In July 2012 feminism seemed to achieve an unprecedented victory when Yahoo! appointed Marissa Mayer as chief executive officer. Mayer is female and was pregnant at the time of hire. It seemed undeniable that this was a coup for feminism, but Mayer expressed different in an interview when she said she would not consider herself a feminist because she lacks the “militant drive” and “chip on the shoulder” that accompany feminism.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a feminist as someone who advocates the rights and equality of women. So why are successful women like Mayer reluctant to identify themselves as feminists? We may find the answer in feminazi, a derogatory term used to refer to women who support women's rights. Its negative connotation would certainly help explain Mayer’s distance from feminism.
Not all feminists are strong, just as not all priests are pious, but when a woman of Mayer's stature rejects being a feminist, she inadvertently reinforces the misconception that feminism is a negative movement. Furthermore, by aligning the term with a “chip on the shoulder” Mayer implies that feminism carries unreasonable grievances, and accepts the definition that opposes its central tenets.
Such acceptance weakens the feminist movement and prevents it from reaching the men and women who would most benefit from equal rights in society. As things are, unfortunately the people who most need feminism often distance themselves from its principles because the anti-feminist rhetoric obstructs its message and they fear carrying a negative burden.
We must debunk the misconceptions that lurk in internet discussions about feminism, which identify the concept as anti-male. Feminism merely opposes the monopoly of privilege—patriarchy—that serves an elite group of people at the detriment of most.
Writers Laurie Penny and Martin Robbins addressed patriarchy when they debated how to discuss sexism with men. Robbins said the term often prevented him from convincing men that feminism does not oppose their gender. Penny explained that the very phenomenon of patriarchy has misrepresented the word, and that patriarchy does not explicitly refer to men, but refers to a “system of privilege” in which some men (patriarchs) exert power. She cited Margaret Thatcher as the rare example of a female patriarch.
Feminist opposition to patriarchy therefore does not attack men; it defies an unjust system that benefits a minority and thrives on the oppression of women and most men. Before societies can amend such a flawed structure, we need to revise contemporary perceptions of the meaning and purpose of feminism.
The world patriarch has been derailed and paraded online to function as the sham counterpart of the misrepresentation of feminist. As mentioned earlier, patriarchy works for few men and fewer women. This means that at least 50 percent of men who read online material could become allies of feminism if they learned its accurate meaning.
Alas information online is not always educational, as illustrated by feminazi, which occupies a spot in the popular urban dictionary, where its definition includes the following: “Feminazis just make us look stupid. Feminazis believe that all men are idiots”. These sentences conjure a damaging appropriation of women, and are designed to reflect antagonism toward men, turn them against feminism and discredit the movement.
The more troubling aspect of the full urban entry for feminazi is that the author appears to be a woman who defines herself as a feminist. There is sad irony in this, given that the writer demonstrates anger toward a mythical figure created by the opponents of feminism. She misdirects her anger and disgraces the movement she claims to support.
Similarly, Mayer's rejection of feminism accentuates the false perception of a movement, whose true purpose promotes the same equality she supports. Moreover, people may perceive Mayer’s stance as a calculated strategy in public relations, which indicates that the negative portrayal of feminism has become so pervasive that it may damage the reputation of those who publicly identify as feminists.
Thinking feminists must rise to the occasion and challenge the misappropriation of terms attached to feminism. We need to reclaim these words and cleanse them of the negative reputation forced upon them by patriarchy. Women and men need liberation from patriarchal systems, particularly men who do not fit the alpha male stereotype. Feminists must teach people that feminazi is a false construct and feminism is essential for human progress. Most important, we must teach that a feminist is a person who believes in equal rights, independently of gender.
Caroline Criado-Perez prepared this text with assistance from e-feminist staff.