Marissa Mayer, newly-appointed Yahoo CEO, has said that she does not consider herself a feminist:
I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don’t, I think have, sort of, the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that.
The response to this from women who do claim that title is predictably disappointed and frustrated. The assumption is that Mayer’s position is a calculated move to avoid rocking the boat in a male-dominated field. Writing for Slate, Amanda Marcotte expresses the common view:
I will give credit to Mayer for her blunt explanation of why she won’t embrace the movement that shares her stated values and has allowed her to be who she is…As long as we all understand that “militant” and “chip on the shoulder” are euphemisms for “willingness to challenge sexism directly, even though it means that men will yell at you,” it doesn’t get more clear than that.
There is certainly something to that. The irony of so many reactionary voices accusing women and people of color of attempting to use their identities to gain special treatment is that members of both groups are far more likely to ignore prejudice in order to avoid being singled out. Everyone wants to feel like they belong and nothing isolates a person more than standing up in a meeting or during an outing with friends or coworkers and calling someone out for crossing the line. Every woman or person of color in an office full of men/whites has a story about a time when she bit her tongue in order to avoid being one of those.
That said, I don’t think we should be so quick to chalk Mayer’s comments up to capitulation to patriarchy. Her views are shared by millions of women who are not in male-dominated fields, who don’t necessarily have as much to lose by embracing that title. There are women who will speak loudly and proudly about their support for reproductive freedom, equal pay, Title IX, programs combatting violence against women, etc but who still would not call themselves feminists.
There are several factors at play here. No doubt, popular portrayals of feminists as humorless hypocrites do not help, and in every marginalized group, there is a division among those eager for sustained, uncompromising confrontation and those (perhaps overly) concerned about being labeled troublemakers. But to have such large numbers of women disavow any connection with feminism, even as they accept most or all of its precepts, needs more explaining.
I don’t remember a time in my life when I did not identify as a feminist. I grew up in a neighborhood in which almost all of the children my age were boys; my mother’s friends and both my parents’ siblings had far more sons than daughters. From a very, very early age, the adults in my life were constantly reminding me that I could not do many of the things that my friends could do because I was required to be ladylike. These scoldings only ever succeeded in making me angry at the thought that I should be limited in ways that my peers, who were no different from me in any meaningful way, were not.
This was the source of my feminism: an unarticulated fury at not being allowed to make my own choices without the interference of others. It had little to do with other people’s attitudes or opinions about what I should be. I didn’t care that pejoratives like dirty, rough, obnoxious, willful and, later, loose might be attached to me in the minds of people around me (as one well-intentioned neighbor once pointed out to me when I was around 12, people will make assumptions about a girl who is always seen surrounded by boys). My only question was, am I able to do the things that I want to do?
How that question is answered by women around the country varies according to their class, race, education, ethnic background, and aspirations. There is certainly a lot more to be done in terms of removing obstacles placed in front of women in both their professional and personal lives.
But it is also true that much of the discussion being had by some feminists feels tangential to this question. I rarely recognize myself or my concerns in the posts I read on feminist blogs, and I often find them disempowering. I’ve found myself thinking several times over the years that the only people who have ever made me feel as though I were a frail flower, unable to handle the vicissitudes of adulthood without a big strong protector to carry me through are women calling themselves feminists.
The message I’d like to come away with is, here’s what you can do. The message I usually come away with is, here’s what they’re doing to you. It’s one thing to note some injustice and call for political or social action to combat it. It’s another to take to the internet to scold some powerless jackass who has said/written/done something offensive. Or to pretend that The Media, is a monolithic and irresistible force that necessarily dictates how we see ourselves and each other.
Where someone in power—a legislator or a supervisor, or boss—is working against me, it makes sense to yell about it from the rooftops. But in all other cases, I feel perfectly capable of telling the offender where to go and how to get there and going on with my life. Better yet, I’m happy to ignore him all together.
There seem to be no shortage of women who enjoy writing and reading about what men and some not terribly empowered women think about women’s rights, and I suppose it’s none of my business that this discussion is going on, even if I personally find it unhelpful. I can ignore that discussion just as I ignore the odd “Men’s Rights Advocate” obsessed with his oppression by the all-powerful matriarchy, without giving up my own very strong identity with the word “feminist.” For me, that identity has been with me too long and meant too much to let someone else take it away.
But I can’t blame those women who take it a step farther and disavow the term along with the somewhat insular community that seems to own it.