The Name Game

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The Daily Beast ran a poll recently about sexism and the depth of women’s anger over recent developments in American life. The poll came up with some interesting findings about women’s attitudes toward feminism: only 20% were willing to use the term “feminist” in relation to themselves and only 17% wanted their daughters to be labeled that way. The poll was conducted on the Internet with over a thousand respondents, roughly half of which were male and has a margin of error of 3.09%. Here are a couple of articles about the poll and its findings: one on the Daily Beast and one on MSN Money Central. Here also is a blog post on the Daily Beast titled
The Sexism Revival.”

The consensus seems to be that American women still think that more needs to be done in the area of women’s equality in this country. So why are so many uncomfortable with the term “feminist”? I asked one of my daughters the other day if she considered herself a feminist. She replied, “Yeah, I guess so. Although I wonder sometimes why I’m not as strong a feminist as I was when I was younger, when I used to say, ‘Women rule!'” Maybe therein lies the problem: too many people think that feminism is saying that women are superior to men in every way. I suppose it’s hard to fight for women’s rights without coming off that way. When older feminists identify a culprit, it’s usually patriarchy, which of course means males, especially white middle to upper-class males.

Younger feminists are less likely to blame men for their predicament. But I think that their attitude reflects a misunderstanding of what older feminists mean when they use the term “patriarchy.” Second Wave feminists are not blaming individual men, who are also caught up in the system. They are blaming the system. And we do live in a patriarchal society.

That is not to say that there is a conspiracy among all men to keep women down. Rather, it is a subtle process of socialization that assigns gender roles and appropriate gender behavior. Every society categorizes its members. It’s neater that way. It also makes it easier to assign blame. Unfortunately, that is a losing game. When Second Wave feminists blamed the patriarchal system, men naturally took it personally. And, in retaliation or just reaction, there was a backlash response: men began to blame women, specifically feminists.

So what it comes down to is that women are afraid to be disliked by the men in their lives, so they won’t identify themselves as feminists. They don’t even want their daughters to be categorized that way, for fear that they will lose the good opinion of and be rejected by men. Most women will protest that they they are not that insecure, but it’s not insecurity that drives them. It is the need to be accepted, to find their rightful place in society. No one wants to be shut out and lose out on all that society has to offer. But what many women don’t realize is that they are still being shut out in some areas.

The recent presidential campaign is a good example. If you read the articles I linked to above, you can’t escape the conclusion that women are still not considered to be “good enough” for public office by the majority of men in this country. Women should be incensed by their attitude. But many women act like they agree: far more women voted for Obama than Hillary. Even the fact that we use Hillary’s first name instead of her last seems to say that women aren’t taken as seriously as are men. And I don’t think it’s to differentiate her from her husband; we do the same thing to Sarah Palin–rarely does the writer or commentator leave out her first name like they do McCain’s or Obama’s. The public assumes a familiarity toward women while it treats men with formality. This implies a different status, less elevated, status.

Most women want to be respected and taken seriously. If that makes them feminists, then so be it. Claim the name.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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