Feminism | Posted by Julie Z on 07/23/2010

Why Don’t Teen Girls Identify as Feminists?

Barnard College

Barnard College

I’ll just get it out of the way: Barnard’s Young Women’s Leadership Institute was an amazing program, and one of the best experiences of my life. We had some really awesome speakers/workshops (including Ingrid Dahl from the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls – awesome) and really engaging teachers. But that’s not what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about are the approximately 55 girls who were selected for this program – the future women leaders of America – and what they thought about feminism.

I signed up for this program thinking, “Awesome! I can’t wait for all the insightful feminist conversations I’m going to have! So many young feminists in one place, we’re practically going to take over the world!” And yet, this is not so much what I was faced with (at least at first). Out of the 55 girls, maybe 5-10 considered themselves feminists, and even some of those girls were on the fence. Which, of course, I accept: there are many reasons not to identify as a feminist, and as a feminist I respect the right of any individual to choose how they want to identify. Admittedly, though, I was a little disappointed. That is, until I realized what a unique opportunity this was.

People always ask me why teen girls don’t identify as feminists. Weirdly, they don’t see the irony in asking a self-identifying feminist why other people don’t identify as feminist (not only am I unable to give a personal answer, I’m left generalizing the rationales of an entire generation). The biggest reason I have come across, especially when considering my own friends, is lack of understanding of what feminism actually is and/or fearing the stigma of the word. There really are so many girls who think being a feminist just means hating men, or thinking women are BETTER than men. Or they really just have no idea. And I can’t even tell you how many of my friends align themselves completely with feminist issues, but won’t identify as feminists because they care too much about how ignorant people (who think feminists = hairy man haters) perceive them. But going to YWLI helped me realize other reasons why girls don’t identify as feminist. I was faced with a captive audience of intelligent teen girls, already poised to talk about feminism, and was ready to find out once and for all why girls don’t identify as feminists.

arent stereotypes great?

aren't stereotypes great?

The confusion about what being a feminist means was still a top reason. In fact, many girls had come to YWLI not because they already were feminists (as I had assumed), but because they wanted to learn about feminism – which actually makes perfect sense, considering schools generally fail at teaching about the feminist movement. Many girls told me that yes, they understood that feminists were for women’s rights, but their knowledge about the movement – especially the MODERN movement –basically ended there. And while they supported feminism in that sense, they didn’t necessarily want to go around calling themselves a feminist (a pretty significant commitment to the cause, when you think about it) without being fully informed.

Other girls said they understand what feminism is and believe in feminism. However, they felt that the negative connotation of the word “feminist”  is only a hindrance in their fight to advocate for their beliefs. It wasn’t that they were embarrassed or scared of people judging them (per se) but rather that if they had to spend all their time (and their “opponents” attention span) de-mystifying the word feminist, what were they accomplishing? They’d rather avoid the controversy and get right to the issues.

Similarly, girls felt the term “feminist” was not an accurate description, and in general hurts more than it helps. “Humanist” seemed to be the most agreed upon term. Our generation can be thankful for the rights previous feminists have gained and which we now enjoy, but the truth is that (especially considering American feminism) many of our legal battles have been fought. Of course, there are still many issues we have to face on legal/economic /political levels (equal pay, anyone?) but it seems that most of our battles are social in nature. The gender stereotypes in the media are ripping our generation of girls to shreds and violence against women needs to END, for example. We also need to include men – and the word feminist, no matter what it actually means, is alienating.

To me, this indicated a major problem: lack of cultural awareness of what feminism is. Let alone not publicizing feminist issues or the rampant sexism that surrounds us – we seriously need more awareness of what feminism is on a basic level. Whether it’s the teenage girl who thinks feminism is synonymous with suffrage, or the ignorant people a would-be-teen-feminist has to argue with, we have a problem. I know in my school if I hadn’t known anything about feminism from my own interest, I probably would have come away with the impression that Mary Wollstonecraft and Gloria Steinem / Betty Friedan were feminism, and it ended there. Kind of like prohibition – one goal and a clear end date. And I didn’t even get that information until 11th grade. And we all know that the media is an even more horrific source of information on the feminist front.

The idea that we need better cultural awareness and education about what feminism is was solidified for me by the end of the program, when our entire program was asked who now identified as feminist, and the vast majority of girls raised their hands. Really what had made the difference was a mix of academic and social discussions about feminism – not some huge fight to alter these girls’ personalities or essential beliefs.

So, why don’t teen girls identify as feminists? The answer varies, and even the reasons I listed above are just a taste. We’re all individuals with varied experiences and ideas, after all. But what I have found is that SO many girls would identify as feminists if there were more awareness about the movement and term. And really, even if they don’t – I’ve met so many incredible, inspiring girls who are truly making a difference in the world without identifying as feminist (but in reality, believing in and promoting feminist causes). Maybe we  need to put less focus on the word “feminism,” and more focus on supporting feminist action.

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  • Zoe Y. @ at 12:19 pm, July 23rd, 2010

    The reason it took me until college to realize I was a feminist was for a few different reasons.

    1.) Lack of understanding. No one taught me about feminism and showed that I agreed with all the issues and that it wasn’t a scary stereotype.

    2.) Even if I would have known I was a feminist, labeling yourself as such while a teenager makes you a target. Teens in high school loveeee to have something to pick on and tease and abuse. A self-declared feminist is an easy target.

    3.) It probably doesn’t help your dating game. I can’t speak for everyone, but I love having crushes, and claiming to be a feminist doesn’t make a girl more appealing to guys. Guys tend to know even less than girls know what feminism involves and are just going to assume that you are a man-hater. Unless you are not attracted to boys, in which case your dating game is probably unaffected or improved.

    Whoo, long winded comment. Just offering my input! :)

  • Miriam @ at 12:45 pm, July 23rd, 2010

    I, too, identify as a humanist even though I agree with all the principles of feminism. As you mentioned, “feminism” sounds like it excludes men, like it or not. It sounds like it specifically deals with equal rights and equal treatment OF WOMEN, not of everyone. And I support treating everyone fairly, not just women.

    Humanist is a term I like because it includes all humans. Maybe it just hasn’t had time to become associated with its own negative connotations.

  • Roni @ at 3:20 pm, July 23rd, 2010

    “Feminist” is pretty misleading term. Honestly, before I took a world history class in ninth grade I thought being a feminist meant believing in female superiority, and I know a lot of people who still do. Also, I prefer to identify as an egalitarian or a humanist, not because I’m afraid of being stereotyped, but because I think everyone deserves to be treated equally. I’ll still identify as a feminist though, especially if I’m discussing feminist issues.

  • Emily Kramer @ at 3:29 pm, July 23rd, 2010

    Hi Julie Z,

    I used to be the YWLI Program Coordinator (’08 and ’09) and I can’t tell you how excited I was to see your post! I’m so glad you had the opportunity to experience YWLI and Barnard. Thanks for this insightful post – I saw the same thing in the 3 years (including 1 year as an RA) I was with the program.

  • Danielle @ at 8:18 pm, July 23rd, 2010

    So what if feminism sounds like it excludes men? If people take a few seconds to look up the definition, they’d know that’s not true. Everyone can fight for gender equality…and that’s exactly what feminism is.

    I just have a hard time with people not knowing what feminism means…it takes one minute to look it up, and the definition explains it.

  • Danielle @ at 8:47 pm, July 23rd, 2010

    Identifying myself as a feminist has been one of the most important decisions of my life (thus far). Initially, I didn’t realize what I would be up against – people calling me a man-hater, for instance. It’s tough! REALLY tough. Especially when you want to fight tooth-and-nail for the rights of ALL humans. To be accused of hating nearly half of the world population? That hurts.

    But I’m not going to denounce the label just because it’s the “easy” thing to do. I’m a humanist, yes. But I’m a feminist, too.

    At least people like me (who are in the same boat) can come back to sites like this and be reminded that “hey, I’m not alone”!

  • Cassie @ at 10:55 pm, July 23rd, 2010

    Maybe we need to put less focus on the word “feminism,” and more focus on supporting feminist action.

    Have you been reading bell hooks? :D

    If not, I highly recommend her book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. In it, hooks suggests shifting from “I am a feminist” to “I advocate feminism” to eradicate women’s fear of being labelled by “eliminating the focus on identity and lifestyle,” which leads to stereotyped views of feminism. This approach also avoids either/or dualistic thinking, and feminism becomes accessible; everybody can advocate feminism while still advocating other political movements.

  • A @ at 11:22 pm, July 25th, 2010

    Aren’t all humanists also feminists? But not all feminists necessarilly have to be humanists, I suppose. Do you agree?

  • Sarah @ at 4:20 pm, July 27th, 2010

    Great post! Your thoughts (including the insightful thread that followed)really took me back. I “dared to say the f-word” in high school, and was called a “half-lesbian feme-nazi” among other endearing nicknames. Unfortunately, I didn’t really know how to define/defend/explain my feminism in the face of such ignorance. Back then, feminism was something I sort of learned through osmosis– my mom’s copy of Our Bodies Ourselves I found on a bookshelf, a cool history teacher who told me I didn’t need a man to escort me to junior prom, an Alanis Morisette or Indigo Girls lyric. My experience at Barnard, especially my Women’s Studies classes, helped me intellectualize, actualize my feminsim. They helped me develop an understanding of feminsims’ histories, where they (feminsit movements) are today, why they’re necessary today. I wish I could have explained feminism and my feminist identity in highschool as articulately as you are doing now! Brava :) Keep up the good work and apply to Barnard!!

  • Dia @ at 4:45 pm, August 3rd, 2010

    I can understand being hesitant for identifying as a feminist. I may agree with certain things about feminism but I wouldn’t tell someone that I am a feminist because that would be like giving them the okay to assume my opinions on anything and everything. I’d rather just have my opinions and let them fall into whichever categories fit the individual issue.

  • National Organization of leftist Women « Benighted Comment @ at 1:42 am, October 10th, 2010

    […] You know, it’s fashionable in feminist circles to sit around bemoaning the fact that few young women want to identify themselves as feminists. […]

  • escort chicago @ at 12:42 pm, October 27th, 2010

    You mentioned about sharing ideas which is what blogger should pay attention to and this is good so there will be online newspaper which we don’t have to spend money on buying it anymore just go online.

  • My femasculine utopia « femme FRESH @ at 11:46 pm, July 10th, 2011

    […] women seem to be rejecting the feminist label. I’ve observed this. Others have observed this. While women of other generations struggle with the feminist label as well, the young are expected […]

  • Collin McAdams @ at 4:46 am, December 24th, 2013

    Somehow, teens have the mistaken idea that if you become a feminist, it takes over your life, your personality, everything. For the record: It really doesn’t.

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