Labels & why calling someone “feminist” is dangerous

Many of us may believe women and men are created equal. We may criticise traditional gender roles like the subservient housewife. We may strive for equal pay in the workplace. But, even if these opinions define our core values, we’d probably be uncomfortable when someone labels us as feminists.

Many of us may feel feminism isn’t even relevant to our lives anymore. Maybe we have gotten to a place in society where we have full equality.[1] After all, women are no longer traditional homemakers. Women are out in society, holding jobs and political positions. Maybe feminism is needed only for women who have faced discrimination, and we are past that (or not).

Feminism, like all other social movements, has extreme manifestations. Taken from Campaign Initiative.

Moreover, who knows what feminism stands for, exactly? Its meaning has been shifted and distorted by different groups. Do you think of feminist women as “independent”, “career-oriented”, and “intelligent”?[2] Or do your thoughts gravitate towards “lesbian”, “radical” and “man-hating”?[3] 

There is something about the label of feminism that scares people away, even if they agree with gender equality on a ground level. This dissonance is, like other strange occurrences, explained by psychology. 

Labels & Stereotypes

Labels invoke our inherent stereotypes in our minds. Through these, we infer a person’s characteristics based on the group to which they belong.[4] For example, we may think of Germans as punctual, while Americans are typically proud. Conversely, what we do with that information could be positive (i.e. arriving on time to meet your German buddy) or negative (i.e. immediately arguing with that new coworker from Minnesota). 

What does this have to do with feminism? Well, research has shown that many people don’t identify with the label because they fear of stigmas.[5] Perhaps that’s a reasonable concern given that negative stereotypes are more prevalent than positive ones.[6] So, if you identify as a feminist, there may be more to lose than to gain.

Group affiliation can provide comfort and changes our self-concept, even in dire circumstances. Taken from Literary Hub.

Why would we, however, care what other people think? Social identity theory might give some insight. Long story short, we have two aspects of our identity. Our personal identity is what makes us unique, but the social identity is shaped by the groups to which we belong. The latter has an emotional value for us;[7] we have to feel appreciated by the groups with which we affiliate. This is because feeling like a member of a group we respect will, in turn, reflect on our self-concept. Therefore, if feminism has a negative social value, maybe we’ll abstain from forming part of any feminist groups.[8]

Personal Labels

Not everything depends on what others think. On a private level, we may not identify as feminist because we associate it with bad things. And we don’t want to feel like a bad person, especially when we defend good causes. So, how do we reconcile wanting to support gender equality without getting the “feminist” label? Most people don’t; instead, they rely on cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is what happens when we have conflicting beliefs or behaviours. When this state of mind becomes too uncomfortable, we adjust one of the conflicting thoughts to gain peace of mind. In other words, we make a compromise between behaviours. Perhaps you have signed a petition to demand equal pay for men and women, but you chose not to share it in social media. 

Cognitive dissonance states that, when actions and beliefs enter in conflict, we change either to reach consonance. Taken from TSS.

By this point, you may be asking why do labels even matter. The explanation is long and complex, but the short version is that labels, unlike specific beliefs, define who we are.[9] In contrast, acting like a feminist in some cases feels less determining, and making that distinction protects our self-concept.[10] When we tag ourselves, we and others will expect us to act in consonance to that tag every single time. For many people, it’s just easier to pick their battles on a case-by-case basis.

The Power of Labels

All our arguments so far have emphasised on how terrible labels are. They carry social stigmas, shape our identity based on extraneous values, and impose expectations on ourselves and others. Why, then, do we even bother perpetuating them? 

As we said before, labels define us. They’re essential to establish our identity because they reflect aspects of our identity, but also create them. Moreover, labels mediate the connections between our personal and our social identities. The point is, even if you don’t identify yourself as feminist, you probably describe yourself by your nationality, your profession, your hobby, your favourite sports club, fandom, or even as a cat/dog person. Those are labels and they shape who you are.

The gender pay gap is often invisible unless we pay close attention to the patterns across companies and countries. Taken from WSJ.

The real-world implications of non-labelling are, for example, men who don’t believe women experience discrimination. This means that they hold individuals accountable for situations that aren’t necessarily their fault. It also means that they do not believe there’s a need to engage in collective action against discrimination.[11] In contrast, identifying as a feminist allows us to see a purpose in the grey areas. A woman lost a job position to a male applicant? A feminist would suspect there was a sex bias in the selection process. They would make more comparisons between situations, recognize patterns that signify unequal conditions—and do something about it. 

The Bottom Line

Are labels good or bad? The short answer: it depends on what you do with them. 

We may cringe at the word “feminism” because it invokes negative stereotypes of sexual radicalism and anti-male behaviour. Even if we strongly believe in gender equality, we don’t want to be boxed with the most extreme members of the movement. Furthermore, we may be reluctant to adopt feminism as a core element of our persona. We’d rather have the freedom to act like one whenever we feel like it. However, we ultimately rely on labels to interpret uncertain happenings in our context. Only by embracing the identity of a feminist can we see where sexism still impacts our decisions.

Are we recommending you go and change your status to “Proudly #feminist”? No, but we’re saying that there’s nothing wrong with that. We have the luck that we can pick which labels define us and which don’t. The important thing is that we learn when and how to use them in favour of a good cause, like true gender equality.


Academic References

  1. Olson, L. N., Coffelt, T. A., Ray, E. B., Rudd, J., Botta, R., Ray, G., & Kopfman, J. E. (2008). “I’m all for equal rights, but don’t call me a feminist”: Identity Dilemmas in Young Adults’ Discursive Representations of Being a Feminist. Women’s Studies in Communication, 31(1), 104-132.
  2. Breen, A. B., & Karpinski, A. (2008). What’s in a name? Two approaches to evaluating the label feminist. Sex Roles, 58(5-6), 299-310.
  3. McCabe, J. (2005). What’s in a label? The relationship between feminist self-identification and “feminist” attitudes among US women and men. Gender & Society, 19(4), 480-505.
  4. Twenge, J. M., & Zucker, A. N. (1999). What is a feminist? Evaluations and stereotypes in closed-and open-ended responses. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 23(3), 591-605.
  5. Zucker, A. N., & Bay‐Cheng, L. Y. (2010). Minding the gap between feminist identity and attitudes: The behavioral and ideological divide between feminists and non‐labelers. Journal of personality, 78(6), 1895-1924.
  6. Roy, R. E., Weibust, K. S., & Miller, C. T. (2007). Effects of stereotypes about feminists on feminist self-identification. Psychology of women quarterly, 31(2), 146-156.
  7. Sahdra, B., & Ross, M. (2007). Group identification and historical memory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(3), 384-395.
  8. Williams, R., & Wittig, M. A. (1997). “I’m not a feminist, but…”: Factors contributing to the discrepancy between pro-feminist orientation and feminist social identity. Sex Roles, 37(11-12), 885-904.
  9. Liss, M., O’Connor, C., Morosky, E., & Crawford, M. (2001). What makes a feminist? Predictors and correlates of feminist social identity in college women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 25(2), 124-133.
  10. Fitz, C. C., Zucker, A. N., & Bay-Cheng, L. Y. (2012). Not all nonlabelers are created equal: Distinguishing between quasi-feminists and neoliberals. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 36(3), 274-285.
  11. Anderson, V. N. (2009). What’s in a label? Judgments of feminist men and feminist women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33(2), 206-215.

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