Today, three decades of feminism and one Year of the Woman later, a majority of American women agree that feminism has altered their lives for the better. In general, polls conducted over the past three years indicate strong majority support for feminist ideals. But the same polls suggest that a majority of women hesitate to associate themselves with the movement. As Karlyn Keene, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has observed, more than three quarters of American women support efforts to “strengthen and change women’s status in society,” yet only a minority, a third at most, identify themselves as feminists.
And that’s still true, maybe more true. Feminism is a boogey-word. Why is that?
Many feminists take comfort in these polls, inferring substantial public support for economic and political equality, and dismissing women’s wariness of the feminist label as a mere image problem (attributed to unfair media portrayals of feminists as a strident minority of frustrated women). But the polls may also adumbrate unarticulated ambivalence about feminist ideals, particularly with respect to private life. If widespread support for some measure of equality reflects the way women see, or wish to see, society, their unwillingness to identify with feminism reflects the way they see themselves, or wish to be seen by others.
To the extent that it challenges discrimination and the political exclusion of women, feminism is relatively easy for many women to embrace. It appeals to fundamental notions of fairness; it suggests that social structures must change but that individuals, particularly women, may remain the same. For many women, feminism is simply a matter of mommy-tracking, making sure that institutions accommodate women’s familial roles, which are presumed to be essentially immutable. But to the extent that feminism questions those roles and the underlying assumptions about sexuality, it requires profound individual change as well, posing an unsettling challenge that well-adjusted people instinctively avoid. Why question norms of sex and character to which you’ve more or less successfully adapted?
I think that observation about “well-adjusted people” is brilliant. I think it’s true. It takes a certain…something, a willingness to alienate oneself, a willingness to be a little bit peculiar or off-kilter or pugnacious, to be at odds with things. That doesn’t appeal to everyone. One of our biggest tasks in life is just figuring things out so that we get along, we don’t make big stupid embarrassing mistakes all the time, we’re not always wrong and clumsy. Maybe we’re all four years old at heart, helpless, lost in a sea of people, having no clue about when you’re supposed to drink your orange juice and when you’re supposed to sit down and color. We like sussing it all out and doing a good job. We like succeeding at appearing normal.
Being political and posing unsettling challenges to the most fundamental way of doing things – that’s no way to succeed at appearing normal. I think that’s one reason most people don’t want to.
And the norms of sex and character are there already, they were there before we were, and we grew up among them. They’re like water to a fish. They’re our medium, and we’re not aware of the medium as a medium. Women are like this, men are like that; it’s what we’ve always known. It’s a lot of trouble to try to re-think that, let alone to argue that it’s not optimal. Well-adjusted people don’t want to do that kind of thing, because they’re well-adjusted, and what fun would it be to throw all that away?