Why Don't Teen Girls Identify as Feminists?

I’ll just get it out of the way: Barnard’s Young Women’s Leadership Institute was an amazing program, and one of the best experiences of my life. We had some really awesome speakers/workshops (including Ingrid Dahl from the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls - awesome) and really engaging teachers. But that’s not what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about are the approximately 55 girls who were selected for this program – the future women leaders of America – and what they thought about feminism.

I signed up for this program thinking, “Awesome! I can’t wait for all the insightful feminist conversations I’m going to have! So many young feminists in one place, we’re practically going to take over the world!” And yet, this is not so much what I was faced with (at least at first). Out of the 55 girls, maybe 5-10 considered themselves feminists, and even some of those girls were on the fence. Which, of course, I accept: there are many reasons not to identify as a feminist, and as a feminist I respect the right of any individual to choose how they want to identify. Admittedly, though, I was a little disappointed. That is, until I realized what a unique opportunity this was.

People always ask me why teen girls don’t identify as feminists. Weirdly, they don’t see the irony in asking a self-identifying feminist why other people don’t identify as feminist (not only am I unable to give a personal answer, I’m left generalizing the rationales of an entire generation). The biggest reason I have come across, especially when considering my own friends, is lack of understanding of what feminism actually is and/or fearing the stigma of the word. There really are so many girls who think being a feminist just means hating men, or thinking women are BETTER than men. Or they really just have no idea. And I can’t even tell you how many of my friends align themselves completely with feminist issues, but won’t identify as feminists because they care too much about how ignorant people (who think feminists = hairy man haters) perceive them. But going to YWLI helped me realize other reasons why girls don’t identify as feminist. I was faced with a captive audience of intelligent teen girls, already poised to talk about feminism, and was ready to find out once and for all why girls don’t identify as feminists.

The confusion about what being a feminist means was still a top reason. In fact, many girls had come to YWLI not because they already were feminists (as I had assumed), but because they wanted to learn about feminism – which actually makes perfect sense, considering schools generally fail at teaching about the feminist movement. Many girls told me that yes, they understood that feminists were for women’s rights, but their knowledge about the movement – especially the MODERN movement --basically ended there. And while they supported feminism in that sense, they didn’t necessarily want to go around calling themselves a feminist (a pretty significant commitment to the cause, when you think about it) without being fully informed.

Other girls said they understand what feminism is and believe in feminism. However, they felt that the negative connotation of the word “feminist”  is only a hindrance in their fight to advocate for their beliefs. It wasn’t that they were embarrassed or scared of people judging them (per se) but rather that if they had to spend all their time (and their “opponents” attention span) de-mystifying the word feminist, what were they accomplishing? They’d rather avoid the controversy and get right to the issues.

Similarly, girls felt the term “feminist” was not an accurate description, and in general hurts more than it helps. “Humanist” seemed to be the most agreed upon term. Our generation can be thankful for the rights previous feminists have gained and which we now enjoy, but the truth is that (especially considering American feminism) many of our legal battles have been fought. Of course, there are still many issues we have to face on legal/economic /political levels (equal pay, anyone?) but it seems that most of our battles are social in nature. The gender stereotypes in the media are ripping our generation of girls to shreds and violence against women needs to END, for example. We also need to include men – and the word feminist, no matter what it actually means, is alienating.

To me, this indicated a major problem: lack of cultural awareness of what feminism is. Let alone not publicizing feminist issues or the rampant sexism that surrounds us – we seriously need more awareness of what feminism is on a basic level. Whether it's the teenage girl who thinks feminism is synonymous with suffrage, or the ignorant people a would-be-teen-feminist has to argue with, we have a problem. I know in my school if I hadn’t known anything about feminism from my own interest, I probably would have come away with the impression that Mary Wollstonecraft and Gloria Steinem / Betty Friedan were feminism, and it ended there. Kind of like prohibition - one goal and a clear end date. And I didn’t even get that information until 11th grade. And we all know that the media is an even more horrific source of information on the feminist front.

The idea that we need better cultural awareness and education about what feminism is was solidified for me by the end of the program, when our entire program was asked who now identified as feminist, and the vast majority of girls raised their hands. Really what had made the difference was a mix of academic and social discussions about feminism - not some huge fight to alter these girls' personalities or essential beliefs.

So, why don’t teen girls identify as feminists? The answer varies, and even the reasons I listed above are just a taste. We're all individuals with varied experiences and ideas, after all. But what I have found is that SO many girls would identify as feminists if there were more awareness about the movement and term. And really, even if they don’t – I’ve met so many incredible, inspiring girls who are truly making a difference in the world without identifying as feminist (but in reality, believing in and promoting feminist causes). Maybe we  need to put less focus on the word "feminism," and more focus on supporting feminist action.

More articles by Category: Education, Feminism, Girls, Gloria Steinem
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Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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