Understanding Opposition to Feminism and What We Can Do about It

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by Letha Dawson Scanzoni
(with responses from Kendra Weddle Irons and Melanie Springer Mock)

Marissa Mayer was Google’s first first female engineer when she joined the startup company in 1999. Through the years, she advanced to an executive position with Google. This month, she was recruited by Yahoo to become its new CEO.

Long heralded for her accomplishments in a field dominated by men, she is featured on Makers, a jointly produced project by AOL and PBS spotlighting “trailblazing women who make America” to be aired on PBS next year.

So if anyone would be expected to call herself a feminist, it would be Marissa Mayer. Right?

Wrong!

This is what she said in this Makers Moment video :

“I don’t think I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights. I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don’t think I have the militant drive and the sort of chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that.”

She went on to say that feminism has become a negative word.

In calling attention to the incongruity of such an accomplished woman’s distancing herself from feminism, Chloe, on the Feministing website, wrote:

“. . .Marissa, it is too bad that feminism has become a negative word. You know what’s also too bad? Your failure to acknowledge that without feminism, you could never have become the CEO of Yahoo.”

Amy Tennery makes a similar point on the Ms.Magazine Blog.

People Who View Feminism Negatively

As I read about all this, I thought back to our last post on FemFaith. In it, the three of us talked about the fear that many women have of being associated with feminism. Why does this negative connotation exist? And how can we deal with it?

To answer that, I think we need to distinguish between two separate groups of people who oppose feminism. I’m calling one of them warriors against feminism, and the other worriers about feminism.

The Warriors against Feminism
The warriors camp despises the ideology of gender equality both in theory and in practice. Whether men or women, they have a vested interest in keeping men in power. Many have websites devoted to denigrating feminists and feminism. They make outrageous claims of what feminism is, what it does, and what its goals are.

And their poisonous accusations seep over into the media, which have all too often perpetuated a lot of the myths about feminism (even if watered-down somewhat). The major “disinformation” being spread is that feminists are man-haters, that feminists are selfish, and that they look down on motherhood and have contempt for stay-at-home moms. And feminists who are mothers themselves are charged with putting careers ahead of their children. Feminists are accused of wanting to destroy the family.

Opponents of feminism also like to accuse feminists of being “strident” (have you ever heard that word applied to a man?) and militant (the “chip on the shoulder” idea that even Mayers associated with the word, feminism). In this way of thinking, to point out gender injustices and work for change is considered combative, unfeminine, overly sensitive, hostile, and humorless.

And there is always the “L” word to hurl against any woman—regardless of sexual orientation— who dares to call herself a feminist and who questions or refuses to conform to traditional hierarchical gender roles. Suzanne Pharr writes that lesbian-baiting “is a homophobic attack, from either within or outside an organization, that implies or states that the presence of a lesbian or lesbians hurts or discredits the work of the organization. Its purpose is to hurt lesbians, to control all women, and to stop women’s social change work” (Susan Pharr, Homophobia a Weapon of Sexism, Little Rock, Ar: Chardon Press, 1988, p.34).

The Worriers about Feminism
The worriers about feminism are those who have accepted a lot of the propaganda spread by the warriors against feminism, and so they don’t want to be called feminists— even though they say they believe in gender equality and appreciate the gains women have made over the years. One of their main worries centers on how people will judge them if they are associated with an ideology so misunderstood and maligned.

The subgroup of worriers who are Christian believers have an even thicker fog of propaganda to trudge through. They have been told that God intended women to be subordinate to men in the church, home, and to a large degree in society—that men are the designated rulers. And when the power of a dominant group in a hierarchy is questioned, those holding such power (and those dependent on them or with a vested interest in the status quo) are going to resist.

So in addition to all the misinformation the worriers have heard from secular despisers of feminism, they now hear religious warriors claiming that a woman’s very desire for gender equality means she is rebelling against God! These warriors assert that feminism goes against clear biblical teachings on separate roles for women and men and that were established by God at creation.

And so some people who are “almost” or “would-be” Christian feminists are frightened into holding back, believing they might otherwise be violating the will of God. Another fear many Christians have is a fear of chaos. They yearn for order—an order that seems easier to maintain when everyone knows and remains fixed in her or his place in a prescribed social order.

What Can Christian Feminists Do?
I think before we can dialogue with anti-feminists, we first need to try to determine which category they are in. Are they “warriors against feminism” who hate the very idea of gender equality? Or are they “worriers about feminism” who recognize the value in gender equality but are afraid to embrace it because of the falsehoods they have heard?

If they’re in the first category, we might be wasting our time to engage in a discussion. We need to stay alert to why the war against feminism is important to them and recognize the weapons they use to fight against social and economic gains for women. Such people are not likely to be open to reasoning or any kind of efforts at persuasion because they have such a strong investment (emotionally, materially, or politically) in keeping the battle raging; they would just like to pick a fight. (Think of the religious and other reactionary groups that have found how effectively sensational warnings about feminism can be used to raise money.)

But if we’re talking with “worriers,” people in the second category who are genuinely afraid of feminism, we can help dispel their fears with a loving, gentle attitude, patiently introducing them to new ways of reading and interpreting Scripture, as well as providing positive examples (maybe our own example) of what a feminist really looks like and how Christianity and feminism intersect in emphasizing justice, equality, and respect for the full dignity of all people regardless of gender—or anything else.

 Kendra’s Response: We Need to Do More

Thank you, Letha, for providing a clear way to think about those who either are against feminism or those who espouse values in keeping with feminism but who want to distance themselves from the movement because of misinformation. Identifying two very different perspectives is useful in knowing how to respond: having the wisdom to reach out to those who might be persuaded while at the same time cutting one’s losses among those who have no hope of seeing the light makes a lot of sense to me.

I suppose these are not static categories, as I can imagine many people floating back and forth between the two. Too, I’m sure we would all agree we need to be careful to interact with others as individuals with their own unique experiences and ideas about feminism.

In thinking about compassionately bringing others along as they are ready and willing, I was reminded of the invaluable mentors who have assisted me, including you, Letha. This kind of one-on-one work is crucial even if it seems to make little overall difference.

And yet I also feel like we need to do more.

I went to college in the late 1980s in the Midwest where strong women were prevalent though feminism as a topic was absent. All of my professors in my field (Religion and Philosophy) were men, and I never even for a moment thought about the implications of having no female role-model. Nor did I consider how a woman might teach these subjects differently from a man.

The feminist movement had rocked the world around me and I was completely insulated from its reverberations.

None of my professors planted the idea that I might want to attend a graduate school where feminist thought was intersecting with Christian theology and history. And because my professors were silent about this movement, I did not know what possibilities existed. As I look back on my ignorance, I lament not knowing more. Not being aware of an entire movement underfoot resulted in my journey to feminism coming much later than I wished it had. And I suspect that had I known about the burgeoning field of feminism and Christianity, it would have shaped my professional life in that direction, too.

But that’s just me.

Much larger is the reality of a current anti-feminist movement, intentional with its goal to return feminism and equality (and even in some cases the right of women to vote) to the pages of history. Anti-feminists are calling on women and men to see feminism as a war, one they need to win because the stakes are no less than defaming God, the Bible, or both.

There is at the same time momentum working in favor of feminism through the courageous work of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. In their willingness to stand strong against the Vatican’s claim that they are being too feminist, we as Christian feminists should see this as an opportunity to work with them in this moment of potential change.

Additionally, there seems to be a growing movement among all of the world’s enduring religions. Each is re-evaluating its thinking about women and patriarchal preferences and there is a concerted effort to discuss these challenges with practitioners of other faith traditions as seen in this recent YouTube video.

We should be kind and warm-hearted, no doubt. But, I hope we will also embrace the solidarity our feminist foremothers (including Letha) have taught us and from that place speak truth to power.

Melanie’s Response:  Are We Missing Bigger Issues?

As a news junkie, I’ve been following the story of Marissa Mayer’s hiring by Yahoo! with particular interest. And what a story it is! As Letha points out, Mayer is a leader in a field populated predominantly by men. Because of her strengths and ability, Mayer has moved quickly through the ranks in the Silicon Valley, and at 37, she’s the youngest CEO now running a Fortune 500 company. Oh, and she’s about to become a mother; her first child—a son—is due in October.

So yes, like Letha and Kendra, I feel some disappointment in Mayer’s unwillingness to claim a feminist identity, especially because the work and sacrifice of earlier feminists have made Mayer’s ascendency possible. And, like Letha and Kendra, I see in Mayer’s denial the threads of an anti-feminist movement that seems to be gaining strength, evidenced in the many ways Letha and Kendra describe.

But I worry that by focusing on whether or not Mayer embraces a feminist identity, we might miss the bigger issues in this story, issues that reflect not just a society dead-set against feminists, but one that also holds deeply entrenched antipathy toward all women. In a year when the rights of women—for control over reproduction, for equal pay, for health care—have been undermined, we see again in Mayer’s story the many ways women are unequally treated.

Rather than expressing disappointment in Mayer’s response, then, we need to ask the following questions:

1) Why is this even a major news story? When men take over Fortune 500 companies, there may be a small notice in the business section of newspapers. Mayer’s hiring became major news for days, her new position mulled over by pundits on radio and TV and the web. Should we be wondering why a woman’s position as CEO of a major corporation causes a stir? What does this say about the lack of women in executive positions?

 2) Why was she asked about her identification as a feminist? After all, a reporter will likely not ask a man whether he identifies as a feminist or any other –ist. Why does Mayer need to answer this question, and what does this say about our societal assumptions regarding successful business women? Until every new male CEO is also asked whether he is a feminist, it seems unfair to ask a new female CEO—or to be critical of her answer.

3) Why was there so much focus on her impending family? In the days after the Yahoo! announcement, journalists of all stripes began critiquing Mayer’s insistence that she would work through a short maternity leave. You can see a synthesis of these critiques in an excellent Salon article by Mary Elizabeth Williams titled “Hey, moms: Hush up,” but essentially, Mayer was taking heat, mostly by other women, for asserting that she would have no problem working and raising a child. Her critics scoffed at her idealism, asserting Mayer was naïve in her assumption that having her son—and being a CEO at the same time—would be a cake walk.

Were the new CEO hire a soon-to-be father, you can be sure this information would be a footnote in any story about Yahoo! There wouldn’t be any questions about what kind of leave the father might take, nor about his ability to balance family and work. Instead, news stories would focus on the man’s skills as a leader, his already triumphant career, and his plans for turning a troubled business around. Why so much scrutiny, then, about Mayer’s dual roles as a parent and a CEO? Why are there different expectations for mothers than for fathers, both in the workplace and at home? And how can we ever achieve equity until those expectations are the same?

I appreciate Letha’s identification of the different opponents of feminism; her analysis is helpful in guiding our consideration of how—and in what ways—critics have found fault with the feminist movement. And, like Kendra, I hope we can work toward solidarity with those who identify as Christians and feminists, speaking truth to power as a way to initiate change.

But, to be honest, I think we also need to give Mayer a break when she makes the choice to reject any kind of feminist identity. She’s received enough criticism already, and will face continued scrutiny about her work and life choices that other Fortune 500 CEOs will not have to face, if only because our society continues to hold women to entirely different—and harsher—standards than men. Even if she never decides to label herself a feminist, I will be cheering for her to succeed, because I think her success, as a CEO and as a working mother, is its own kind of truth to power that we all need.

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FemFaith Authors
Kendra Weddle Irons teaches religion at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. Her first book, "Preaching on the Plains: Methodist Women Preachers in Kansas, 1920-1956," was published in 2007 by University Press of America. Melanie Springer Mock is a professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. In 2003, Cascadia Publishing House published her book, "Writing Peace: The Unheard Voices of Great War Mennonite Objectors." And in 2011, Barclay Press published "Just Moms: Conveying Justice in an Unjust World," a collection that Melanie co-edited with Rebekah D. Schneiter. Kendra and Melanie co-wrote "If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be," published in 2015 by Chalice Press. Letha Dawson Scanzoni has authored or coauthored nine books, including "All We’re Meant to Be" (in 1974, with Nancy Hardesty), which many scholars consider to have played a major part in the launching and spread of biblical feminism. She served as the content editor for Christian Feminism Today from 1994 to 2014.

5 COMMENTS

  1. What a great topic and well-written article, Letha. Thanks for highlighting Marissa Mayer’s promotion to CEO of Yahoo! and her answer to “the question.” I too cringe at the words “militant drive” and “chip on the shoulder” as associated with feminism. (Is it easy to be oppressed and not have these?)
    I love your warrior/worrier analysis of those who do not like the f word. Very helpful–and your warmth toward those who are worriers and afraid.
    Kendra, thank you for noting the fluidity of these groups and sharing your Midwest journey in the ’80s unaware of feminism. I agree with Melanie that Marissa shouldn’t have to take a position on feminism when she becomes CEO of Yahoo!, but at least the ripples around her answer continue to keep the movement in the spotlight so that fewer college students today can be unaware of it.
    Marissa doesn’t have to identify with feminism–she embodies it. And didn’t we all think we having a career and a child would work out just fine–before the baby was born? May she have success in both arenas, however she works out the problems of child care and leading Yahoo!
    Just as Sally Ride chose not to take on the label “lesbian” while doing her important work for women, Marissa can set aside the label “feminist.” We have to choose our battles, and their work is hard enough as it is.
    Sabrina, hooray for devout Orthodox feminists! I hope your screenplay comes to life and I get to watch it.
    Karen, thank you for this fascinating history of the term “feminist.”
    Kathleen, for me too identifying as a feminist meant such positive things as a young woman (and still does). It’s good to hear about your valiant chapter of NOW and your activism on the state level. I joined NOW in 1970–those were the days!

  2. Reclaiming a word is a powerful thing. It’s certainly possible that Marisa Mayer is simply a product of her time, a young woman who knows she can have it all, perhaps with no looking in the rear view mirror to see how she got there. It’s also possible that in her lifetime, the word feminism meant something different than it means to me or to you, Letha.
    I grew up in the 50’s, 60’s and went to college in the 70’s. When I was ready to leave journalism school, there were not very many models of women in my profession, and so, in my first job, post graduation, I joined the local chapter of N.O.W. I was brimming with enthusiasm, because our group was so small, I soon became an officer on our board, and we were writing letters to the editor, visiting state legislators, and it was like opening a great big package called ” What we Are and what we can be”, sort of like Letha’s book title “All We’re Meant to Be “. In a small part of Northeastern Pennsylvania, our little chapter of N.O.W. was a big deal. My colleague, a scientist by training was a strong, vocal supporter for abortion rights, and I learned, too, how important it was for women to have the right to decide about their own bodies, our sexual lives, etc.
    For me, feminism meant becoming an adult woman. It means living my life completely confident in the grounding that we are equal to men, and that means I became more tolerant and completely open and accepting of many people’s choices and lifestyles.
    Perhaps for Ms. Mayer, being a CEO gives her that same feeling, whether or not she calls her self a feminist. Whatever works for each woman to reach her potential, works. I wish, however, that she had not characterized feminists as having that ” chip on their shoulders”, as though we had something to fight about. Being a feminist means I don’t have to fight, I can simply BE.

  3. Thanks, Karen, for your sharing more of the history behind the term feminism.

    Your point about introducing feminist texts to a younger generation seems to me like a clarion call to all. It isn’t that difficult to start an inter-generational reading group. And Stephanie Staal’s Reading Women might be a good book to generate interest.

  4. I loved Letha’s alliterative classification of the “Warriors” and “Worriers,” and will probably use those terms myself in future. But I also appreciated Kendra’s reminder that we need to stay aware of the fact that these categories are fluid and permeable, lest we find ourselves hopelessly limited by the dualistic habit of mind that our culture reinforces at every turn.

    I’m also happy to let you know that this F-word phenomenon is nothing new. Here’s a little history lesson you might find helpful….

    The word “feminism” did not appear in the English language until around 1910-12; but it wasn’t explained or promoted until 1914, when a group of progressive New Yorkers organized what they called “The First Feminist Mass Meeting.” It was held in Cooper Union Hall (which seated 5,000) to overflow crowds of folks who were curious about the meaning of the term
    and were wondering why it seemed to be gaining traction.

    The topic of the first meeting was “What Feminism Means to Me” A dozen well-known public intellectuals (6 women, 6 men) presented a range of positive definitions (Today scholars recognize that there has never been just one definition; now we refer to “feminisms” in the plural). But they all shared the view that women would eventually get the vote and needed to start planning what they’d do with it. The feminists saw Suffrage as merely the first step on a long, long journey toward social justice.

    The topic of the second meeting was “Breaking Into the Human Race,” and seven women speakers spoke about the basic human rights women ought to have. Among those rights were both “the right to specialize in home industries” and “the right of the mother to her profession.” So much for the myth that feminists are against home & family! Of course “the right to work” was also on the list, proving that feminists have always supported every woman’s right to make her own life choices.

    Both meetings were judged successful, and (as far as I can tell) the word “feminism” fared reasonably well in popular opinion for a few years–at least, there was no organized opposition to the movement. Not, that is, until women got the right to vote in 1920. Then the tide began to turn.

    Young women who came of age in the 1920’s had no personal experience of the 72-year battle women had fought to get the vote. All they knew about the women’s rights movement was what others (especially the media) told them.They considered their rights fully won and saw no need for continued activism. “Feminism” was passe, something they associated with the older generations of their mothers and grandmothers.

    But, as women began to exercise the new political powers they had gained, the “Warrior” forces began to organize and a major Backlash began. By the end of the 1920’s, they had thoroughly demonized the word “feminism.” I remember reading a magazine article from 1928, published for an audience of advertising & marketing executives. It warned them that the term had become too dangerous to use in their productions. So it’s no wonder that the
    word fell out of popular usage for almost 40 years, until it was reclaimed in the early 1960’s.

    You can see how the process has, in so many ways, begun again–starting in the late 1970’s (with Phyllis Schlafly and the Stop-ERA fight) and gaining significant momentum since the 1980’s However, I think that the younger generation is beginning to wake up, as they see the opportunities and freedoms they have taken for granted disappearing before their eyes.

    If we can explain some of this background to them, and get them to recognize that (through no fault of their own) they’ve grown up in yet another historical context that has predisposed them to think of “feminism” in negative terms, there is hope on the horizon. Also, if we can introduce them to some of the primary texts that were generated by feminists themselves, in the 19-teens and 1960-70’s, they will find many opinions and arguments that not onlycontradict what they’ve been told about the movement but also make good sense to them! Those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see, can judge for themselves when presented with the evidence.

    Sorry to have gone on so long about this. You can see what happens when a teacher retires and loses her podium…. (smile).

  5. Very interesting article, and quite true. When I was in university back in the 90s, the book Backlash came out about how feminism even then was being called the other “F” word. I wrote a screenplay about this idea of feminism being the word no one wants to be labeled. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell because I feel the word is just that stigmatized, both in and out of the Church. I can remember one time I put out a personal ad and mentioned that I am a feminist only to have a gazillion people tell me I should take it out because too many men have a negative connotation of the word and that implies man hater or lesbian (neither of which am I). Anyway, I just wish people would get past all the negative stuff and realize one can still stand up for women’s empowerment and also embrace all the good things of femininity. People need to stop throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I consider myself a devout Orthodox Christian AND a feminist because I am liberated by Christ’s death and resurrection. I figure God gave us women a womb and a brain and it’s not a sin to use ’em both.

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