Why Do Some Young Women Reject Feminism and the Label 'Feminist'?
Updated: Mar 1
Feminism has taken centre stage in recent years with the word feminist becoming commonplace. It has garnered a lot of attention in the Western media through movements like #MeToo. Popular fashion brands have printed the word across t-shirts marketed to girls and young women. Accessible books on the subject are more widespread now than ever before.
In spite of having the spotlight, recent research finds that many young women do not identify as feminists. Why are some young women unlikely to take the feminist label, even when they are committed to the principles of feminism?
Feminism: a simple definition
It's difficult to draw out one simple definition of feminism because it is a movement that means different things to different people. Check out our previous post here which outlines the history and goals of the movement in more detail.
If you type the word "feminism" into Google, it will bring up the following:
“noun: the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.”
Briefly, the political, social, personal, and economic equality of the genders is the overarching goal of feminism.
“noun: the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.”
Feminism is a collection of personal efforts, a social movement and a political ideology (a set of ideas and ideals which, normally, form the basis of a political theory) through which to establish gender equality through the empowerment of women.
Gender Equality? Yes. Feminism? No.
In 2018, the BBC published an article summarising the findings of a 2018 YouGov poll. The poll found that “8 out of 10 people in the UK said that men and women should be treated equally in every way, with many agreeing that sexism is still an issue.” But the same study found that only “34% of women said ‘“yes”’ when asked if they identified as a feminist.”
More recently in 2019, The Independent found that in the UK 67% of women aged 18-24 now identify as feminist. This is a significant increase from previous research conducted by the Fawcett Society three years earlier. Named after Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the Fawcett Society is a charity which campaigns and fights for the equal rights of women. They reported that as little as 19% of women aged 18-24 saw themselves as feminists in 2016.
Despite this recent upsurge of young women who identify as feminists, there is still a stark contrast between the number of people who believe in gender equality (the overarching goal of feminism) and the number of women who label themselves feminists. This is surprising given that feminism aims to achieve greater gender equality through female empowerment.
Feminism has not always been a movement for all women
The 2018 BBC article reported on another YouGov Poll from the same year which found that the term feminist was less likely to appeal to working class women. One in three people from the top social grade (those in managerial, administrative and professional occupations) called themselves feminists. Whereas, only one in five people from lower grades called themselves feminists. These included manual and casual workers, state pensioners, and the unemployed.
Historically, the feminist movement has not done a good job of including marginalised women. The BBC article highlights the views of US millennials: 12% of Hispanic women, 21% of African American women, and 23% of Asian women identify as feminists compared to 26% of white women.
The first and second waves of feminism are heavily criticised for being rooted in ‘whiteness’.
The truth is that feminism has not always been a movement for all women. The first and second waves of feminism are heavily criticised for being rooted in ‘whiteness’. The term waves is a metaphor which helps to explain the different phases of the feminist movement. In a 2019 article for Education Post, ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson explains that “the suffragettes were racist, opportunistic and they sold out the Black Civil Rights movement to partner with Southern, racist White women who supported and participated in domestic terrorism with the lynching of Black Americans.”
In 'Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race', Reni Eddo-Lodge explains that feminism is a work in progress. Its fourth wave is still crystallising. The concepts of privilege and intersectionality are now more present in the movement.
In short, intersectionality is a framework which considers all aspects of identity which complicate the various oppressions which marginalised women face. It recognises that these numerous injustices cannot be separated because women from minority groups experience them simultaneously.
See our recent Guide on Intersectionality for a more in-depth explanation.
Negative stereotypes about feminists
Stereotypes ascribe a certain set of (often negative) over-generalised characteristics to a person or group of people. Negative stereotypes of feminists have tended to outweigh the positive ones throughout history. For example, in the 1920s, feminists were called ‘spinsters’ and speculations were often made about their sexual orientation in an effort to mock them.
Still today, the word feminist comes hand-in-hand with negative connotations. In her book 'Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies', Scarlett Curtis tells her readers that, when she was a teenager, she had several preconceived ideas about feminism. She believed that feminists didn’t shave their legs, didn’t like boys and definitely did not wear pink.
This experience is not uncommon. Despite believing in the principles of gender equality, many young women believe that identifying as feminist means that they have to give up integral parts of their identity. After all, not every woman is a braless, hairy-legged, man-hating, angry bitch.
“the lies we have been told about feminism have been fed to us to hold us back from a movement that is actually for everyone.”
Curtis writes that “[t]he lies we have been told about feminism have been fed to us to hold us back from a movement that is actually for everyone.” In other words, the negative stereotypes about feminists help to uphold the patriarchy - the very system which feminism is working to break down.
In 2007, an article was published in Psychology of Women Quarterly researching negative stereotypes of feminists which prevent women self-identifying with the label. The negative stereotypes associated with the term ranged from “aggressive” and “opinionated” to “forceful” and “non-conformist.”
However, the article observed that the women who participated in the study actually felt there were neutral to slightly positive connotations of the term feminist. For example, they perceived feminists as “intelligent, ambitious, knowledgeable, and caring.” Despite this, the women were still reluctant to identify with the label. The article maintains that women are unwilling to identify as feminist because they believe that other people hold negative stereotypes about feminists, even when they themselves do not.
"Unfortunately, we do not yet live in a society which celebrates women for speaking their minds and prioritising their feelings over the judgement of others."
This is an issue which is systemic. Unfortunately, we do not yet live in a society which celebrates women for speaking their minds and prioritising their feelings over the judgement of others. It is not the negative stereotypes alone which prevent women from self-identifying as feminists. It is the way in which women, from birth, are conditioned to think and behave by restrictive societal norms and narrow gender stereotypes.
As it enters a new wave, feminism is becoming a more inclusive movement where, hopefully, all women will feel represented. We need to continue to question feminism as it develops and evolves. We also need to challenge the reductive images attached to the feminist label. As soon as we realise that the negative stereotypes of feminists are a web of lies woven by a system that is designed to benefit men, we will realise that feminism can be a movement for everyone.
Ultimately, it does not matter what we call ourselves or how others define us. Simply deciding to take the label ‘feminist’ does not, in itself, make us feminists. It is our beliefs and our actions which shape us and our activism. It is up to you how you choose to express yourself.
If you want to learn more about feminism, here are some good resources to get started:
'Feminist Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies' by Scarlett Curtis
'Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race' by Reni Eddo-Lodge
'I Weigh' with Jameela Jamil (a podcast which you can find on Spotify and Apple podcasts)
@I_weigh on Instagram
For more articles and resources, head to our dedicated Feminism & Gender Issues section.