I once asked my friend if she was a feminist. Her response: Of course not.
Why not? Feminism, by its strict dictionary definition, is simply the idea of guaranteed equality between men and women — an idea evident to almost everyone today. So why is there such a distaste for the term? Why doesn’t everyone identify as a feminist?
This aversion to the word “feminism” is not uncommon: The well-publicized portrayal of feminists as angry, man-hating women has perpetuated the notion that feminism is destructive, dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. As a result, people who support the ideals of feminists do not identify as feminists, and those who do identify as such are marginalized and immediately labeled as radicals.
Because of this, Stanford’s Women’s Community Center (WCC) decided to launch a campaign to change this negative perception — plastering “Of Course I’m A Feminist” bumper stickers on laptops, doors and water bottles all across campus. According to the WCC, this campaign, complete with a punk rock font and sparkly background, sought to reclaim the word “feminist” and the full implication of its meaning.
“The purpose was to get the word out about the WCC as well as the different concepts of feminism,” said Faith Kazmi, associate dean and director of the WCC. “The ‘Of Course I’m a Feminist’ idea was meant to be an opportunity for students to define what feminism means to them and to invite others to ask the question, ‘why?’”
From the WCC’s perspective, these stickers have been “overwhelmingly positive,” with students specifically coming to the WCC to request a sticker and boxes of stickers being sent to other universities. Yet despite the visibility and support these stickers have enjoyed, there has also been considerable backlash against it. Around the dining halls and even in my dorm, I’ve heard students comment on how much they dislike the stickers and hate seeing them on campus.
“Why do we even need feminism?” someone in my dorm asked me when I brought up the issue. “Why do we need to point out that we support equal rights? That should be obvious.”
Is it obvious, though?
Today, women are still paid far less than their male counterparts, promoted far less frequently and subjected to far more scrutiny and harassment at the workplace. Today, women are still forced to make unfair choices between family and work because of the huge disadvantages they face if they take maternity leave, while men are not required to make the same decisions.
Today, women account for 95 percent of domestic violence survivors and 91 percent of rape survivors and endure excruciating emotional and physical trauma, yet students still casually talk about “raping” their midterms and finals. Today, women are still objectified in magazines and ads, paraded around in pageants to be gawked at, and exploited in mainstream music from internationally respected artists. And though many women engage in these acts intentionally and are paid well as a result, these incidents nevertheless perpetuate the notion that women are sexual objects — not to be taken seriously, but to be degraded at will.
Equal rights? That’s not obvious at all.
In reality, feminism cuts much deeper than just shallow proclamations that men and women are equal. Calling ourselves feminists establishes recognition of the inequalities that still remain and reaffirms our commitment to eliminate these underlying issues so entrenched in the fabric of our society. Dismissing feminism only creates the incentive to dismiss the ideas of gender equality altogether — to overlook the fundamental, structural changes that our culture so desperately needs.
The goal should not be to remove “feminism” from our vernacular or to avoid using the word altogether, but rather to arrive at a point where the term — much like the term “abolitionist” — becomes obsolete. We want to arrive at a point in history where it means nothing to be called a feminist, since at that point there would be no need to draw a distinction between the way the world is and the way we think it should be.
This won’t happen in a day, a week, or perhaps not even in years, but we need to work toward progress nonetheless. And the first step comes through reclaiming the word “feminism” and what it really stands for.
“I think [the bumper stickers] send a great message that people are publicly willing to identify with feminism,” Kazmi concurred. “[They] have fulfilled the purpose of contributing to the conversations about gender equality, sexism, patriarchy and feminisms in a subtle yet sparkly way.”
Displaying this sticker is thus a simple yet enormously powerful gesture. Visible all across campus, these bumper stickers intend to show us that feminists aren’t radicals, but rather everyday individuals all around us, committed to seeing an idea as simple as gender equality manifest itself in reality.
Because only once deeming yourself a feminist doesn’t immediately label you as angry and extreme — only once being a feminist becomes the norm and not the exception will we finally be able to make true, structural progress toward gender equality.
Contact Kimberly Tan at email@example.com.