There’s a reason, "Are you a feminist?” feels like a loaded question.
If instead, you said, “Do you believe everyone should be entitled to the equal resources, rights and opportunities regardless of gender identity?” You might instinctively reply “of course” without much thought. But the term “feminist” carries a lot of cultural baggage - and that’s by design.
You might remember our breakdown of the word “spinster” - originally a job title and one of few ways for women, including never-married women, to make their own money at the time. Thanks to that association with being an unmarried woman earning her own money it didn’t take long for the word “spinster” to become a derogatory term for single women, used to shame them for not being married by a certain age. And when we consider the historically economic role of marriage, it’s hard to ignore what this long history of shaming unmarried women is really about: independence.
Throughout history, when women have acted independently, they’ve been met with stigmatization and backlash — from spinsters and old maids to witches and b*tches.
"When women stepped outside their prescribed roles, they became targets. Too much wealth might reflect sinful gains. Too little money demonstrated bad character. Too many children could indicate a deal with a devil. Having too few children was suspicious, too," writes Scholar and English professor Bridget Marshall of women in the time of the Salem Witch Trials.
In our look back at the history of calling women witches, we looked at the descriptions of the accused - “A woman of forcible speech and domineering ways.” “Confident and determined, ready to express their opinions and to stand their ground when crossed.” In other words, anyone challenging the status quo of white male Puritanical power and dominance.
The casting of women as witches in negative terms, like spinsters, is part of a long tradition of demonizing anything that falls outside the patriarchal “ideal” in which womanhood revolves around the husband, the home, and the children threatens the expectation that men should hold power and that women should serve them. And while we might like to think we’re long past those days and antiquated ideals, the pervasive reluctance to identify as feminist suggests otherwise.
The word, a lowbrow mash-up of "feminist" and "nazi," is relatively new, only being popularized in the 1990s by Rush Limbaugh.
He used it to described “a specific type of feminist”, originally stating there were “probably no more than 25 of them.” But since then has used the term as a broader slur to attack feminists, pro-choice activists, and progressive women.
He writes, "Abortion is the single greatest avenue for militant women to exercise their quest for power and advance their belief that men aren't necessary. They don't need men in order to be happy. They certainly don't want males to be able to exercise any control over them. Abortion is the ultimate symbol of women's emancipation from the power and influence of men. With men being precluded from the ultimate decision-making process regarding the future of life in the womb, they are reduced to their proper, inferior role. Nothing matters but me, says the feminazi."
In Limbaugh's worldview, as it has been for centuries, women's independent choices are always positioned through the framework of men.
And just as sexually liberated women were labeled "sluts," politically liberated women were labeled "feminazis" to get them back in their place. With Limbaugh extending the label to any woman who stepped out of that prescribed place, from Gloria Steinem to Anita Hill. Using a term to conflate independence and equity for women with Nazis to present the entire premise of feminism as radical.
It's no wonder women are still apprehensive when calling themselves "feminists." Being called a "feminist," let alone a "feminazi," lends to the idea that the very worst thing a woman can be is: angry. Which, if white women feel the pressure to remain 'ladylike,' then we know women of color are feeling swallowed whole by the pressure.
Gender and politics expert Soraya Chemlay shares, "In the United States, anger in white men is often portrayed as justifiable and patriotic, but in black men as criminality, and black women as a threat. In the Western world, anger in women has been widely associated with "madness."
A "feminazi" is the monster running to get you when in actuality, it's those hurling the word that are the real monsters out to get everyone in their way.
Additional reporting by Jazmine Reed-Clark
Image: LordHenryVoton/E+ via GettyImages
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