The F Word As A Tool of Empowerment

From an early age, I knew “feminist” was a bad word. Flirty boys in middle school youth group would tell me tired old “woman jokes” to get a reaction, but to prove that I was cool and easy-going I told the boys that kind of thing didn’t bother me. And it really didn’t. “I’m like, the opposite of a feminist,” I would tell them proudly, “none of that makes me mad.” It didn’t—I had great, kind men and strong women in my life, and my adolescent heart just didn’t see a need for the likes of the F word.

But nothing will bring out your inner feminist like college. I started to meet guys—for the first time in my life—that didn’t respect who I was as a person. They treated me with indifference (a well-known goodie two-shoes at the time, and already dating someone) as they fixated on the very single “party girls.” I would walk into a fellow freshman’s room to see his conspicuous poster of girls in swimsuits and my sense of worth would immediately shrink. As a theology major, I participated in classroom debates about “The Woman’s Issue” as male classmates reassured me that the Bible was very clear on the concept of women in leadership, but that children’s ministry was there for the taking! I met with a seminary recruiter who told me with sincere kindness that he thought I would be successful in ministry despite my gender. As all this built up, I overheard someone say in a coffee shop that “all feminism means is that you support equal rights for women. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, it doesn’t matter if you wear makeup or not, whether you are married or single. It doesn’t even matter if you choose to label yourself as such.” I didn’t believe the guy. I looked up the dictionary definition of feminism, dictionary-trusting English major that I am. He was right.

I had never considered myself a feminist before—feminists were mean and angry and boys didn’t like them. I was hurt though. I was hurt by the way I had been treated and the way other women had been treated. My mother had been refused a “breadwinner” bonus in the catholic high school that she taught physics because women aren’t supposed to be breadwinners. I was a little embarrassed to be a woman and I was angry that I was embarrassed. Periods are disgusting, the shape of breasts should be covered up, and just about every insult I heard every day could be unraveled to basically mean “woman.” My eyes were suddenly opened to the secret messages the world had been hurling at me since I was born. Chances are, no woman will make it to the cover of Sports Illustrated unless she’s wearing a bikini. Because what a woman does matters less than what she looks like. I listened to the nation’s endless obsession with the appearances of Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton. “Your worth,” the world said, “is in how much men like you. And men like [insert bikini model’s name]. Try as hard as you can to become her.” Suddenly, all the time I spent shaving my legs, putting on make-up, toning my abs, smiling when I didn’t feel like it, shopping for push-up bras…they were all just ways I could make myself more appealing to men. A male friend tweeted, “Yoga pants should have a weight limit.” The world said, “Work hard to make their worlds more aesthetically pleasing.”

So I guess, instead of explaining the extent of my frustrations when someone asked me, I found it easier to say, “I’m a feminist.” The word packed a punch and I liked that. It made people a little uncomfortable. Those of you on a coast or in a big city that think I’m exaggerating, I dare you to drop by any town in South Dakota, engage in conversation with someone in a public place, and drop the F bomb in regards to your beliefs. Chances are they’ll treat you like you proclaimed your loyalty to the anarchist revolution. In my experience, the conversation will either end or get so condescending that you’ll have to excuse yourself.

A male friend once questioned my use of the word: “It’s so violent. I mean, right or wrong it just has the connotation that women want to overpower men.” I was very cautious in asserting myself in this matter (and most matters, honestly). I didn’t want to seem to aggressive or mean. I wanted him to still like me. “I guess ‘equalist’ does the concept justice,” I said, and I used “equalist” for a while.

I explained my transition from “feminist” to “equalist” to a professor once in a coffee shop. She is a well-known diva, a fighter, and I’ve never seen her apologize. She ruffles feathers here because she simply does what she wants. She’s got opinions and she’s not afraid of her own voice. I explained, “maybe the cause would get farther if we gave up the F word…it rubs so many people the wrong way.” She chuckled a little and told me without hesitation, “Never apologize for the F word.”

And I stopped apologizing. The word makes some people uncomfortable, but if I’ve learned anything about words from writing, it’s that weak ones don’t do anything. No one remembers them and they don’t change anyone’s mind. If the word “feminist” is a little strong, so am I.

The F Word As A Tool of Empowerment

15 thoughts on “The F Word As A Tool of Empowerment

  1. Interesting read. I’ve been thinking about this some myself lately.
    I’ve never referred to myself as a feminist, partially because I’ve always found it to have the negative implications you were talking about, partially because I have a feeling that some of my views aren’t what some people think of as feminist. But when it boils down to it, that’s maybe what I am. Just because “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” or however you want to phrase the many differences between men and women, I’ve never once thought that either sex is superior. Just different. And it stuns me every time I see or hear about guys treating girls like objects. It saddens me that the term “nice guy” has negative connotations because a lot of “nice guys” think they’re entitled to more than friendship.

    I guess the reason I don’t consider myself a feminist is that I don’t like that the concept of feminism even has to exist. I mean, really, once you take out all the bra-burning, misandry, and all those other things associated with radical militant feminism, it seems like it boils down to “treat women like people.” Which, you know, is kind of common sense, considering that that’s what they are.

  2. The Irreligious Right has worked very hard for decades to make the word “Feminist” into something it’s not. Rightwing radio has been extremely loud in doing their part to distort and dehumanize women in general and Feminists in particular. I describe myself as a Feminist and try to take advantage of opportunities to disabuse folks of that misunderstanding. It’s a great opportunity to talk about what Feminism is about from my perspective.

    I’m old enough, 60, to have some perspective on the Feminist movement. BTW, my grandmother was a Feminist born in 1900. I’ve got great genes!

    Feminism says that women have every right to be completely in control of their own lives. Whether their decisions bring positive or negative results, or something in between is their own business.

    Unless a thing requires a vagina, functional breasts, or a penis, there ought to be no distinctions regarding who is fit to do it.

    Lastly, my personal pet peeve – the English language needs to create and institute a gender-neutral personal pronoun! Our species is not ‘man’, we are Humanity. I’m sick to death of a culture that makes ‘male’ the norm. Grrrr.
    (Just sayin. . . )

  3. Oilie von Oalofson says:

    Observation: People seek the path of least resistance. People adopt views that make life easiest. In many circles, this includes being progressive and/or a feminist. In others it means denying global warming. In still others it means being unquestionably pro-Israel. Viewpoint conformity doesn’t mean the person stating the socially accepted view has actually thought about the issue or even understands what values are involved, it just means they’ve noticed life is easier if you can convince your peers you have no point of conflict on this particular issue. People aren’t any dumber in any particular geographic region. The viewpoint of least resistance does, however, change. In the Dakotas, the viewpoint of least resistance is perceived to not be too much of a feminist. When people engage in actual thinking, their own beliefs lead to conclusions that can be described as feminist.

    I just had a discussion to this effect in Pierre, SD. The discussion involved the pay gap between men and women and the impact of paternity leave (a hot topic, thanks to Prince William). I said that as a male, paternity leave important if men and women are going to be bearing the impact of adding to their families equally. I was asked, “Are you a feminist?” The response was a clear “yes!” with the follow-up in vernacular: “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be? I’m not a total ******* *******.”

    I’m a male. Political beliefs are moderate. I’m from South and sometimes North Dakota. I’ve got friends and family members that hit the full range of the political spectrum. I feel if the issue is discussed accurately, most people are for equality between men and women and policies that promote equality. Feminism is very mainstream, at least in the abstract.

    For example, ask: “Who should bear the economic impact of human procreation? Men? Women? Or both equally?” Then ask: “Should employers take the fact that a woman has a uterus into account when they make hiring and training decisions?” Most of the people I know say both equally to the first question. For the second, most will say that the fact that women have uteri should not be a relevant factor in hiring/promotion/training decisions.

    We know from recent studies that women under 30 are making more than their male counterparts. The reverse is true over 30. What’s the difference between women under 30 and women over 30? I’d venture to guess that those over 30 are more likely to be parents. That data implies that a woman’s career plateaus right around the time the she and her partner have children. The same is not true for men. His career does not plateau when he and his partner have children. Employers seem to treat the prospective/actual mothers differently than prospective/actual fathers. I believe a controlled experiment involving sets of equally qualified men and women of childbearing age would support this.

    Prince William nailed this problem and gets it. Women will bear biological impact of human procreation in an unequal manner because they have a uteri and mammary glands. The only way to level the playing field a bit is to help men take a bigger role in parenting. Employers aren’t just going to magically start caring about the involvement of dads. Without paternity leave, the impact and analysis that goes into hiring a young female will be different for than the same analysis for hiring a male as the impact of pregnancy and possible leave will be different.

    Pet Peeve: The term “woman’s issues.” When fellow men hear the term “women’s issues,” we zone out as we’re not women and therefore presume anything labeled a “women’s issue” need not concern us. Issues like domestic violence and equal pay are human issues. They affect men and women, boys and girls. Timmy’s mom getting passed over at her work affects Timmy. The income of a married woman is marital income. The woman receiving less than she’s worth is an injustice to the household. Violence against women is like 80% violence against women and children. I’ve observed that approximately half of children are boys. Calling these issues “women’s issues” is inaccurate and misleading.

  4. A friend of mine once said that what tends to happen when you go from “feminist” to “equalist” or “egalitarian” is that the men come in, take over and declare everything a-okay.

  5. Excellent analytical comment Oilie.

    You are right about that Aleph.

    Andy, that was just stupid. If I were you I’d use a pseudonym too.

    It does this woman’s heart much good to know how far the conversation has moved in an honest position. Thank you all.

  6. Say it loudly, proudly and often. Just because something makes others uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s time to shut up. At one point in American history, owning slaves was normal as was making blacks (African Americans, whatever your choice) sit at the back of the bus until the civil rights movement. We moved past that. But women will be fighting for economic and political power for decades, generations and probably centuries to come.

  7. Terminology is an interesting thing. As a man if I ever say I’m a feminist I’m usually praised for that proclamation, maybe not so much by guys, but women who don’t consider themselves feminist seem to like it, which is a little sad. I’ve found that they sometimes think of it as “well, if a man is okay with feminism, then why shouldn’t I be?” getting a man’s approval for a line of thinking that teaches you to go against that doesn’t set you off on the right foot.

    I certainly understand your previous aversion to the word. Throughout my life I’ve gone from calling myself an atheist to an agnostic to a humanist. The primary reason for the change was shifting philosophies, but a nice added bonus is that it reduces the stigma.

    Atheists are seen as know-it-alls who will sometimes take disbelief to the extreme, and, indeed, I’ve been forced to know many that fall into that category. When I called myself atheist people immediately judged me in that way, but as a humanist enough people are ignorant of that term to at least ask me what its about so I get a chance to explain it rather than get labeled.

    I’d say you made the right decision to proudly use the term feminist, its admirable to come over that anxiety, but I wouldn’t say it was wrong to avoid the term either if it can promote discussion instead of stigma.

  8. ss says:

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    my presentation subject, which i am going to present in college.

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