ALJASSAR: Feminism is for some people

Contemporary American feminism suffers from elitism and a preoccupation with theory

I’ve found it difficult to talk to my friends about feminism. In late-night conversations with my hallmates, I have learned that few consider themselves feminists, although nearly all are in favor of equality between the sexes. Many reject feminism, rolling their eyes at any mention of the term.

According to a survey conducted last year, more than 80 percent of Americans believe that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.” Despite such an overwhelming majority, just 20 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as feminists.

If we accept author bell hooks’ definition of feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression,” then it’s surprising — almost paradoxical — that so many Americans profess a belief in gender equality while refusing the feminist label. Part of the problem is a lack of understanding. The notion that feminist ideology treats men as enemies of women is common, though erroneous.

Another reason for feminism’s unpopularity is the nasty connotations and stereotypes connected to feminism. Demagogues such as radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh have popularized the pejorative “feminazi,” associating feminism with militancy and distancing the average individual from feminism.

In 1992, television evangelist Pat Robertson said, “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” Such vilifications certainly bear some culpability for the common perception that the feminist movement carries a threatening agenda.

But I contend that members of the feminist movement (I use the word “movement” with care, as feminism is not a monolith) are also responsible, in part, for the average American’s suspicion of feminism.

The average American is put off by the elitism and intellectualism surrounding feminism and its supporters. Part of the issue lies in the feminist preoccupation with feminist theory. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of feminist theory, as understanding the nature of gender inequality through theoretical or philosophical discourse is meaningful. However, feminist theory does not resonate with the general population. It alienates the average American individual who does not care to understand concepts such as “gender performativity” and “the Other.”

George Orwell describes a similar disconnect between theory and the average person in his book “The Road to Wigan Pier.” The English working class, Orwell writes, is not receptive to socialism — an economic system that Orwell views as the solution to the economic ills of 1930s industrial England. Orwell concludes that socialists themselves are blameworthy because the average worker cannot relate to the socialist’s discussion of “surplus value” and “the bourgeoisie.” The average worker seeks better working hours and greater bargaining power. Highbrow socialists parroting points about “dialectical materialism” do nothing but alienate the average worker, according to Orwell.

Likewise, many average working-class women are left cold by abstract, academic ideas such as “the patriarchy.” More relevant issues are the massive gender wage gap or paternal leave in the United States.

A related problem is the feminist movement’s class and racial bias. Contemporary feminists such as Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, are criticized for their focus on women finding success in a corporate environment, an issue primarily for affluent, white women. Last August, the hashtag “#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen” trended on Twitter, revealing many individuals’ frustrations with feminism’s intersection with race and class. Non-white women and working-class women are often unable to relate to the ideas of feminists such as Sandberg.

Feminism is for everyone who believes in equality of the sexes. The significant gap between those who affirm a belief in gender equality and those who identify as feminists results partially from a highbrow culture surrounding feminism. Feminists can work to erase negative perceptions of feminism by opposing the elitism that estranges the American individual from feminism.

Nazar Aljassar is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Fridays.

related stories