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Web Event #3: Unbinding the Feminist Stereotype

ccassidy's picture

     The first wave of feminism was characterized by its overwhelming strength and empowered voice for the women who had been oppressed by the male gender.  During that era, feminism became a radical notion supported by women who would not be silenced by a ruling class.  Since then, the dynamics of feminism have changed to focus on intersectional identities as a more inclusive method of removing a broader oppressive force.  However, a negative stereotype concerning feminists has persisted, enforcing the idea that anyone who identifies with a feminist policy is automatically a flaming radical who harbors a deep hatred of the male gender.  While many feminists still fight against a traditional, male-dominated society that is still present, post-modern feminists are beginning to focus their attention on a more general entity that is being oppressive.  This new sector of modern feminists looks less at oppression in terms of gender but as a force brought on by anyone suppressing a voice or opinion.  It is time for the negative stereotype surrounding feminists to be deconstructed and unbound so that the feminist movement can be accessible to all intersectional identities.

            I know that many Bryn Mawr students have experienced the small scoff or bewildered glances when we mention that we attend an all women’s institution.  These actions are usually accompanied by questions and comments that can range from slightly rude generalizations to offensive remarks about sexual orientation and radical liberalism.  Not every Bryn Mawr, or any all women’s college student, will have this experience.  However, a majority of my peers have returned from Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks fuming because of interactions they had with relatives and friends concerning the negative stereotype associated with our specific education system and feminist tendencies.  I had one of these experiences most recently with a relative who asked if I would come home “all radical” after taking our Critical Feminist Studies.  It seems that so many people are so accustomed to associating anything remotely feminist with a negative, radical theology that they cannot recognize that feminist theories and methodologies have constantly evolved as supporters have achieved and gained new causes.  Feminism should be unbound from gender to rid the socio-political world of a negative stereotype and create an inclusive forum for the voiceless and the oppressed.

            Removing this ‘feminist’ stereotype may be my intended end goal of this version of unbound feminism; however, this year and a half have made me curious as to how this stigma has developed and been perpetuated.  In the article “The F Word: College Students’ Definition of a Feminist,” Shannon Houvouras and J. Scott Carter explore the reasoning behind student’s desire to support feminist ideals but lack of desire to publically identify as a feminist.  Houvouras and Carter discovered a study, which focused on student’s reasons for disliking the feminist identifier that came to the conclusion that “individuals who embrace feminist principles may reject a feminist identity as a result of negative media images and stereotypes associated with the term ‘feminist’” (239).  Society’s misconception of feminism and the feminist movement has developed a trend where college students no longer feel empowered by identifying as a feminist as they now have an underlying fear of judgment and criticism.  The study also described the different components of the negative stereotype as including “stubborn, angry, opinionated, outspoken, radical, anti-male, and, a lesser degree, lesbian” (240).  If these are the traits associated with being a feminist, then many people would ask why someone should include this in their personal identity? Women and men are now feeling the pressure to conform to the societal ideal that feminism is automatically related to unbending radicalism and gender exclusivity.  Unbound feminism needs to take the next step to strip the labels of gender from the constitution so that this stereotype can be dissolved and an inclusive and cohesive movement created.

            This misconception the all feminists are prejudiced against the male gender is an unfair representation of feminism as a whole.  To unbind this traditional definition of feminism and it’s associated stereotype, it is necessary to remove gender identification to focus on a general approach to achieve overall equality.  In the article “Feminists or “Postfeminists”?: Young Women’s Attitudes towards Feminism Relations,” Pamela Aronson interviewed a group of young women, asking them probing question about their different views on feminism.  The results varied greatly depending on the interviewee’s upbringing and educational background; however, many agreed that feminism did not have to be characterized by a complete dependence on the separation of men from the movement.  While these women also had very different definitions of feminism, most mentioned that they “did not want to distance [themselves] from men” (916).  In order to unbind the traditional definition of feminism, this deconstruction needs to be taken one step further.  In general, gender should be stripped from the definition of feminism to dissolve this negative light that has been cast on feminists.  Society needs to recognize that this modernized version of feminism includes all intersectional identities including race, class, sexuality and gender representation

            As feminism developed over time, different sectors became more involved and expanded the notion of intersectional identities being the key component of the movement.  These different branches of feminism are prime examples of inclusive forums that should debunk the ‘male hatred’ stereotype, the aggressive stereotype, the radical stereotype and any others.  As these branches began to encompass a significant number of identities, a certain branch was developed as a means of protecting the voiceless.  Ecofeminism is a fairly recent development in the feminist movement; however, it has gained traction as people begin to understand the logic of giving voices to the voiceless, including men, women, animals, plants, etc.  In the article “Ma(r)king Essence-Ecofeminism and Embodiment,” Richard T. Twine discusses the varying nuances of ecofeminism and how it functions through loose coalitions versus separate identities.  Twine emphasizes the importance of thinking about “the diversity within each category” to avoid any kind of oppressive voice that could leave any entity voiceless (48).  It is this type of feminism that needs to be exposed to the public more frequently because it highlights the inclusivity of the modern feminist movement.  Feminism is no longer strictly reserved for women who have a desire to work against an oppressive male force.  Branches of feminism that inclusive of all intersectional identities, such as ecofeminism, provide strong evidence for the deconstruction of the negative feminist stereotype.

            There are many people in the world that identify as feminists or support feminist goals and many of those people subscribe to varying definitions and theories of feminism.  That being said, recent developments in feminist politics have created forums for intersectional identities that will no longer appear to exclude the male gender.  It is quite possible that the revolutionary force that was first wave feminism is where this stereotype was first formed as non-supporters were angered or could not comprehend the first wave feminist vision and quickly made generalizations about the women that supported the movement.  But feminism has evolved since then to address more current issues and, therefore, can longer be characterized by this oversimplification of the supporters of the movement. This stereotype has been perpetuated and exaggerated for too long and it is not applicable to a modern feminist movement.  Unbinding feminism must first begin with the deconstruction of this stereotype so that the movement can progress with the inclusion of all intersectional identities and work towards the common goal of protecting or providing a voice for the voiceless.





Work Cited

-Aronson, Pamela. "Feminists or "Postfeminists"?: Young Women's Attitudes toward

    Feminism and Gender Relations." Gender and Society. 17.6 (2003): 903-922. Jstor.

-Houvouras, Shannon, and J. Scott Carter. "The F Word: College Student's Definitions

     of a Feminist." Sociology Forum. 23.2 (2008): 234-256. Jstor. 

-Twine, Richard T. "Ma(r)king Essence-Ecofeminism and Embodiment." Ethics and

   the Environment. 6.2 (2001): 31-58. Jstor.    


Anne Dalke's picture


You've done a nice job here of finding some studies about college students' understanding of feminism, with a particular focus on women students not wanting to distance themselves from men, a fear they take from stereotypes about second-wave (not first-wave, as you say) feminism.

Second wave feminism explicitly refused male ideals and behaviors; first wave feminism, arguably, copied them (as a colleague of mine likes to quip, "Bryn Mawr is where women could come to learn to think like men.")

This leads me to a couple of questions:
* would you like to conduct a Bryn Mawr survey, to find out more about what the understanding of feminism is here on campus? (what might you predict the answers will look like?)
* if the problem here is the persistence of (inaccurate) stereotypes, how to deconstruct and intervene that those misperceptions?
* is it being more male-friendly or more plant-friendly that most interests you? (I was surprised by the appearance of eco-feminism in this paper...)