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Feminists Who Reject the Feminist Label II

WMST-L has had several discussions of how to discuss feminism with students who
say "I'm not a feminist, but..." even though they may hold feminist views on 
many issues.  The following two-part discussion took place on WMST-L in 
September 2008.  For a discussion on a similar theme that took place fifteen 
years earlier (!), see the file 'Feminists Who Reject the Feminist Label'.  
For additional WMST-L files available on the Web, see the
WMST-L File Collection..

Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 11:41:39 -0500
From: Shaunanne Tangney <shaunanne.tangney AT MINOTSTATEU.EDU>
Subject: I'm not a feminist, but..
Hello, List--

I  have a question.  I'm currently teaching a 200-level "women and lit"
course that is, obviously, based in feminist theory.  During the first
several days of the semester I talk/engage discussion/lecture about what
feminism is and what sexism is, etc.  I have asked my students once (all
18-20 year old women) why people often don't self-identify as feminists--and
that discussion went nowhere.  We'll be going over Post-feminism on Friday,
and this question is even more germane here, and I want to ask the question
again: why don't people self-identify as feminists?  (Indeed, this question
seems doubly germane, given the nomination of Sarah Palin, and we devote
time each day to discuss current events).

Does anyone out there have any suggestions as to how I might get them to
really think--and talk--about this issue?  Pending another silent
discussion, does anyone want to share their own thoughts on the question,
that I could in turn share with the class? (I find it works better for me to
say what others think rather than just me talking which can lead students to
identify me as the big feminist monster, you know?!).

Thanks in advance for your ideas--

ShaunAnne Tangney
Associate Professor of English
Division of Humanities
Minot State University
500 University Ave. W.
Minot, ND  58707
sa.tangney AT
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 11:50:03 -0500
From: Michael J. Murphy <mjmurphy AT WUSTL.EDU>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
Ask them to work in small groups to produce a list of words associated
with the word 'feminism.' Not words they necessarily agree with but words
that they hear used. Then bring them back together to talk about those
words, whether they are factual, and how they might encourage or inhibit
some from identifying as a feminist. I find, if I start with what they
already know, and then work out from there, things go along just fine.

Best of luck!

Mike Murphy

Michael J. Murphy, PhD, Lecturer
Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program
Campus Box 1078/220 McMillan Hall
Washington University in St. Louis
St. Louis MO 63130-4899
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 12:56:30 -0400
From: Christine M. Doran <dorancm AT POTSDAM.EDU>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
I often do something similar to Mike's suggestion. The brainstorming of
words associated with feminism often produces contradictions and I find it
helps them to think about how one term does/doesn't mean those
contradictory terms. I also often try to get them to think about the
history of some of the terms--knowing that things weren't always the way
they are now sometimes helps break open their thinking.

best of luck,


Christine M. Doran
Dept of English and Communications
Potsdam College
Potsdam, NY 13676
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 09:58:42 -0700
From: Wendy Griffin <wgriffin AT CSULB.EDU>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
You might ask them to write down anonymously what the word feminism means.
I do that in my 100 level class and get good results. Then we discuss who
gets to define feminism and why.

Wendy Griffin, Chair
Dept. of Women's Studies
wgriffin AT
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 13:07:09 -0400
From: Nancy Gobatto <ngobatto AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
perhaps you know this but jessica valenti discusses this in a brief piece
'i'm not a feminist, but...' in the collection We Don't Need Another Wave.
She also discusses it in her own book...whose title escapes me. she
discusses the idea of 'closet feminists' which i've always found useful in
these discussions.  and i always try to get them to name all the stereotypes
of feminists they can think of that would make someone reluctant to identify
as one even if they hold most of the basic tenants to be valid.

perhaps this is too basic for what you've asked for but perhaps not...


nancy gobatto
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 13:13:11 -0400
From: Reese Kelly <rck517 AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
I have had the same problem in some of my classes, finding that
especially women who experience a certain degree of privilege do not
identify as feminists and can't really articulate why.  In some
courses I have actually had more men identifying as feminists than
women.  I think what others have suggested for activities/discussion
are great.  It might also be helpful to show your students what "young
feminists" are doing like video blogging and such.  Have them check
out websites like  Knowing what it means to be a
feminist in this generation might help! :)
Reese Carey Kelly
Doctoral Candidate
Department of Sociology
University at Albany, SUNY
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 13:08:39 -0400
From: janet hagen <jhag6459 AT POSTOFFICE.URI.EDU>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
Hi -
Outside of class (before the second day that we meet), I have the students
interview five people, asking them to define "feminism." They are to write
down the responses and each person's body language when she/he answers. When
we meet in class again, I circle around the room and ask each student to
share one response. (I keep going until everyone's lists are exhausted.) (As
the students are giving their answers, I write them on the board and divide
them up -- one side "positive" and the other "negative.") When they are
finished, we then deconstruct the definitions -- where they come from, any
assumptions they might have made about the people they interviewed (and
where those assumptions come from; for example, one student assumed a male
football player would have a negative definition, when he had one of the
most "enlightened, which led to a great discussion about who are feminists,
problems with stereotyping, etc.). We also talk surprises, patterns, etc.
(Students love this exercise and really get engaged trying to figure out why
there are so many misconceptions about feminism and then what it really
means to be a feminist.)

Good luck -

Janet Hagen
jhag6459 AT
Women's Studies Program
University of Rhode Island
Kingston, RI
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 10:13:45 -0700
From: elizabeth renfro <erenfro AT CSUCHICO.EDU>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
A dated but still (alas) useful article is Lisa Hogeland's (sp?) article
from Ms., "Fear of Feminism."
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 17:14:50 +0000
From: Trixie Films <info AT TRIXIEFILMS.COM>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
For a video option, please check out our documentary "I Was A Teenage Feminist" which asks why young progressive women don't want to be called feminists. Info at and
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 13:16:14 -0400
From: Reese Kelly <rck517 AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
Jessica Valenti is the executive editor of and one
of her books is He's a Stud, She's a Slut, but I'm  not sure if this
topic is addressed in that book.

Reese Carey Kelly
Doctoral Candidate
Department of Sociology
University at Albany, SUNY
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 10:17:11 -0700
From: Sarah L. Rasmusson <sarahrasmusson AT YAHOO.COM>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
HI ShuanAnne:

I really think there is something much more complicated going on with undergraduates'/youths unwillingness to identify with feminism. At the same time feminism has always been represented as white in the mainstream media (and now post-feminism is represented as white, too), I maintain that young people know on some level that to claim feminism is to claim whiteness; which puts them in an intriguing and conflicting political position. Thus, the reasons why young people shy away from feminism may go beyond the pat analysis of fears of stereotypes (ie. feminists are hair, ugly, lesbians, etc.)

The recent white flight of young people -- especially young white feminists under 30/the "youtube" generation -- away from Hillary Clinton's campaign (which hailed her as the woman/feminist candidate) is telling. Some of my recent work speculates that Clinton's campaign's unwillingness to unpack and deal with the identification of whiteness=feminism is part of what cost her the nomination, especially given the long-standing and problematic idealization of the relationship between white women/white feminists/suffragists and black men (ie. Obama, as they were often pictured side by side on news magazine covers) in the history of the US (i.e. lynching, Emmett Till - when Till, Clinton, and Obama are all from Illinois, etc.). 

While the suggestions already posted -- to ask students to break into groups and identity ideas/concepts/stereotypes about feminism -- are always productive in the classroom, you might like to open up a race discussion as well and ask, "What racial images do you associate with feminism?"

I'm going to repost a previous response here -- your question comes up a lot on this listserv. And, I'm sure Joan will soon point you to the archives... 

On Mar 27, 2008, at 9:55 PM, Sarah L. Rasmusson wrote:

> When I hear undergraduates talk about why they are not
> a feminist or not interested in WGS courses (we've all
> been dealing with the "I'm not a feminist, but..."
> situation for a few years now), the responses aren't
> monolithic. 
> I can *hear* very different responses from young white
> women compared to undergrads of color: some young
> white women seem to hail the post-feminist position
> (feminism is *so* over!) but some young women of color
> seem to register a certain uncomfortability with
> feminism/WGS for a different reason. 
> This is anecdotal, but there might also be a way that
> the critical race critique (among other critiques) of
> WGS and feminism is now "in the drinking water" and
> perceived/felt by students. We talk alot about how
> feminism is "in the drinking water" or mainstreamed in
> our culture (i.e. postfeminism), but the internal
> criticism of feminism & WGS may be now, too.
> I think there is much cause for pause here about  what
> 'post-feminism" is and how that might/might not be
> connected to the decline in the interest and
> institutional support for WGS programs and departments
> in the US and UK.
> When I see the media talk about post-feminism or
> allege that feminism is dead/unnecessary, I see
> propped up as the 'image' of feminism a lot of skinny,
> urbanista, fashionista, hypersexual but
> non-procreative SWFs - single white females. (And
> those of us invested in teaching about and fighting
> for reproductive rights know that the media image of
> the single white female without children is the flip
> side of the over-reproducing woman of color). 
> Beginning with the infamous 1998 Time magazine cover
> featuring Ally McBeal next to Gloria Steinem and Betty
> Friedan with the question, "Is Feminism Dead?" (which
> debuted the week after the HBO series, "Sex and the
> City" by the way), we've literally been awash in a
> multi-media onslaught of postfeminism over the last
> decade.  
> Did we miss an opportunity to respond with sass to
> this ridiculousness and say, "Yeah, if that's your
> image of feminism, well maybe it is time for it to
> die" ??  
> Unfortunately, when I read texts about postfeminism
> (and I've got a biblio I'd be happy to share) I am
> also mostly reading concerns by middle-aged white
> women that do not discuss women's movements as white,
> whiteness, or historical constructions of white
> womanhood. 
> I can't help thinking the concern over "post-feminism"
> is largely a way that white feminism maintains it's
> own relevance. Possibly there's a certain privilege to
> "post" here that needs to be explored....
> McRobbie's article ignores how WGS and feminism might
> be complicit in it's own "demise" if we really assess
> it as such. 
> David raised the ideas of new pedagogies and
> scholarship. What are the WGS program/departmental
> linkages with Afro-Am Studies, with Latino-Latina Am
> Studies, with Asian-Am studies, etc.? McRobbie lays
> fault at changes in the economy and job market -- but
> what are our own citational practices -- how many of
> us use anthologies and collections in intro level
> classes rather than assign new books by new and young
> scholars who are part of the publish-or-perish "tenure
> book" machinery? Are we supporting our own new
> scholars? 
> Those of use in grad school, especially in Cultural
> Studies, are very familiar with (and I for one am
> grateful for) McRobbie's work in two new fields:
> feminist cultural studies and Girls' Studies.  
> Coming out of the British CS tradition, her criticism
> of Dick Hebdige's boy centrism in punk subculture
> studies really paved the way for a new generation of
> those of us as young women scholars to look at DIY
> culture, consumer culture, like embattled 'girl power'
> for instance, and renewed sources of everyday feminism
> (not to champion neoliberal consumerism) -- that meet
> many youths 'on the ground' where they are at
> especially in the age of the almighty global
> hamburger, Spice Girls, and Wonderbra. 
> Besides, 'postfeminism' has a long history - in the US
> a Greenwich Village literary group declared themselves
> 'postfeminist' in 1919, as documented by Susan Faludi
> in Backlash (p. 50).
> Anway, I feel the need to state that I am a feminist,
> a white woman invested in critical histories of
> whiteness, and someone who sees the value in fighting
> for the institutional power/status of WGS at the same
> time we engage critically from within. 
> Is the idea of postfeminism and the possbility of the
> crisis of the discipline/decline of WGS a conversation
> we need to have with ourselves behind closed doors?
> In solidarity-SR

Sarah L. Rasmusson
Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH)
University of Illinois
srasmus AT
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 10:15:26 -0700
From: Sally J Markowitz <smarkowi AT WILLAMETTE.EDU>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
I often start WGS classes, especially introductory ones, by asking
students to ask four or five people (you could specify that they ask other
young women) how they define feminism and whether or not they count
themselves as feminists.  This has always worked well -- it seems to put
students at ease (for that moment, at least!).
Best of luck--
Sally Markowitz
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 13:24:10 -0400
From: Daphne Patai <daphne.patai AT SPANPORT.UMASS.EDU>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
It seems to me that the disinclination to identify oneself as a feminist is
rooted in certain realities of the feminism of the past few decades. I.e.,
it's not, in my view, a result of bad press, backlash, or anti-feminist
propaganda, but a response to real attitudes of (some) real feminists, who
are doctrinaire, antagonistic to men and heterosexuality, reductive in their
thinking about the patriarchal world, and in a variety of other ways present
an ideological rigidity that can't help but alienate all who have different
ideas (and I'm speaking now of those within, broadly speaking, feminism, not
its actual enemies).  I've argued as much in the new chapters of my book
(co-authored with Noretta Koertge),  Professing Feminism: Education and
Indoctrination in Women's Studies (new/expanded edition 2003).

While I know my criticisms are usually dismissed on this list, I continue to
find it ironic that the list itself often demonstrates what I've long
considered a key problem within feminism: intolerance. Thus, I have no
trouble understanding why certain significant aspects of contemporary
feminism  might  turn off people who want to be able to think for
themselves: the tendency to circle the wagons and  make critics (rather than
their ideas) the object of denunciations hardly inspires confidence.

D. patai 
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 13:24:00 -0400
From: Donna Bickford <dbickford AT UNC.EDU>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
I've also had success with a version of Mike's activity.  It apparently seems less risky to them to be able to say what "other" people think and not necessarily to own those ideas.  And, if they don't come up with some of the really "harsh" ones, I bring them up.

Janet Hagen, who is on this listserv, has sent students out to interview others about their reaction to feminisms/feminists.  Students are often amazed at the reactionary answers they get.

Donna M. Bickford, Ph.D.
dbickford AT
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 13:22:44 -0400
From: Joan Korenman <jskor AT GL.UMBC.EDU>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
ShaunAnne, you might also want to take a look at an earlier discussion that took place on WMST-L in October 1993 (!) entitled "Feminists Who Reject the Feminist Label."  You can find it in the WMST-L File Collection.; the specific URL is .  (Perhaps I'll update that file by adding the current discussion, which has included some interesting suggestions.)


	Joan Korenman, WMST-L's Official Nag
	jskor AT
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 10:46:31 -0700
From: Kim Snowden <klsn AT SHAW.CA>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
I teach a women in lit class and deal with similar issues in the first few
classes - many of the exercises mentioned here have also been useful in my
classes.  This term I am also assigning a chapter of Jessica Valenti's
excellent book - Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why
Feminism Matters (Seal Press, 2007).  The first chapter covers theses issues
and also discusses postfeminism - but the rest of the book is also fabulous.
Kim Snowden, Ph.D
Women's & Gender Studies
University of British Columbia
Co-editor, thirdspace
kim AT
"She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain"
- Louise May Alcott, _Work_ (1873)
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 11:26:16 -0700
From: Dina Giovanelli <dinagiovanelli AT>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
Hi ShaunAnne,
I do many of the things that others have suggested, including having students write their ideas about feminism and feminists down, followed by a short (10 minute) video entitled The F Word (2006).á The video covers many different people's ideas about feminism, and generally, having been coupled with the student lists, does a great job of generating conversation -- including dialogue on issues of different types of feminism, and where we get our ideas about feminism and feminists. 


Dina L. Giovanelli, MS 
Doctoral Candidate
Department of Sociology 

Women's Studies Program
University of Connecticut 
Beach Hall U-2181
Storrs, CT 06269
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 12:00:36 -0700
From: Jessica Nathanson <janathanson AT>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
I think that there is a lot of truth in Sarah's and Daphne's comments.  In the feminist blogosphere, I've witnessed many, many radical women of color either dropping the name "feminism" or having serious discussion about whether or not to keep it.  These conversations often happen in the wake of folks on large white feminist sites, like Pandagon and Feministing (which are not necessarily entirely white, but which frequently profess a white-centered view of feminism) making arguments that erase the reality of women of color and that even negate their very existence.

There are similar splits between women who would otherwise call themselves "feminists" when it comes to issues like sex work and transgender.

Daphne is right that there are intolerant feminists, some of whom sometimes appear to speak for the movement(s).  But I would also argue that just because someone is vocal does not make her a other words, that the ideal of feminism does not belong to any one woman to define for everyone else, and that one feminist's intolerance is not indicative of the intolerance of the larger movement(s).

At least, that's how I justify continuing to call myself a feminist in the face of these kinds of divisions.

However, in the case of the college classroom, I think that, contrary to Daphne's comments, bad press and backlash do have a lot to do with how students perceive feminism/ists.  The stereotypes they call up are unrelated to the issues I've discussed above.  They don't say, "feminists are racist," "feminists are intolerant of transgendered people," or "feminists don't support sex workers."   They say, "feminists hate men," "feminists want to oppress men," "feminists don't shave their legs."  These are all images in the popular imagination, and they've been around for a long, long time.

Jessica Nathanson
Director, Women's Resource Center
Augsburg College
Minneapolis, MN
nathanso AT
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2008 15:05:58 -0400
From: Rosa Maria Pegueros <drpegueros AT COX.NET>
Subject: Re: I'm not a feminist, but..
In every discipline, in every political party or movement, there is always an orthodoxy; there are always individuals or groups who stake out the most extreme position, who believe in separatism or in some complete polarity. 
Feminism has those elements just as every other movement does. The reasons that women would reject an identification with feminism has as much to do with the demonization it has been subject to from the mainstream as from women's own fears about identifying with a movement that asserts women's rights and identity.  I don't buy that business blaming the feminist movement for bringing it on ourselves. WE have done more good for ourselves as women than not.  If you want to buy the bad press, it's your choice.
Dra. Rosa Maria Pegueros
Department  of  History
  &  Women's  Studies  Program
University of Rhode Island, RI 02881-0817
E-mail: drpegueros AT
Historians are gossips who tease the dead. 
                  ~Voltaire, Scribbling Books 
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