These days asking a young woman if she is a feminist is equivalent to asking Madonna if she is a virgin. Both questions will probably get you a resounding, vehement, thoroughly disgusted "No!" "Feminism" is a dirty word, a label to avoid being associated with at all costs. If a woman says she is a feminist, then of course she is also "butchy" and mud wrestles nude with others of like mind.
And it is no wonder many women shy away from such an abominable word. After all, the Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines the term "feminism" as "the doctrine advocating social, political and all other rights of women equal to those of men." Linda Ellerbee, a long-time observer and writer on the issue defines feminism simply as, "A belief in equal pay for equal work." How does this imply lesbianism, man-hating, and bra-burning?
How has the feminist movement succeeded in alienating the women it seeks to represent? Why has the simple word "feminism" sparked such dire associations when the movement it refers to has such seemingly harmless objectives? No one person can claim to have the answers to these questions, but opinions run rampant. A frequently expressed as well as demeaning idea is that women don't truly want to be equal with men, that they perhaps enjoy being looked after and taken care of, and that they are simply afraid of the work achieving equality might entail.
According to Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women, anti-feminism advocates use terms like "bra-burning" and "butch," to belittle the movement and to make a clever joke. These people know little about feminism and insist that women have already acquired total equality, and therefore to seek more is based on greed and a twisted desire for power. These people tell women (who call themselves feminists) to relax, to lighten up, to be a little "softer."
The major misconception that threatens to impede forever the feminist movement is the belief that if you are a feminist, you cannot be feminine. One has absolutely nothing to do with the other. Pink is not a forbidden color to women who admit to believing in equal rights. Neither are feminists obligated to wear Old Spice Musk Scent instead of Coco Chanel No. 3.
Despite the fact that we call ourselves an "advanced age," the image of the happy little woman with the pack of small children and the peaceful smile on her face still exists. This woman invariably enjoys baking meringue cookies, going to P.T.A. meetings, and leading the local Girl Scout troop. Anything more would be unnatural. Our society tells itself that this image obliterated itself with Rhoda and Maude, that it went out with beehives and crinolines, that the need for June Cleaver is a thing of the past. But we have tied that past to our security, both males and females, and just as Linus cries when his security blanket is stolen, we cry when these beliefs are threatened.
Feminism means change, upon which the future of the movement depends. Feminism means choice, but we are fearful of choice. If we continue to deny ourselves the means for this change, if we continue to regress while telling ourselves we are safe from becoming what we once promised we'd never be, one day we will wake up, check the mirror and find ourselves staring at an image of our mothers.
This is why we need to choose once and for all. Are we willing to see all that we've striven for slowly fizzle like the polyester pants suit, or do we want to thrust out our chests, ignore the stares, and reach toward the future? n
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.