For those of us who still describe ourselves as feminists, Susan Sarandon’s recent refusal of the title warns that, if we want people to keep listening to us, we need to focus on cooperating rather than on power struggles.
“I believe in equality. The problem I’ve had with feminists is that they always insist that I come to the table accepting that I am the aggressor,” said my date—a delightfully laid-back, intelligent, leftist type—over his whiskey. Across the table, I simultaneously felt both my feminist hackles and the voltage of my female pheromones rise, as I wondered the best way to defend my beliefs while also making clear that I was still quite interested in sleeping with him.
He would not be the last progressive in my life to express support for gender equality but discomfort with feminism. My current partner prefers the label that Susan Sarandon, that unfailing defender of women’s rights over the past decades, chose to use in a recent interview with The Guardian: “Humanist.”
In an article yesterday in The Daily Beast, Lizzie Crocker put Sarandon’s surprising characterization of “feminist” as “a bit of an old-fashioned word” down to simple word choice: “Her disassociation with the feminist label and its negative connotations just boils down to semantics. The ideology hasn’t lost its value; it’s just been poorly branded.”
But I think Crocker slightly trivializes an objection to the feminist label that Sarandon, and many other proponents of women’s rights, clearly believe to be important: It’s often considered a marker of aggressive divisiveness, an entrenched defensiveness, rather than of commitment to gender progress. Sarandon told The Guardian that being a humanist was “less alienating to people who think of feminism as being a load of strident bitches.” My partner, for instance, believes unswervingly in gender equality, as both an abstract ideal and the operating principle of our partnership. But he argues the word “feminism” describes a position of division between the sexes, rather than cooperation between them to achieve a shared aim.
No less committed an advocate for women’s rights than the original second-wave feminist, Betty Friedan, warned over a decade ago over the morphing of feminism into what she called “sexual politics”: “Sexual politics…was an explosion of women’s pent-up anger and rage against the put-downs they had to accept when they were completely dependent on men…But [it] now feeds the politics of hate and the growing polarization of America.”
Other progressives have chimed in to defuse the conflict that feminism embodies for some people by reframing gender-equality issues along different axes. The Atlantic’s Stephen Marche, for instance, weighed in recently with an appeal to change the terms of the conversation over gender roles in the home, paid leave, and work/life balance, reframing these as “family” rather than “women’s” concerns: “As long as family issues are miscast as women’s issues, they will be dismissed as the pleadings of one interest group among many.”
But accepting that some people see a divisive streak in the modern feminist movement does not mean that feminism has nothing to offer, or that the label “feminist” has become defunct for actual defenders of gender equality. I will continue to call myself a feminist—instead of a humanist or an egalitarian or a women’s-rights activist—because feminism offers a comprehensive diagnosis for a systematic illness that is in fact rooted in society’s discriminatory treatment of those born with an extra X chromosome.
Anyone interested in the social sciences can appreciate along with me the power of a concise theory that elegantly explains many different expressions of a global social trend. And as David Rothkopf recently made clear, in a Foreign Policy post examining why women occupied only 10% of the slots on FP’s global list of the 500 most powerful people, sexism is still the most shocking and generalized problem in every country in the world—or, as he calls it, “civiliation’s greatest shame.”
Feminism keeps the analytical lens honed on the fact that simply being female is correlated with a great deal of human suffering and inequality. It’s one thing to say that, as an egalitarian or a humanist, you will fight injustice where you see it. It’s quite another to say, as a feminist, that you have pinpointed the source of an observed inequality in the arbitrary relegation of half of the world’s population to “second-class status” (to use Rothkopf’s words). Humanism and egalitarianism are the values toward which we strive; feminism is one of the analytical and prescriptive tools we can use to help us get there.
But feminists should still interpret Sarandon’s reluctance to call herself a feminist as a warning sign of how “sexual politics” can undermine the universal goal of gender equality. Any conflict that degenerates into simple maneuvers defending ideological turf just ends in stalemate and rancor. Many feminists have in large part underemphasized the need to cooperate with those men and women and policymakers who do not, for whatever reason, buy into the systematic explanation of vulnerability that feminism offers, but do broadly support gender equality. Some (read: I myself) have experienced how male partners can react with utter bewilderment or defensiveness to quite straightforward concepts in feminism—for instance, the male gaze—that orient men in a position of power or advantage that they, as individuals, may never have felt themselves to occupy. And we all know older women like my own mother, who grew up conservative but came to rather sheepishly support women’s rights out of her own experience of vulnerability. She would never, though, call herself “feminist”: to her that label still seems about as radical as taking LSD.
Incorporating such perspectives can bring a new dimension—and thus a new relevance—to a feminist analysis. But the benefit of cooperating rather than defending turf is, at bottom, more personal that that. Many of our parents, siblings, partners, or friends will number, like Sarandon, among the “feminism-wary.” Taking a cooperative rather than defensive attitude with them will surely do as much to combat the “uptight, man-hating” stereotype of feminists as it will to preserve our own peace of mind and well-being. Both are aims I fully believe would garner Sarandon’s approval.
Or, as Stephen Marche puts it: “Real liberation will not be one against the other, but both together.”
Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Bogotá, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group.