“I’m not a feminist, but…”

I have always been frustrated by people who start a sentence with the phrase “I’m not a feminist, but…” However, lately I have been trying to be a little more understanding and to make an attempt to understand why so many women feel the need to preface their remarks with such a qualifier.

I used to feel that claiming not to be a feminist was like saying: “I don’t believe in equal rights, but…” or “I’m not against racism, but…” Surely, at its most basic level, most women (and even a sizable proportion of men) these days are feminists? By this I mean that surely most women do believe in equality, or in the right not to be discriminated against for the sole reason that they are female?

However, to be fair, I think so many women shy away from the idea of being ‘labelled’ a ‘feminist’, for the same reason that many people are reluctant to accept any kind of label these days: because it means that you are surrendering part of your identity to others for them to essentialise and define on your behalf. Considering all of the negative stereotypes associated with feminism, it is, therefore, not surprising (if still very disappointing) that many people reject the label.

These negative stereotypes include the idea that feminism necessarily involves:

  • hating men
  • adopting a ‘victim mentality’
  • not taking any responsibility for your own actions
  • not wanting to have children
  • being unattractive
  • being aggressive

Other stereotypes associated with feminism, which are not negative, but simply do not apply to all people who consider themselves to be feminism include:

  • being a lesbian
  • not particularly caring about your appearance
  • being butch
  • having hairy legs or arm-pits

However, the issue is even more complicated than that, because beyond the idea that women would like equality with men, what exactly do we mean by feminism? I.e. what do we mean by ‘equality’ and how to we propose attaining such a status?

To answer this question, it is probably necessary to go into a little more depth. On a theoretical level, feminism is often classified into various categories – such as “liberal feminism”, “cultural feminism” and “postmodern feminism” and to oversimplify for the sake of brevity these classifications have a lot to do with the way in which each variety of feminism defines “equality”.

Liberal feminists tend to define equality in terms of attaining the same (civil) rights as men. These might include:

  • the right to education
  • the right to work
  • the right to vote and to run for political office


Cultural feminism subjected this approach to a new kind of analysis by asking whether or not this was simply demanding the right to behave like men in a world that was still structured for men. Cultural feminists tend to celebrate those qualities that are associated with femininity and to ask why the world cannot be better structure to recognise and value those qualities. Therefore, cultural feminists might instead define equality in terms of:

  • having the workplace restructured in a way that values ‘feminine qualities’ and better accommodates people’s need to care for children or other family members.
  • having society recognise the value of work performed in the so-called private sphere and to allow people the choice to work in either sphere and to have either contribution recognised as equally valuable and valid.
  • having politics restructured in a way that corresponds more to the way in which females tend to negotiate and settle differences (i.e. less adversarial and less competitive).

However, cultural feminists have also been criticised for contributing to the problem of stereotyping women and defining them as having a kind of essentialised ‘caring, emotional, soft, nurturing’ nature that many women do not identify with.

Postmodern feminism, instead, seeks to look at the issue in a more nuanced way. Postmodern feminism sees gender as a social construct from which we cannot escape and which impacts on us and our environment in a variety of ways. It is also believes that this construct is constantly evolving and thus cannot be essentialised or pinned down with a static definition.

Feminism is also often broken down into “waves”:

  • The First Wave Feminists were originally the suffragettes. This movement then expanded to include claims for other liberal rights such as the right to an education, to work and to run for office.
  • The Second Wave Feminists, or ‘Radical Feminists’ focused on the structural impact of patriarchy (as the dominant source of oppression) and sought to challenge and dismantle it.

Both of these ‘waves’ can also be loosely lumped together under the ‘liberal feminism’ category.

  • Third Wave Feminism is a kind of combination of postmodern and cultural (while being mostly postmodern). It is cultural in that it does seek to celebrate the concept of femininity and say that it is the world (or the work place, the political sphere, etc.), and not women, who need to change. However, it is postmodern in that it ultimately rejects the idea that you can actually define what it means to be female, and the idea that the root causes of inequality can be blamed on just one structure (such as patriarchy). Third Wave Feminism, therefore, seeks to simultaneously analyse issues of oppression or inequality from a whole range of perspectives – race, sexuality, age, class, etc.

Sometimes I think that many people (particularly women) who do not consider themselves to be ‘feminists’ are actually disagreeing with a particular type of feminism.

Many women disagree with cultural feminism, because they do not relate to the kind of essentialised ‘woman’ that some of its proponents seek to promote. Others disagree with liberal feminism, because they do not want the “right to work”, without the workplace changing to be more accommodating to women, or society changing to be more supportive of people who seek to both work and raise children. Others disagree with radical feminism because they do not see gender as the only relevant tool of social analysis. They believe that sometimes, class, race, ethnicity, age or geographic location can be a far more relevant factor and feel that this is often ignored by radical feminism.

These people may, in fact, better identify with third wave feminism, while still others would disagree with them. They might feel that postmodern or third wave feminists were ignoring the history of the feminist struggle and the dominant role that (they believe) patriarchy continues to play in our societies…

It really does get a little complicated doesn’t it?

My last idea (for this post): Maybe some people reject the label of ‘feminist’ because they don’t want to get into a complicated discussion of trying to define exactly what they mean (or, more importantly, what they don’t mean) by it…

[NB: Inspired by the first Carnival of Feminists, and, particularly, by this post by Mind the Gap – thank you!]

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