Feminism -- What's in a Name?

by Jennifer Robison, Contributing Editor

The cover of a June 1998 issue of Time magazine asked, in big red letters, "Is Feminism Dead?" The article concluded that feminism, while arguably alive, wasn't kicking much. Several years have passed since this article was published, but the health of feminism is still warmly debated.

A 1999 Gallup/USA Today poll* asked women "how important do you think the women's movement has been in helping women to obtain greater equality with men?" Fifty-seven percent said it was extremely or very important -- 4% said it wasn't important at all. The poll also asked women how important the women's movement would be in the next century. A nearly identical number, 56%, said it would be extremely or very important.

Suffrage Now!

The feminist movement dates back to 19th-century England (some historians say it's older than that). The labels of this movement have evolved over time, but the bedrock precepts haven't changed -- they've simply expanded. "Suffragettes" thought women should have the right to vote; modern feminists think that women should vote and be elected to office. "Women's libbers" thought women should earn what men do for the same job; feminists think men and women ought to have the same earnings and job opportunities. "Political rights, wage issues, and education are basic feminist issues today, but Susan B. Anthony was writing about them 150 years ago," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

These once-shocking principles are now commonplace -- hardly anybody today thinks women should be barred from the voting booth. But the discussion hasn't gone away; it has just evolved over time. But people have changed what they are willing to call themselves. "Feminist" has become a loaded term that many people won't adopt, but feminist principles are becoming cultural values.

Feminist, No. Feminism, of Course.

Gallup polling throughout the last decade finds only as many as 30% of Americans identifying themselves as feminists. The latest data, from a June 2001 poll, found that men and women were about equally likely to identify themselves as feminists (25% of women and 20% of men). However, a 1986 Gallup Poll** asked in a different format: "I would like to ask you some questions about the women's movement and feminism. Do you consider yourself to be a strong feminist, a feminist, not a feminist, or an anti-feminist?" Ten percent of the public called themselves strong feminists, 46% said they were feminists, 28% said they were not feminists and 4% defined themselves as anti-feminists. [Ed.: Questions that allow qualified answers tend to get a greater range of response, regardless of the issue. Questions with two- and four-point scales -- such as the two versions of the feminist question above -- may not be substantively comparable.] "It's because of the '86 Gallup Poll that we chose the name we have," Smeal says. "It's interesting how stable the polls are -- very little slippage -- when you consider how maligned the term ‘feminist' is," Smeal says.

But "feminist" and "feminism" seem to have different meanings. Support for what the feminist movement considers basic feminist issues is much greater than support for the feminist label itself. A June 2001*** Gallup Poll found majority support for affirmative action for women (53%) (By comparison, 47% favor affirmative action programs for racial minorities). By a 67% to 31% margin, the public favors setting quotas for the number of women hired as long as they meet the same standards of others (support drops to just 21% if standards are lowered to fill quotas of women hires). The vast majority of Americans (87%) also favor establishing training courses or policies that raise people's awareness about fairness in hiring women and hiring quotas for women (71%).

Signs of Life

Regardless of their views on the word "feminist," many women don't seem to think the core principles of feminism have been completely accomplished. The 1999 poll asked women to compare several aspects of their lives with the lives of their mothers and daughters. In every instance, a majority of women thought their mothers' lives were worse than theirs. At least a plurality of respondents considered their daughters' lives to be better.

Key Points

Over the last 30 years, the public has become somewhat less willing to accept the "feminist" label. However, most Americans indicate support for general feminist ideals. In fact, many of these ideals have become so prevalent in American culture that they aren't considered feminist anymore. For example, though it may seem odd to think of "going to work" as a feminist issue, it certainly used to be. A 1939 Gallup Poll asked about a then-current Illinois law that would have prohibited women from working if their husbands made more than $1,600 a year. Sixty-eight percent supported the law. Now such a law, and such a question, is unimaginable.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 923 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 3-7, 1999. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.

**Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,962 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 5-11, 1986. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±2.2%.

***Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,004 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 11-17, 2001. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.

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