: I think we all agreed that feminists don’t necessarily have to be female.
Gracie: Oh yeah, for sure.
Karthik: They’re not just feminists, typically. They’re more like, “we support all causes,” if that makes sense.
Cheng: Okay, so did you guys consider yourselves feminists and why?
Karthik: I considered myself impartial.
Cheng: And why was that?
Karthik: I mean, it kind of goes back to what I was saying earlier. If it occurs, I’m not gonna be against it, but I think the only time I will be against it is when it’s abused. That someone deserves it because they’re feminist, or, you know… kind of like, discriminate against males—to an extreme extent, obviously.
Rishie: Yeah, I think we all sort of identified under the same umbrella as not being active feminists in that we don’t actively go to protests or try to push changes in legislature toward feminist ideals; but none of us are super actively against feminism either, so somewhere in the middle—maybe leaning toward passive feminist, if that is a term that we can use to apply here.
Maggie: I would support what Rishie says, I definitely say I wouldn’t go out of my way to support this, but definitely more on the passive side.
Kun: I don’t think I would call myself a feminist if somebody were to ask me because I don’t really know what it means to be a feminist. I don’t know what their claims are. I’m very indifferent about it, so I don’t think I care too much.
Gracie: Not enough information to call yourself it, or something like that?
Cheng: Okay, so would you guys say that you supported feminism or any specific feminist ideas?
Karthik: I think it’s a fair thing to say that they shouldn’t be demeaned, or assigned to a certain aspect of life—like house life. People shouldn’t be against the choices they make because they are female.
Rishie: Yeah, I think, broadly, the idea of feminism is appealing, but, when you look at it more nuancedly, the way certain people apply it might be unappealing or some specific aspects of it might be unappealing. And sort of in agreement to what Kun had said, this is something that I’m not quite educated enough to really speak in more detail about.
Cheng: Okay, cool. Well, that’s all the questions I had for you guys. Thanks again, it was a pleasure to have you all here.
After conducting the research, I discovered that my original hypothesis that many people whose beliefs align with feminism do not identify as feminist because they conflate female chauvinists with feminists was incorrect. In reality, they did not want to be associated with the stereotype of ‘entitled’ or ‘too radical’ feminists. Although they admitted that there were feminists fighting for equality, the negative stereotypes outweighed that perceived minority that is actually the majority. It shows how the image of feminists has been so distorted from its lived reality that people who would have normally associated themselves with the group are now repelled simply by the word ‘feminist.’ This stereotyping may have come from American media, friends and family, or other peers as shown through the one participant giving in to peer pressure during the focus group.
In summary, my research question was, “What aspects of feminism or society make it hard for some people whose beliefs align feminism to identify with it?” Previous research had said that women may be influenced by the stereotypical negative image of feminists, as well as confusion over the ambiguity of the meaning of feminism. Williams and Wittig found that the adoption of a feminist identity involved more than just having a pro-feminist stance. Additional mediating variables included exposure to feminism, positive evaluation of feminists, and belief in collective action. My research showed that men and women are affected by these variables and deterred by the negative stereotypes. According to the study participants, the ambiguity of feminism encompasses both the perceived “normal” and “crazy” groups, the latter of which they fear being associated with if they enter that ambiguous space. These stereotypes may have come to be internalized through peer pressure and media. This is significant because it pinpoints the root cause of the “I’m not a feminist, but” trend in both of the binary genders, and it provides a starting point from which feminists can work to dismantle the false beliefs that the public holds of them. By showing people that these misconceptions are inaccurate, feminists can educate them on true feminist lived reality and encourage them to reassess their own stances on what it means to be a feminist. Some future research that can still be done on this topic includes having a sample with a more diverse background in areas such as gender, age, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, political belief, and nationality, or a sample with a greater amount of participants. Researchers could also study why feminism has such strong negative stereotypes attached to it and how to get rid of them.
That’s all for today about my study on feminism. Thanks for listening to Nosy News, and I’ll see you all next time. Bye!
Aronson, Pamela. “Feminists Or ‘Postfeminists’?: Young Women’s Attitudes toward Feminism and Gender Relations.” Gender & Society 17, no. 6 (December 2003): 903–22. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243203257145.
Crossley, Alison Dahl. “‘When It Suits Me, I’m a Feminist:’ International Students Negotiating Feminist Representations.” Women’s Studies International Forum 33, no. 2 (March 2010): 125–33. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wsif.2009.11.003.
Hercus, Cheryl. Stepping out of Line: Becoming and Being Feminist. Perspectives on Gender. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Williams, Rachel, and Michele Andrisin Wittig. “‘I’m Not a Feminist, But…’: Factors Contributing to the Discrepancy between pro-Feminist Orientation and Feminist Social Identity.” Sex Roles 37, no. 11–12 (December 1997): 885–904. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02936345.