Who highjacked the word feminist?



When my marketing guru Dennis Lewis from GreenLight Digital suggested the name Faithless Feminist for my blog, I jumped on it. I had probably referred to myself as a feminist since the late 1960’s. What I did not know is how much pushback there is currently to the word feminist. A poll conducted in March of 2015 found that only 18 percent of Americans consider themselves feminists. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in gender equality or equal rights for women. In fact 85% said they did believe in “equality for women.” So how did the word feminist get highjacked?

First a bit of history. What is now referred to as the first wave of feminism secured women the right to vote in 1920 in the United States. This movement grew out of the abolitionist movement. These were the days of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech and the vivid photo of Susan B. Anthony getting slammed to the sidewalk by police. The second wave occurred in the 1960’s through the 1980’s and was characterized by efforts to secure wage parity between the genders, reproductive freedom, and redefined roles in the family. There was also an attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Think Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Coretta Scott King, and Germaine Greer. Organizations such as the National Organization for Women and the National Abortion Rights Action League were created. Starting in the 1990’s a third wave of feminism began and included a focus on race, culture, and sexual identity.

While there will always be women and men who choose not to use the label feminist and who oppose gender equity itself, today these voices have become more strident. Carly Fiorina stated on November 5 of this year: “feminism has devolved into a left-leaning political ideology where women are pitted against men and used as a political weapon to win elections.” Matt Walsh declared the following in a post on TheBlaze (online news feed founded by Glenn Beck). “While feminists prattle on about their alleged inequality in America, women continue to benefit from profound legal privileges like affirmative action and Title IX and lighter sentences for the same crimes in federal court.” This vitriol has also entered the atheist movement. Thunderf00t, a YouTube channel run by Philip Mason, a British scientist and skeptical atheist, states that “feminism poisons everything” in a series of recent videos. In the video, he shows a clip of Rebecca Watson, an atheist who got a lot of pushback after tweeting about a man propositioning her in the elevator after she had just made a speech about feminism at an atheist convention. Check out Elevatorgate to find out more about this incident.

With all of this opposition to the word, I thought it important to lay out what I believe to be the basis of gender equity using some examples from my own life. Let me know what I have missed.


Growing up in the 1950’s in Bismarck, North Dakota, I, like most of my friends, had a collection of dolls. I still have my most favorite doll nestled in a tiny blanket in the toy chest hand-crafted by my father. I learned to knit at age five and even had a tiny Singer sewing machine. But what I coveted was my brother’s erector set and his chemistry lab. But they were off limits. I was being trained to be a mother and my brother was being trained to explore the world of work and career. Yes, this has changed in the last 50 years, but not as much as you would think. When Target recently decided to no longer segregate toys by gender, some customers decided to boycott the store because it would be more difficult to shop for toys and presumably they would have more difficulty picking out sheets for their children’s beds. Yes, that too went gender neutral. Children are bombarded with messages about their gender and what they should wear, play with, and watch on TV. And it works. If children are able to get past these stereotypes and ask for a toy that is not typical for their gender, GIVE IT TO THEM! This also includes books, movies, and computer games.


As a former teacher, my mother fostered a love of learning in me from an early age. Many young people, however, do not get the support or the help they need to be successful in school. Stereotyping subjects for boys and girls still exists. A recent study showed different results on a math test depending on what the teacher said about gender right before the test. The 1999 study showed that when “researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. Women who expected gender differences did significantly worse than men. Those who were told there was no gender disparity performed equal to men.” This is beginning to change with the focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and more support is being provided for girls to choose these fields. Education is the foundation to equality. Every child should be encouraged to pursue all subjects until they find their passion.


Needless to say, I never had any sex education. I borrowed a book from my sister’s room entitled 79 Park Avenue by Harold Robbins. In the novel, a shop owner rapes a young girl. That’s how I learned about intercourse. So many things in a woman’s life can be changed by an unwanted pregnancy. Studies have shown that abstinence-only sex education is a farce. Recently, there was an outbreak of the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia at an abstinence-only sex education high school in Texas. Both boys and girls need to learn about their bodies from an early age and must be prepared, if they are going to have sex, to have safe sex. Statistics show that a person who receives abstinence-only sex education ends up having sex just as often as those who receive comprehensive sex education. Unfortunately, these young people are totally unprepared. In fact, a recent study showed that comprehensive sex education can “help youth delay onset of sexual activity, reduce the frequency of sexual activity, reduce number of sexual partners, and increase condom and contraceptive use.” Controlling reproduction is a key element to gender equity.


I have been very fortunate to have had a diverse career in many different fields in spite of an incident in college. I had applied for a scholarship to Dartmouth for graduate school. The only woman on the committee said, “Why should we give it to you, you will just get married and have children.” I did go on to earn a PhD at the University of Wisconsin. I hope that my presence in executive positions inspired the women who worked with me. Some fields have undergone a dramatic transformation of gender representation in recent years such as pharmacy and law where women studying in these fields are now the majority. However, the glass ceiling still exists at the top management levels and engineering is still predominantly male. Less than 5% of CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies are women. Gender equity to me is fostering the education and goals for every woman to choose what she wants to do as a career and supporting her in it. From my experience, if you grow up seeing men dominate certain jobs, you are less likely to think that you, as a woman, will be successful in them. We all do better when we can see role models we can identify with. Justin Trudeau, recently elected prime minister of Canada, appointed women as half of his cabinet. When asked why, he said, “it’s 2015.”


Reproductive choice must be part of any definition of women’s equality. Throughout history women have had little choice when it came to having children. Birth control, including access to safe and affordable abortion, freed women (and men) to decide whether or not to have children. The attacks and elimination of Medicare funding in some states for Planned Parenthood, which provides millions of women with access to birth control, is frightening. In addition, the U. S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a case of a non-profit organization objecting to having to formally opt out of the Obamacare contraception mandate on religious grounds. They stated that having to file a petition “makes them complicit.” If the Supreme Court decides in their favor, I think a revolution is in order. “Keep ‘em barefoot and pregnant” has been the mantra of religion and patriarchy for too long. Some U. S. companies are now starting to mimic their European counterparts by providing paid maternity and paternity leave recognizing that raising a family involves both men and women. A friend recently told me she heard a male colleague bemoan the fact that he couldn’t take the new paternity leave at their company because his child was already eleven months old. In some ways, we are moving in the right direction. In others, not so much.

Gender and sexuality

When I was a sophomore at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, I read Gay World for a class assignment. I immediately accepted that some people are gay and that they have the same rights as anyone else. I must say that this Lutheran college was pretty progressive for allowing me to do a report on this book in the 60’s. Since that time, we have learned that sexuality is a continuum. Even though most people are born with either XY or XX chromosomes, a number of other factors can cause them to be gay, lesbian, transgender, etc. We must accept people for who they are whether this involves race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc.

I am sure I’ve forgotten some issue along the way that I hope you will point out. But to this 65 year old, that is what gender equity means to me. Until we have gender equity in all the areas I mentioned above, I will keep using the word feminist. How about you?

Karen L. Garst

November 13, 2015


About the Author Karen Garst


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