Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer says she is not a feminist. Model Miranda Kerr and singer Katy Perry have also both openly declared the same thing.
And each time a high profile and powerful woman dares to distance herself from a movement that specifically advocates for her rights, the same thing happens: feminist commentators tell them how incredibly stupid and ill-informed they are. (Check out this response by Feministing website with regard to Mayer: “Marissa, it is too bad that feminism has become a negative word. You know what’s also too bad? Your failure to acknowledge that without feminism, you could never have become the CEO of Yahoo.”)
What these feminist voices are ignoring, however, is that there is a much bigger problem at hand when women don’t want to be associated with the word.
What is feminism?
When you type “What is feminism” into Google, you get a pretty concise definition:
“The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.”
It’s hard to imagine how any woman could believe this doesn’t apply to them, so the very fact that high profile, influential women are not identifying with the term means modern feminism has a big problem. A branding problem.
Modern women are finding it hard to embrace the label. As blogger Janine Fitzpatrick, who is one of those women, describes it: “I did once regard myself as a feminist, but today, not so much. I get mad at the time and energy wasted on trying to convince everyone to embrace the label (and then the infighting about who is worthy to wear it or not). Today I still believe passionately in equality but I’m not into labels. I really believe that at the end of the day we have to find a way to work together to improve things for everyone.”
The infighting Fitzpatrick mentions could currently be doing the most damage to the feminist brand.
Dissent within the ranks
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is one of the most powerful women in world business. She describes her recently released book Lean In as a “sort of feminist manifesto”. Where many of her peers (such as Mayer) scorn the feminist label, Sandberg embraces it and advocates for it. But not all fellow feminists are ecstatic that their movement has such a strong voice behind it. Much of the response seems to be that if you are rich and powerful, then you are not marginalised enough to be truly in touch with base feminist ideals.
Closer to home, some influential women are said to be “doing feminism wrong” including Mia Freedman, publisher of Mamamia. Freedman is often accused of being unsupportive of women as she covers the full spectrum of female relevant topics and views on her website.
Freedman is not the only one in the firing line. Jenna Price is the public face of Destroy the Joint, a new and unique Australian movement which aims to bring sexism and misogyny to public attention. Boasting a following that is now more than 25,000 strong, Destroy the Joint has enacted some real change in its short history. Yet Destroy the Joint, and Price herself, have also repeatedly come under attack.
Freedman believes brand feminism may have a problem. “I think there has been a lot of heat and noise recently around who is and isn’t ‘allowed’ to call themselves a feminist,” she says. “Like this idea that it’s an exclusive club with strict membership guidelines. Frankly, brand feminism has such a bad rap, particularly with younger generations of women, we should be encouraging people to identify with it rather than kicking them out.”
A bad rap
Right now brand feminism does have a bad rap. It’s not just the fact that younger generations of women are unsure about what feminism stands for. The infighting within feminist ranks makes all women wonder why they’d invest time in a movement where the ‘rules’ are so ill-defined.
So is it time for a re-brand?
As Perth-based branding strategist Bernadette Jiwa explains: “Organisations and movements generally re-brand when they want to attach a different set of meanings to their ‘product’. The goal being to change how people feel about them and get more people or a different set of people to buy into the brand.”
Take a moment to consider that many people outside of the movement think feminists have hairy armpits and are mouthy, angry, extremist, ball breaking and man-hating. Meanwhile, those on the edges of the movement are frustrated and confused.
It’s not hard to make the case for a new identity.
Yet you will be hard pressed to find a feminist voice who thinks there is a need for anything this drastic. In fact, most of them are in line with the thoughts shared by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in a recent interview with blogger Eden Riley: “It’s not [about] the bloody word. Put the word to one side. It is actually about women and women’s lives and women’s empowerment and women’s equality.”
Amelia Grevis-James, editor of online feminist publication The Peach agrees with the Prime Minister: “Feminism to me has always been more about action than ideology and ultimately I think we can get too caught up in discussing the semantics of the label ‘feminist’, which we are never going to agree on. While discussion is obviously very important, we demonstrate being feminist in our everyday actions- by working hard, by negotiating and fighting for equality at work and within our relationships. And by demonstrating compassion and acceptance of human difference.”
So where to now?
Blogger Cate Pearce thinks it’s time to re-claim the word ‘feminism’ and attach it to the concept of choice: “The key to feminism, for me, is equal choices. If a female chooses to wear a business suit and carry a laptop, good for her. If a female chooses to wear an apron and carry a Household Hints handbook, good for her. If a female chooses to wear black leather and carry a whip, good for her. As long as it is her own choice.”
Freedman also agrees that “it’s about believing in equality and freedom to make choices”.
Unfortunately, there are still many situations where women don’t get to exercise the choices they’d like to. Megan Dalla-Camina, author of Getting Real About Having it All and a PhD student whose current studies are focused on the next wave of feminism, believes the feminist movement needs to both recognise what’s been achieved, and identify where change is still required.
“The pioneers who came before us laid the foundation for the rights we now have and largely take for granted. We need to celebrate our freedom to make choices while continuing to agitate for real change where barriers still exist,” she says.