Posted by: Kirsty | December 19, 2008

Why is “feminist” such a dirty word?

One of the things I have long wondered is why so many women today are afraid of being labelled as a feminist. Wanting equal rights for women – ie, what I understand feminism to be, albeit put very simply – has just always been common sense to me. In the past couple of years, as I have devoted more time and energy to reading about feminism, following feminist blogs, and so on, it has dawned on me just how many women seem to actually be scared of the word “feminism”. That they will be seen as a “feminazi” (god, how I hate that term), as some kind of humourless extremist, as a killjoy who can’t take a joke.

These opinions are an utter mystery to me. Or if it’s not that, it’s the “I’m alright Jack” argument: “Well, I’ve never been discriminated against and I’m a girl”. Well, I’m white, I’ve never been discriminated against because of my race, but I sure as hell hate racism and will do what I can to combat it.

Anyway, more proof (as if it were needed) of this broad, negative view of feminism came to me today by way of a Guardian interview with Kate Winslet. It contained this paragraph:

I ask whether she liked the Friedan book. “Yeah, I did. God, she was a feisty chick.” Does Winslet feel that she’s a feminist? “I think I probably am, aren’t I?” Her assistant hurriedly adds, “In a loose, unofficial kind of way,” but Winslet continues to ponder. “I think I probably am. I mean, not in a bra-burning way. But I think I am a feminist, yeah.”

Three things strike me about this. One: the fact she had to think about whether she was a feminist or not. Maybe I’m coming at this from the wrong angle, but I still rub my eyes in disbelief whenever I encounter a woman who doesn’t regard herself as a feminist automatically. It just seems like common sense, as I said. Perhaps I am being stubborn and immovable. I don’t know. At least she comes down on the feminist side – this is a relief.

Two: her assistant’s reaction. Oh my god! Why would it be such a bad thing for a massive filmstar like Ms Winslet to be known as an identifying feminist? Will people stop going to see her films? Will the film industry therefore collapse and films will never be made again? Is the assistant trying to avoid her charge being forever known as “Kate Winslet – feminist”? And if so, why? WHY? Are feminists just uniformly seen as bad? Is that really where we are after this much struggle? Christ, that’s depressing.

Three: Winslet’s assurance that she isn’t a “bra-burning” feminist. Phew! Well that’s alright then! She’s one of them nice feminists, plainly. Not one of those evil, nasty feminists who go about demanding to be treated like human beings. Heaven forfend!

*sigh* What is it going to take to make people – men and women – realise that feminism is important NOW. We need campaigns for women’s rights in a 21st century where women are still paid less than men, where rape convictions are at an all-time low, when women are woefully under-represented in politics, when domestic and sexual abuse is the number one cause of death and serious injury to women worldwide, and when politicians are still trying to ban abortion.

Goddammit, this just makes me angry. Depressed and angry.



  1. Yes, it’s weird. Lots of people seem to have a mental image of a feminist as a badly dressed, loud-mouthed, man hating female.
    Hillary Clinton is seen by many Americans as a feminist and therefore evil, whereas those same Americans adored Sarah Palin because, so they said, she was not one of those feminist types.

  2. Quite agree, Anna. It’s horrendous and incredibly frustrating.

  3. I also find the term “Feminazi” particularly offensive. Not only is it disrespectful to the victims of the Nazis , it is also comparing all of the women (and even some men for that matter) who have argued and peacefully fought for equal rights between men and women to the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Even if the people using this term only apply it to what they say are “the most radical” Feminists, it is illogical. Such people might realise how ironic the term is if they acquainted themselves with just how misogynistic and patriarchal the Nazis’ policies towards women were.

  4. Although fear of the actual label feminist is irksome, what’s even worse is the fear of appearing angry or oversensitive if one calls out sexism or harassment.

  5. It’s funny, because feminists did not even really burn bras if I remember my feminist history correctly.

    For years, years, years, I used to say “I’m not a feminist! I’m a humanist!” It comes from misinformation. I simply DID NOT KNOW what feminism was/is or represented.

    We’re inundated with so many messages of “we’re equal! we’re equal! we’re equal!” that it seems like it hard for most women to make the connection. Like, wait a second…no…we have a lonnnnnng way to go.

  6. The problem is that ‘feminism’ has been given such a narrow definition and has been manipulated (particularly by advertising agencies and Government bodies) to serve other ends that many women have, rightly, become suspicious of the term.

    Surely the problem is the attempt to trap women in a corner, label them ‘feminist’ and then actually diminish their freedom and power.

    Hilary Clinton ‘v.’ Sarah Palin is a classic false ccontrast which definitely does not serve women’s interests.

    I am such a feminist that I refuse to be labelled a ‘feminist’ ESPECIALLY by men. It’s a blind alley sisters and one which is set up as a trap. Refuse to play their game and step outside the box. We’re wasting time and energy dancing to their tune. You don’t have to ‘call’ yourself anything -don’t forget that !

  7. I was in the so called ‘first wave’ so my daughter tells me anyway, of the sixties and I do not recall anybody burning their bra. Just got up by the press of the day to show what a deranged lot of mad women we all were with our boobs swinging about under our tshirts and dungarees of course.

    I don’t think I am a feminist – I KNOW I am one. Part of my life and I don’t have to shout about it, boast about it, or hide it either. And I have raised two independent feminist daughters, one whose thesis was on Gender History.


  8. “Wanting equal rights for women … has just always been common sense to me.”

    That’s just it. The “good” values of feminism are common sense so most people don’t see the need to ascribe them to a label. The reason to apply a label to yourself is to differentiate from the norm; since the “good” values typically are the norm, the label becomes associated differences which are mostly the “bad” values.


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