Does Identifying as a Feminist in America Matter?

During the Presidential town hall debate last week, Katherine Fenton, a 24 year old pre-K teacher asked a question about the wage-gap to the candidates: “In what new ways do you intend to rectify inequalities in the workplace? Specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn.” As was reported last week, the right immediately attempted to vilify Fenton as an ultra-radical man-hating leftist for daring to ask the question.

Irin Carmon from interviewed Fenton the next day and found out that Fenton, as the title of her article plainly states, is “absolutely not a feminist.” Fenton went on to explain, “I’m a 24-year-old woman that lives in the United States and feels like I should be treated the same as anyone else. That makes me a normal human being.”

I admit I was saddened but not completely surprised by Fenton’s statement. I reckon we all have stories about women who clearly espouse and live the values of feminism; women recognized as leaders and visionaries in their professions and the wider community who don’t use the word ‘feminist’ to describe themselves.  (Ahem, Marissa Mayer).

But it is nice to have a woman think matter-of-factly that the wage gap is everyone’s issue. Together, women and men need to solve this problem that detrimentally effects over half of population and reaches all Americans who rely on women to head or contribute to household earnings. It is not merely a ‘woman’s problem’ talked about in pink sections of the newspaper, but now put front and center with the ‘real’ political issues.

Does the label ‘feminist’ matter? The struggle for equality continues and for those of us fighting in the trenches it can seem like the ultimate betrayal. Shunning by another woman who, without the efforts of feminist women and men before her wouldn’t be able to vote or work, let alone ask a question at a presidential debate.



But if women like Fenton are being raised to put themselves first and see themselves as human, hasn’t feminism, in this instance, succeeded? This is a win! If a woman doesn’t identify with movement feminism but clearly gets the message that she’s entitled to equality of opportunity, wages, bodily autonomy et cetera, then why should we fuss over semantics? Feminists got the message out and the majority of people agree that the political, economic and social equality of the sexes is the way forward.

Let me be clear, I’d love it if every person, male or female, whose actions are without a doubt feminist, would identify as such. But they don’t. If anything, I think American women who do not choose to use the word “feminist” have that perplexing American quality that they achieved everything on their own by hoisting their bootstraps. It is disingenuous,  not to mention majorly annoying, that women who do not identify as feminists , at a minimum, do not recognize the struggles that were fought by feminists (and are still fighting) so they are allowed the full opportunities to participate and succeed in society.

I made a personal decision years ago regarding a friend of mine who does not identify as a feminist but clearly has her professional position due to the work of feminist women and men a generation before her.  She has spent over 20 years being a leader in her field and mentors her junior colleagues and spends hours volunteering her time to help sustain domestic violence shelters. She is clearly a feminist and I told her that she was.  She did not agree. I decided that I would not to force a label on her that she does not agree accurately describes her.  It is absolutely clear to me by her actions that she is a feminist whether she uses the word or not.

Men and women who do not want women’s equality have done a great job vilifying the word ‘feminist’ and turning it into a pejorative, no doubt.  And indeed, some of feminism’s biggest critics wouldn’t even have a job, let alone a voice was it not for the movement. (I want to start a blog called “Unintentional Consequences of Feminism.” Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter would be the poster-ladies!)

Feminists may debate on if or how to reclaim the f-word, but the message of feminism –of the common humanity of women– got out years ago and it’s a winner. We’re not there yet, but we will get there. With or without our people who use the word.



Photo credit garryknight via the Creative Commons License.

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