Tuesday, May 4, 2010

More Perceptions of Feminism

In a prior blog, I explained that I had contacted a number of people to get their perceptions of the term “feminist.” When I reviewed their responses, I was very surprised by the overwhelmingly positive feedback I received from everyone. The folks who shared their perceptions were diverse in many respects, but I noted at the beginning of that blog post that they were all middle class professionals. And I don’t generally discuss politics with everyone I know, so I don’t actually know the political beliefs of everyone who shared their perceptions with me. Because of the disproportionate amount of positive responses I received, I began to wonder if I had inadvertently only sought feedback from people with a fairly progressive bent.

In reality, I also really wanted to hear the views of people who did not have a positive view of the term “feminist.” The folks I contacted in the first survey generally mentioned that they had a positive view of feminism, but were quick to note that popular connotations are often negative. I wanted to hear from people who embraced such negative connotations. I wanted to understand their views.

For this reason, I decided to seek feedback from a second set of folks (hereafter, the “second group”). This time around I deliberately sought the views of people I knew for sure were conservatives and/or were registered Republicans. In addition, I also contacted people I had reason to believe might at least have conservative sympathies.

In this second group, I only contacted women. They were all Caucasian. They varied in age from being in their early 30s to their 70s. All of the women I contacted have been married. Some are currently married, some were widowed, and some are divorced. All of the women are mothers. Their children ranged in age from babies to middle-aged adults. Some of the women have family members who are currently serving overseas in the military.

I am pretty sure all of the women in the second group are Christians. All of the women grew up in religious households and/or belong to a church now. Some have taught Sunday school, served on church committees, sung in the choir, participated in various church ministries, or otherwise have been active in their faith communities.

Most of the women in the second group are outspoken conservatives who vehemently dislike President Obama, oppose “Obamacare,” and/or are angered by the president’s decision to not observe the National Day of Prayer. Others are much more soft-spoken in their views, but seem to be in general agreement with the views of the more outspoken ladies. Still others in the group seem to not be that political. I may be incorrect, but my perception is that the less political folks have at least somewhat conservative tendencies. But regardless of their actual views, politics just does not appear to be a huge focus in their lives. They seem to have other priorities and interests.

About half of the ladies in the second group live in small towns. The others live in major metropolitan areas—though mostly in suburban areas. About half of the women have college degrees; the others did not continue their formal education beyond high school. Except for one respondent, all of the women consulted have been “stay-at-home moms” at some point in their lives. Some stayed home with their children just for a few years before their children began school. For others, full-time parenting was their priority until their children reached adulthood. At various points in their lives, the women consulted in the second group have had careers as teachers, nurses, medical transcriptionists, secretaries, teacher’s aides or real estate agents.

A couple of the women consulted in this second group had positive views on feminism. The way they defined the term “feminist” was in accord with the dictionary definition of the term. They expressed the notion that feminists want equality for women in areas like “jobs and politics.” One of these women specifically noted that men could be feminists. One woman added that feminists were not just “extreme activists, such as those that picket and speak out on key issues,” but also encompassed a "regular Betty" who stands up for a co-worker suffering the effects of gender discrimination. The same woman also expressed concern for reverse gender discrimination, indicating that in some contexts a person might receive “better” treatment because she is a woman.

These couple of women indicated they thought that being a feminist was a positive thing. However, one of the women did not think the feminist label fit her simply because she had never done anything to affirmatively promote feminism. The other lady indicated she thought she fit the definition of a feminist. However, she also added that the term made her sad. She reflected thoughtfully, “If we could all just be humanists, then we wouldn't need such words that perpetually remind us how large groups of us are mistreated based on a single quality. I am not just a woman; I am so much more.”

Honestly, I was pretty surprised by these ladies’ positive reactions to the term “feminist.” I wondered if they were influenced by their perceptions of my own views, and perhaps were trying to be polite. But I don’t think these women would misrepresent their own beliefs just to please me. However, these women were potentially the least politically active folks in the second group I consulted. They have a lot of other interests and activities.

A couple other women in the second group had lukewarm, but not hostile views towards the concept of feminism. One such woman defined the term “feminist” as a “female who strives to prove she can stand on her own, be in charge of life and ‘further’ the rights of women.” Another defined the term as “someone who works for women's rights to be equal in every aspect of social, economic and financial environments.” These women seemed ambivalent about embracing the term for themselves, but did not appear hostile to it either. One woman shared she felt she fit the definition of a feminist “by about 50%.” She indicated, “I'm not a true feminist, but I have a great respect for women and men who have broken the traditional barriers of society.” She expressed that her upbringing might account for her not fully fitting the term; she was not raised in a family that was particularly engaged in politics. The same woman indicated, “In general, I think it is positive to be a feminist. Unfortunately, as in everything else, the media tends to give light to the negative views and not the true definition of feminism.” Another woman indicated she was “not rabid for or against feminism” and had a somewhat “neutral position.” The same woman expressed support for the things feminists support but did not “fully agree with some of the aggressive means of achieving” their goals. She indicated a preference for retaining some of the “old fashioned” social customs like “being treated with deference and being ‘treated like a lady.’” She felt those attitudes were not embraced by what she considered to be “true feminism.”

The rest of the women I consulted in the second group had very different and extremely negative definitions of the term “feminist.” One woman expressed that a “feminist is just short of a communist.” The belief was also shared that a “feminist” was a “female who is unhappy with the role God gave her in life.” One of the ladies opined that a feminist is a “power hungry woman who always feels she is being cheated; she covets another’s blessings, abilities, position or strength believing no one is her better.” Another woman thoughtfully looked up the term before responding to my questions. She expressed that prior to looking up the term, it did not have a positive meaning for her. She expressed that feminists “say” they want “equality,” but in reality they “want all they can get.” This same woman observed, “The dictionary definition is interesting.”

The women who expressed negative views of feminism generally indicated they did not fit the definition. Several of the women who expressed this opinion did so in a very concise manner without elaboration. In response to the question asking whether they fit the definition of a “feminist,” they simply responded “no.” When asked if they thought the term held a positive or negative connotation to them, they simply responded “negative.” In response to these questions, some of the ladies used exclamation points or all caps.

One woman with a very negative definition of feminism later indicated a different, more nuanced and very thoughtful perspective with respect to my other questions. She indicated that usually she was not a feminist but at times she was one: “I believe each of us has an individual place in the world. Each of us, whether we be woman or man, are given talents and abilities that express our own personality and strengths through how we use them. Our gender should not limit those talents or the reward they reap.” The same woman also expressed, “Being labeled a feminist is both positive and negative depending upon the time, place and expectations of society. Also, how you present yourself in your current position will influence how the title effects and affects you, whether it be positively or negatively.”

Another woman who provided a negative definition expressed somewhat similar ambivalence. A retiree, she cited her “age group” to indicate her belief that the term “feminist” has a negative connotation.” She shared, “I still want the guy to open my door or help lift or carry something.” The same lady also indicated she believed in “fairness in job opportunities” but not “quotas.” She rejected the feminist label for herself, but noted that in her career she had been the supervisor to some men. She shared that she “didn’t make an issue” of her gender when she had been in such a supervisory role. She noted that even one of her male employees (whom she characterized as a male chauvinist) eventually admitted that it is “alright” to work for her though he was initially not “looking forward to a female boss.”

One woman in the second group declined to try to define the term “feminist,” but simply stated, “I don't think I am a feminist because I think it carries a negative connotation even though I believe in women's rights.”

When I contacted people in the first group to get their views on feminism, I did not get the impression they minded my questions. In fact, many of them indicated the questions were interesting and thought-provoking; they didn’t tend to think about those topics much. In contrast, I got the impression that most (but not all) of the women in the second group were not very happy to be asked these questions. Indeed, unlike the first group, some folks contacted in the second group ignored my request for feedback. Others responded but were a little curt. Still others expressed a degree of self-consciousness in expressing their opinions, noting that they were not sure if they were “right” or if their views “make sense.” One lady specified that she wasn’t sure I’d “approve” of her views.

There are many possible reasons that people in the second group may have been self-conscious or lacked enthusiasm about responding. However, my hunch is that they were concerned that they were going to be judged and disrespected for the opinions they expressed. Although I don’t discuss politics with most of these ladies, in many contexts over the years, many people have made certain assumptions about my own beliefs and values because I am a female lawyer with a hyphenated name. Additionally, now that I am an academic, there are certain presumptions about me that sometimes get made. In many circles, being an academic is equated with being an elitist liberal. Because some of the ladies may have viewed me as a liberal elitist looking to make fun of them, I did my best to put the women at ease and to express my respect for their views. I tried to emphasize that I was trying to understand different people’s perceptions.

Indeed, the whole reason I sought these ladies’ views was because I wanted to better understand the meaning of the term “feminist.” The dictionary definition is quite agreeable to me. However, dictionaries do not always provide definitions based on popular usage. Some terms change in meaning over time, or may have differing definitions based upon the setting and the people who use the term. I think definitions based on popular usage are valid and need to be taken into consideration. If a group of people believe a term means certain things when they use it, that is what the term means in their usage regardless of what Mr. Webster says.

I’m very grateful to the women in the second group who shared their views with me. Particularly if any of them were wary because they worried I would disrespect their views, I applaud their courage. It is never easy to speak one’s mind when one perceives that the listener disagrees. It is my fervent hope that none of the ladies in the second group feels I have expressed any disrespect for their views in this blog post. Certainly none has been intended.

I also appreciate the fact that these women responded to my questions in a very thoughtful manner. I know a number of other women whom I’ve heard use the term “feminist” as an epithet. They were obvious candidates for inclusion in the second group. However, I decided against consulting with those ladies because I sensed that they would react very angrily to me if I posed my questions to them. I am very grateful for the hospitality of the women in the second group for graciously tolerating my questions. Because of their graciousness, I have gained a lot of insight into the issue of feminism.

Matthew 15:10 (New International Version)

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen and understand.

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