Katy Perry accepted the Woman of the Year award from Billboard two weeks ago by declaring, "I'm not a feminist, but I do believe in the power of women!" Last month, Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer also shunned the feminist label while simultaneously declaring that she "believed in equal rights."
Understandably, feminist writers find such rhetorical contradictions infuriating. But these statements don't surprise me. Many young women - and a good number of not-so-young women - are uncomfortable with being labeled as feminists, even though they embrace feminist goals.
"Feminism is female supremacist bigotry concealed beneath 'equality,'" my lawyer friend Laura said. "I don't have to be a 'feminist' to want personal freedom for myself and others, of all genders. I have to be an 'egalitarian.' And that's what I am."
Other girlfriends of mine have similar, less frank, opinions. "Of course I believe in equal rights," my friend Sarah said. "But I also like doors being opened for me." Her implication was she couldn't be a feminist because of the latter.
A world in which sexism was abolished and no one called herself a feminist would be great. But it's not the world we've actually got. I think it is worth considering why many who oppose sexism are so wary of being part of the movement that is dedicated to doing just that.
One reason women - whether they're public figures or not - denounce feminism is because feminism is controversial. There's an active role implied when one says she is a feminist and not just someone who "believes in equal rights." There is recognition that sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy are still alive and kicking, and an articulation of wanting to resist those things head on. Women may worry that the stereotypes associated with a feminist label (i.e. militant, lesbian, man-hater) will prevent others from listening to them.
There are other reasons that women might feel alienated from feminism, though.
Last month, former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy said she was not a feminist because, "I'm not at all an active feminist. On the contrary, I'm a bourgeois. I love family life, I love doing the same thing every day."
As several feminist writers point out, there is no reason you can't do all of those things and be a feminist. And yet, at the same time, that note about loving "family life" has a disturbing resonance. The fact is, feminism has had a complicated relationship with traditional family roles, and, indeed, with traditional femininity more generally.
As feminist and trans activist Julia Serano argues in her book Whipping Girl: "The scapegoating of femininity has become the Achilles' heel of the feminist movement. While past feminists have gone to great lengths to empower femaleness and to tear away all of the negative connotations that have plagued women's bodies and biology, they have allowed the negative connotations associated with femininity to persist relatively unabated."
Many women feel alienated from feminism because it appears that feminism doesn't like them. Women who value traditional expressions of femininity-whether that means wearing pink, or prioritizing family life like Bruni-Sarkozy or sacrificing themselves for their children like Hanna Rosin-can feel scorned and belittled by the feminist movement. That scorn might feel similar to the misogyny that feminism is supposed to oppose.
It's worth listening to women when they say they're not happy with feminism, rather than simply dismissing them as ignorant or explaining why their critiques aren't important. Ultimately I believe a persona's actions are more important than whether or not she calls herself a feminist. But perhaps the feminist movement could market itself better to include all women.