Fear of feminism

During much of the 20th century, many people bore the label of feminism proudly, as the movement for gender equality became seen as an important struggle that we should all support. But for some reason, the label seems to have fallen into some disfavor recently, with even people who strongly believe in the goals of the feminist movement shying away from calling themselves that.

This recent article by a female scientist describes how a male colleague that she had worked closely with suddenly became distant when, in the course of a casual conversation in which she commented on the stereotype of scientists being portrayed as men, she acknowledged that she was a feminist.

She wondered what she should have done to deal with his recoiling and she describes what she sees as four possible options.

  1. “Nothing. It was his problem. All I said was that I didn’t like the stereotypes about scientists. I didn’t say that I hated all men—or whatever else this colleague believes I believe, even though I don’t. I have too many other things to worry about right now without trying to salvage this annoying situation.”
  2. “I should have done more than I did, but without making any unreasonably heroic efforts to convince him that I am not a scary, man-­hating, humorless zealot. Would it have killed me to try to talk to him about his reaction and try to put him at his ease? And then, if that didn’t work, oh well.”
  3. “I should have done whatever I could. I should have tried to show this colleague that it’s possible to be a self-proclaimed feminist and yet be a friendly, sane, effective colleague. I thought I had done that, but clearly it wasn’t enough. This issue is too important to shrug off. We shouldn’t let unreasonable biases continue if there is even a chance of a positive change.”
  4. “I should have backtracked and lied. I should have picked up on his anxiety and sought to calm his fears, even to the point of lying and saying that I was certainly not a feminist. Or I should have found a euphemism for the term. Or I could have explained that I was just commenting because not all scientists wear lab coats. What’s with all the pictures of scientists in lab coats? And wearing goggles! Then we would have laughed and continued working together as we had been.”

As she rightly points out, “This is not just about feminism. It’s about any “ism.” The broader questions are whether, and how, to preserve a working relationship that is seriously affected when one colleague is upset by the point of view of another, on an issue that is relevant but not central to their collaboration.”

I have taken option 1 when it comes to my atheism and think that it makes sense for feminism too. If (as she states in option 3) one is a ‘ friendly, sane, effective colleague’, which one should strive to be irrespective of anything else, then I think one has gone as far as one should go in accommodating the prejudices of others.


  1. other dave says


    As a skeptic, and scientist I am surprised you take this woman’s account at face value. Read it again, she truly has no idea what happened in their relationship. She attributes it to her feminist beliefs and his bigotry. But instead of asking the guy, she just spits it out.

    I also think you are naive and ill-informed.

    It’s not “feminism” one would be afraid of, it’s the no holds barred, gender war, tactics of contemporary feminists. See elevator gate. See PyCon. See the Dear Colleague Letter of April 2011.

    And it’s not atheism one would be afraid of, it’s atheism-plus. See Richard Carrier and how he wants to label all non-atheism-plus atheists as bigots.

    Read for one week the circus of PZ Myers’ and his commentariat.

    Better yet, don’t read anything, because if you are truly interested, you will end up leaving freethoughtblogs.

  2. B-Lar says

    I have the problem in my job that my competition are unscrupulous, and poison the well with potential business partners. Spreading FUD is an effective strategy when you do not have a good product or if your model is not very effective.

    The solution I have found, is to be relentlessly cheerful and efficient in the face of this adversary. Eventually, these potential partners all come to me because I do it best for everyone concerned. FUD artists are dinosaurs waiting to happen.

    Dont force it. Let it grow organically. Truth speaks for itself, and if these potential partners are unable to look reality in the eye then they weren’t good for partnership anyway. Maybe this attitude might be effective in the situation you describe too… The stereotypical feminist simply does not exist outside the minds of the poisoned.

  3. says

    During much of the 20th century, many people bore the label of feminism proudly, as the movement for gender equality became seen as an important struggle that we should all support. But for some reason, the label seems to have fallen into some disfavor recently, with even people who strongly believe in the goals of the feminist movement shying away from calling themselves that.

    Like with any -ism, the most vocal proponents are usually the worst representatives. And when people try to imagine a typical member of the -ism, they will usually imagine the most vocal ones.

    Feminism seems to have a very unique problem though.

  4. says

    J. Quinton: what part of that LOOONG LJ post was supposed to flesh out your argument?

    Like with any -ism, the most vocal proponents are usually the worst representatives.

    Examples, please?

  5. Gen, Uppity Ingrate. says

    J Quinton:

    Many of you will recognize this as much like the Myers Shuffle. As long as a bunch of atheists get together and laugh at religious people who ask them to read theology before criticizing it, and as long as they have an easily recognizable name for the object of their hilarity like “Courtier’s Reply”, then whenever a religious person asks them to familiarize themselves with theology the atheist can just say “Courtier’s Reply!” and all the other atheists will crack up and think “Hahaha, religious people really are that stupid!” and they gain status and the theist loses status and at no point do they have to even consider responding to the theist’s objection.

    This tendency reaches its most florid manifestation in the “ideological bingo games”. See for example “Skeptical Sexist Bingo”, feminist bingo, libertarian troll bingo, anti-Zionist bingo, pro-Zionist bingo, and so on. If you Google for these you can find thousands, which is too bad because every single person who makes one of these is going to Hell.

    When I Googled for good examples of those bingo games to post above, it was pretty hard to find the Zionism ones and so on. Almost every ideological bingo game out there was feminist. This is not a coincidence.

    For those who have absorbed the associated memes, feminism is a fully general conceptual superweapon. It has attempted and probably completed the task of making every possible counterargument so unthinkable that any feminist can refute it just by reciting the appropriate bingo square, then pointing and laughing.

    If a man thinks women are less oppressed than she claims, she can say “male privilege!” and point and laugh.

    If a man thinks there are some areas where the threshold has moved too far toward women, she can make a grave expression and intone “What About Teh Menz?” (now the name of a major blog, which is actually pretty good) and point and laugh.

    If a man thinks parts of the reason why some men are jerks toward women is because women actually are more likely to date jerks than people who are respectful, she can gleefully declare “You’re a Nice Guy (TM) and therefore Worse Than Hitler (TM)!” and point and laugh.

    If a man tries to explain his own perspective to her or provide any alternative theory to men-being-horrible, she can say he’s “mansplaining again!” and point and laugh.

    If a man asks not to be immediately pattern-matched to the nearest hostile cliche when he tries to present his opinion, she can say he’s using a variant of the old “I’m not sexist, but…” line. And point. And laugh.

    Yeah, I’m not sure I’m going to take your anxiety about being pointed and laughed at for making horrible arguments that have been answered countless times before seriously.

  6. Mano Singham says

    Whether she is correct or not in her diagnosis of the cause of the problem is secondary to the point that I was focusing on, which is how one should react when people react that way because of objections to your particular ‘-ism’. If the truth of her situation was that her colleague recoiled because of her habit of loudly belching or whatever, that would explain that situation but the general question would be still relevant to address.

  7. Chiroptera says

    See elevator gate.

    Good point. Reminding us of “elevator gate” makes this feminist scientist’s claims even more believable than it already was before this reminder.

  8. Chiroptera says

    If a man tries to explain his own perspective to her or provide any alternative theory to men-being-horrible, she can say he’s “mansplaining again!” and point and laugh.

    On the other hand, when a woman tries to explain her own perspective, she’s “one of the most vocal proponents” and “one of the worst representatives” of the movement, and “skeptics” should be wary of “taking her account at face value.”

  9. Mano Singham says

    Thanks. I am so out of touch with current abbreviations, probably because I don’t send or read tweets.

  10. jpmeyer says

    1) There is definitely a trolling streak in recent mainstream (note: “mainstream” is important here) feminist discourse that I don’t observe in other social justice movements. Emily Gould and Ryan Holliday have written a bit about this in the past. My gut instinct is that this is an outgrowth of the privilege of many mainstream feminist writers, and conversely a reflection of the intersectional influences on less-mainstream writers. Compare say, Jezebel to someone like Flavia Dzodan here.

    2) And at the same time, I have also noticed far, far more antagonism towards feminist writers, feminist sites etc. which makes many writers/activists instinctively wary since in their experiences it ends up being far more likely that the person they are being confronted by is operating in bad faith than legitimately wants to learn and debate.

    3) Gender equality is much more zero sum than many other kinds of social justice (gay marriage for example is positive sum.) Similarly, gender is the only oppression that I can think of that isn’t 100% favorable for the privileged group (even though it’s still on balance very favorable towards them). Corey Robin has written a bit on the backlash to feminism (and by extension, the amazing aspect of its success as a movement) in how it’s the only social justice movement which directly affected more or less every member of the privileged groups’ households and the backlash to what would no matter what have provided them with a place where they can exert their supremacy.

    4) Finally, opinions towards social justice are getting really bad in the younger generations as younger members of social justice movements (and anecdotally, feminism being the most visible of these) are adopting what are dangerously close to the right-wing straw man versions of the movements.

  11. smrnda says

    It’s good to be skeptical of anecdotal reports, especially reports of highly unusual or unlikely events, like faith healing.

    However, do you really apply the same degree of skepticism you’re applying here to all other accounts you read? Which are you contesting? That the events happened, or that there could be some other explanation for the sudden distance that just happened to coincide with her mention of being a feminist?

    It also seems like when I hear discussions of incidents labelled as ‘it’s all he said she said’ the people saying that tend to only apply skepticism to the ‘she said’ part.

  12. MNb says

    “I have taken option 1 when it comes to my atheism”
    I am with you. I have a colleague whom I think very high of. I know she is a believer, but after 13 years I still don’t know what her faith is. In Suriname the choice is very wide. It doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter either if she told me. She is who she is and she is a great person.
    But I don’t know if I am a feminist. I just support equal rights. So I am not very interested in arguments against feminism.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    But for some reason, the label seems to have fallen into some disfavor recently

    The words “environmentalism” and “socialism” have suffered similar degradation, especially in the US. Some of the blame for that must be concerted efforts by the right to demonize (e.g. “feminazis”), with a lot of help (or at least, lack of pushback) from the media.

  14. bad Jim says

    As a guy, I’ve never been sure if I qualified for the label of feminist; I didn’t take the required courses and haven’t read all the books. At one point I asked for another label, something signifying opposition to all sorts of sexism. Lately, though, gays seem to be overcoming old obstacles almost effortlessly, while women are still stuck; so, yeah, the old label is still relevant, because progress seems as elusive as ever.

    A few years back, when Larry Summers was president of Harvard and offered the opinion that breakthroughs in math and physics could only be expected from men, I was appalled to find that a great many fellow liberals shared his opinion, but I couldn’t provide evidence of discrimination against women; all I could offer was the obvious observation that since every previous assertion of the limits of female intelligence had proven false, there was no reason to take the latest offerings seriously. Which is a weak case, and the argument was best made by women who could describe exactly how they’d been treated to discrimination, discouragement, disparagement and disrespect.

    It’s frustrating for a male feminist to have to defer to women to make the argument (why can’t I do this myself?), but that’s actually the whole point. It’s something only a woman can do, but it’s something a woman can do.

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    Summers was (actually, usually is) full of shit. Anyone who went through undergrad or graduate physics (certainly through the seventies and well into the eighties) would know why women were under-represented. Discrimination and harassment pure and simple, from male students and faculty. Not all, but it doesn’t take many assholes to make life intolerable.

  16. Pierce R. Butler says

    jpmeyer @ # 6: … gender is the only oppression that I can think of that isn’t 100% favorable for the privileged group ..

    Ever taken a long look at the effects of racism on whites in, say, Mississippi? Having been born & raised there, I can tell ya that the fear, resentment, hypocrisy, and sublimated guilt take one helluva psychological and social toll. Gender issues, as usual, work out the same-only-differently.

  17. CaitieCat says

    Specifically me. I was a serious math and science student in school. Then when I went to university, I took linguistics and languages (which I also turned out to be good at). Why? Because I knew by then that i would be transitioning before long, and that in no way was I prepared, in 1986, to face what women went through in physics or maths, let alone what a trans woman would. Call it cowardice if you will, but I figured I was already taking a nose-dive off the privilege ladder, I didn’t have to make the dive into a pool of acid too.

    So, instead of being an astrophysicist, as I’d really wanted to be, I became a linguist and translator, a realm where women are generally accepted (with specific exceptions). You guys should be full of amazement and wonder at the depth of courage your colleagues who are women scientists have shown to be where they are. I faced it, and ran like shite. They did it. Those are some Bad.Ass.Women.

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