Feminists and Stigma?//Chandra Merry

What has it felt like to you when you have told others that you are a feminist? What emotions, images, or thought associations have come up in response when you have heard others claim that they are a feminist? Has anyone ever labelled you in a negative manner when you have openly displayed your feminism? And what does being a feminist truly mean to you?

I started considering these questions when a series of women were displayed on news media stations, stating that, as a generation, we had entered a post-feminism era. This was called the “women against feminism” movement and was broadcast on stations as prolific as the BBC. Was this a legitimate movement? Or was this simply a conservative strategy cleverly designed to undermine the legitimacy of feminism, and ultimately, women’s rights?

This occurred in 2013-14 when I was working on my Master’s degree. I was intrigued to get to the bottom of this “women against feminism” movement. I decided to look at a main research question in my thesis: are negative labels that feminists face damaging enough to be called stigma? When something is called a stigma, rather than a stereotype, the consequences are explicitly oppressive. Stereotypes are a common phenomenon that do not have an inherently damaging value. When a group can be seen as stigmatized they can also be seen as discriminated against.

It is no secret that strong and outspoken women have been targeted throughout history. A historical example is witch burning. A contemporary and subtler example is the undermining of famous women leaders by news stories about their clothing rather than politics. When I interviewed feminists in my study, one thing became clear. Feminism represented so much more than a political ideology. Rather, it was a vessel in which participants were able to gain personal empowerment and integrity as women. Feminism made them resilient, confident, and proud of who they were. Some even stated that it was a tool to feel personally liberated. These answers demonstrated that feminists are often strong and outspoken women who have a better quality of life.

Despite the clear connection between optimal health and feminism, these women all faced negative labels about being feminists. Some examples of labels included: strict in character, anti sex, killjoys of social events, having unkempt body hair, wearing baggy clothing, femi-nazis,  and/or extremists.  These labels came from various sources, such as political groups, personal acquaintances, and the media.

Within the study, it appeared that the above labels ultimately functioned to undermine the relationship between the feminists and their sense of personal strength, rather than just their political stances. Some findings indicated that the participants felt unsafe to share opinions about women’s agency or liberation when out in public. These participants indicated that this was not only about feminism, but also about the impaired ability to speak in an authentic manner. Others indicated that these labels were so hurtful that they automatically felt that they had to take up less physical space with their bodies. Relationships to other feminists could be negatively impacted due to these labels. Participants described relationships to other feminists as being empowering and supportive, highlighting how a disruption to these relationships would adversely impact their individual well being. Some feminists internalized these negative labels as stress, and appeared to have a decrease in their capacities for self regulation. Ultimately, this decreased capacity affected not only their health, but also their ability to engage in activism. There were many more consequences to these labels, and I am certain that had I more time and funding for this project, I could have listed out pages more.

If you have faced negative labels for being a feminist, have you ever tracked the impact that this has on you personally, and relationally? What are some of these impacts? Perhaps they are subtle. Would you ever consider the labels that you have faced as a feminist as stigma, rather than stereotyping or even joking? What would the implications of this be personally, interpersonally, or socially?

This study provoked thought about the value in studying backlashes against feminism. As feminists, if we can be conscious about the sometimes unconscious impact of these labels, we can learn to manage the stress associated with them. In addition, developing a wider conversation about this topic might make attacks (verbal or non verbal) against feminists increasingly socially unacceptable. It is much easier to make verbal attacks against feminists than against strong and outspoken women-- who ultimately, it appears that these attacks are geared toward.

Written by Chandra Merry

No comments:

Post a Comment