The concept of my project revolves around the reputation of feminists in my local area. This project relies heavily on the stories and advice of experienced feminists, and because of this concept, is quite personal.
I wanted to focus my project on this topic because I have witnessed a lot of backlash against feminism and have experienced a lot of it myself. I see this backlash as a major obstacle for the feminist movement. If we cannot reach and grab the attention of those who do not agree with our views, we will never be able to make progress.
I recognize that I am young and do not have excessive experience with being a vocal feminist, so I wanted to gain some understanding and get some advice from more experienced feminists. My hope was to learn from them how to overcome backlash and carry on with my activist work in spite of it, and then publish this information so that the rest of us could learn from their advice. I hope, even if you do not believe in feminism, that you can learn something from this page in regards to the importance of mentorship.
I chose to interview people from my area specifically because I live in a liberal town in the San Francisco Bay Area. However, there is a strong current of conservatism that runs through our area, and although only a minority of the people are conservative, those people also happen to hold a lot of power because of their economic influence over our town and school. I know that this is a different dynamic than is found in other parts of the globe, so I thought it would be interesting to hear some perspectives of grown-ups who have experienced this for years.
I interviewed four teachers and administrators at my school who all identify as feminists, activists, and advocates for equal rights. I asked them about their experience as feminists, including about any backlash they have faced as feminists, and I also asked them for any advice they have for young feminists. On this page, you will find a compilation of my interviews and the advice from my interviewees.
“Point: Feminism Is Still Relevant” by Bourassa and Lee
Cheryl Bourassa and Deborah Lee argue in “Point: Feminism Is Still Relevant” that feminism is still needed in America and the world as a whole. This article, paired with “Counterpoint: The Feminist Movement Is No Longer Needed,” serves to show me both sides of the story about why feminism is or is not necessary and relevant. Bourassa and Lee state that “gains already achieved [by the feminist movement] are always at risk, and require constant vigilance to maintain. Further, much more progress must be made before we can proclaim that full equality has been achieved.” This article shared many opinions with my interviewees.
“Counterpoint: The Feminist Movement Is No Longer Needed” by George and Wagner
Patricia George and Geraldine Wagner address the above article in their article, “Counterpoint: The Feminist Movement Is No Longer Needed,” where they argue that women have achieved as much equality as they need. I used this fairly recent article to try to learn from the perspective of women who are not feminists. Although I do understand the point that Wagner and George were trying to convey, I did not agree, and neither did my interviewees, that “Feminism has done its job. Feminism is a campaign that was launched, struggled, and succeeded. The need for feminism today is over.” This was helpful in providing a different perspective and although none of my interviewees happened to agree with this standpoint, I did recognize that much of the backlash they referenced came from people who believed in George and Wagner’s ideas.
“Feminism Seduced” by Eisenstein
Hester Eisenstien’s article, “Feminism Seduced,” covered the topic of the development of feminism since the 1970s. Eisenstien writes about the influence of globalization, racial dynamics, and the economy on women’s rights and feminism in general. Her article also included a portion about the American public’s reception of feminism in the 1970s and beyond. She explained how the public was generally accepting of feminism in the 70s, but how backlash accelerated in the 1980s with the “newly powerful Evangelical-cum-corporate right wing.”
“Review of The Failure of Feminism” by Pollis
I also referenced Carol A. Pollis’ review of The Failure of Feminism by Nicholas Davidson in an article from the Journal of Sex Research in 1989. Instead of viewing this article as dated, I saw it as an opportunity to look into the past and learn about the reputation of feminists in the late 1980s. This article is what encouraged me to reach out to some older feminists, not just younger adults in their 30s, to gain perspective about how their experience as feminists has evolved over the years. I used this review as a summary of The Failure of Feminism, as I was unable to get my hands on the book. Pollis commented on her own view of the current state of feminism, writing in the introductory paragraph that, “The present is a time of considerable backlash of feminism. Many women seem reluctant or unwilling to identify themselves as feminist.” Many of the members of my school’s Gender Equality Club expressed this statement when I polled them, which is written about later on this page.
The outline for each interview was the same. I kept the questions open and broad to allow each interviewee to divulge as much or as little information as they wanted. I hoped this would lead to interesting, different answers, and also keep my interviewees comfortable throughout the process. I saw that this worked during each interview.
I also purposefully only planned only five questions, in order to be respectful of my interviewee’s time and to prevent any interview from running too long and becoming boring or repetitive.
The planned interview questions were as followed:
- Do you consider yourself an advocate for women’s rights? Do you (also) define yourself as a feminist?
- As an advocate/activist, have you faced backlash (not only for the specific work but for trying to make a difference in general)? In other words, have you noticed people hating on you for your work?
- What do you do to overcome that backlash?
- What advice would you give to young feminists/activists/advocates about how they can overcome social backlash from their own attempts at advocacy?
I compiled each interview slightly differently in order for my readers to best understand what my interviewee was communicating.
Interview with Anonymous 1
I conducted my first interview on March 14th. I interviewed an administrator who will remain unnamed for the sake of this publication. She has an EdD and works as the Director of Diversity and Inclusion at my school. Our interview veered in a direction that was more centered around the interviewee’s experience as an African-American woman, not just about her experience as a feminist and advocate.
Her choice to remain anonymous is why I was unable to include the audio recording of our interview or the interviewee’s photo in this post.
Me: Do you consider yourself an advocate for women’s rights?
Would you define yourself as a feminist, as well?
Do you think those two terms are interchangeable?
I do think they are.
Well because, for me, being a feminist is accessing for myself what I deserve based on who I am, and overcoming barriers to get there because, because I am a woman. And I think that’s where the equal rights come in because you’re advocating for what you deserve already, to begin with.
Thank you. As an advocate/activist, have you faced backlash (not just for the specific work, but for trying to make a difference in general)? In other words, have you noticed people hating on you for your work, around campus or in other scenarios in your life?
I would say, at [our school], I wouldn’t say that people have been hating on the work because I’m a woman or because I’m a feminist. I would say that I’ve experienced a dissonance out of fear that people have because of change, so I kinda associate that with driving some of the diversity initiatives for creating a safe space for people of color, talking about white privilege and all of those different things. I think the backlash wasn’t because of my gender as much as it was for people being afraid of not knowing, like, their role in it or what the outcome would be when you start to shift or change the culture of our school. I would say outside of school, I definitely have been in spaces where I felt that. . . like, my experience as a leader and as a woman, people tried to undermine it. But I have to be honest, it didn’t come from men, it came from women.
Why do you think that is?
I think it was more some racial and age stuff going on. And, uh, I’m referring to a time in my life where I was a manager of a team, and some of the backlash, and I would say mistreatment, that I received from some of the workers who were there.
How did you overcome that backlash?
It was verrrrry difficult because it wasn’t the norm. It wasn’t every single person that I managed that was a part of the team. There were several people in particular. So that was, that was very difficult for me because I didn’t want to hold everyone in the room to the same behavior that everyone else was doing, but that behavior was bringing down the morale of the team, and I think that there was a lot of things going on with me being a recent graduate, having earned my masters from Stanford University. But then, also, working in the community where I’m from. And I think that was intimidating for some of the women, because there was a level of comfort that the students and the parents had with me, and a level of understanding that I possessed because of my background of being in that, growing up in that environment, and because of my educational background as well. And I think that was unsettling for the two in particular. They didn’t want to be led by me. Um, and to me, that was really painful, because A, I had a lot of optimism to be able to work with people of different backgrounds, coming from different cultures, and just bringing a element of background experience that I think is important and vital to students in low-income communities. I think it’s helpful to have all different people at the table to help support any type of program. And so, the way that I dealt with it, I had to be assertive, and, like, really try to dismantle some of that, because it was having a profound impact on other people in the room who sincerely wanted to lead and wanted to learn from me. It. . . there’s a lot more I could say, but I did have to suspend someone because of it. That’s how severe it became. So that’s my first experience. It didn’t happen with a male; it happened first with women.
What advice would you give to young women and young black women that may stand in your shoes someday?
I would say, that, for them, just to, like, be present. Because I think, a lot of times, we’re left out of conversations or we’re not in the room. Or sometimes, I can say, in my personal life, even having reservations of putting myself out there, a feel of being judged, I dealt with that before. A fear of failure, and a fear of, if I am in this position or if I try out for this or if I go for this opportunity, am I going to be accepted for who I am. And that comes with, racially, being an African-American woman. Visually, what I look like. All of those different things. So I would say, sometimes, the hardest part is just putting that step forward and deciding that you’re going to be present in certain spaces. And I say that’s for black women, but I say that’s for young women in general.
Thank you. My last question is, […] do you find [considering the role of intersectionality] necessary to be a feminist?
Absolutely. Yes! Because we’re talking about these different dimensions of who we are that overlap, so it’s not just the case that one person is a woman. Yes, you can embody womanhood, but what [are the] other aspects that make you or shape your experience or your lens as a woman. For me, sometimes it is, it is race. For others, it could be their sexual orientation. And that’s not to be dismissed because I think that’s what makes each person unique, and I think that lens and perspective that they bring, and for many people, the struggle, is what makes the conversation more fruitful and accessible to people who are in the room, because we talk about the presence. I was just watching a panel earlier, it was a Google Talk, and it was with Kimberlé Crenshaw and some of the employees at Google, and they were talking about intersectionality, and one of the things that struck me the most is how, for each of them, they had their individual stories, and those stories, I was thinking as a viewer, I didn’t resonate with every single thing that a person said, but I can see for your general audience that somebody could find themself in the conversation. That couldn’t have happened if it was just one representation of womanhood. I think that sometimes it is necessary, like in affinity spaces, to create that safe space for people to unpack their intersectionality in a different dimensions to who they are, but collectively when women come together it can be very powerful. But, I think it has to be intentional and some acknowledgment about the struggles, the struggles that are rendered to different people due to race and sexual orientation. Because it’s not just easy, easy. And I think, especially with transgender people, this is why you have to have it. Because it is not as binary as people would think.
Interview with Ms. Chen
I conducted my second interview on March 15th. I interviewed Ms. Chen, the Dean of Student Life Programs at my school (pictured above). I have not included the recording of our interview in this post to protect the privacy of other people at my school who were mentioned in the interview.
Key takeaways and interview summary:
Ms. Chen, although primarily a racial equality activist, also considers herself an advocate for women’s rights. She also considers herself a feminist, although she does believe that feminism and women’s rights advocacy are different.
Ms. Chen admitted to me that she has faced backlash for her work, both in gender and racial equality advocacy. She has experienced this backlash a lot on campus, specifically surrounding her minor involvement in our school ending our tradition of hosting a Sadie Hawkins dance. Her solution to overcoming that backlash is to “Keep doing my work. I mean, I’m not going to stop doing the work because kids don’t like it.”
Her advice to young feminists is simple. She explained to me how “It’s easy to get down on yourself” when people fight back when you work for equality. She suggests that the best way to work around backlash is to find ways to frame the discussion to be open and welcoming, explain why the conversation is important, and include fact-based evidence to support your arguments.
Interview with Ms. Ramsey
I conducted my third interview on March 21st. I interviewed a beloved English teacher from my school, Ms. Ramsey.
Ms. Ramsey considers herself an advocate for women’s rights. She also considers herself a feminist, but talks about herself as a “feminist until we can just be humanist” because she recognizes the stigma around the label feminist, and says she is “not mad about that, I think it’s worthy of conversation, but I try to get a little upstream of it, and kind of contextualize it.”
As a feminist, Ms. Ramsey says that she has faced backlash, “all the time.” However, she included that she also has felt great support. One form of backlash that she notices often is dismissiveness. Another form of backlash she experiences not just as a feminist, but as a woman who understands her own rights in the world. She used the example of turning down a man who asks her out, who then promptly insults her about her status as a woman.
In regards to the backlash, Ramsey also referenced her observation that “lately, thinking critically has been labeled as, like an -ism. Like, ‘if you think critically, you are or you must be working toward some agenda.’ And that bothers me profoundly, both on like an individual level and as a teacher, I’m like, oh, I don’t know, I think that’s pretty insulting to anyone who has a belief set. I think thinking critically is like available to all, and it should be practiced by all.”
In order to overcome that backlash, Ms.Ramsey says: “I try to educate myself, you know. I try to be the change I wish to see, if you will. I don’t think it’s appropriate to not read your face off. I will watch Fox News, I will listen to people, I will go, I will talk to human beings. If somebody’s actually upset about something I’ve said, I’ll say, can you explain why? Like, help me understand. […] It allows me to have integrity. When I go home and am sort of by myself thinking, if I can say, well I walked through that with the integrity I wished to see, […] I have that to fall back on. […] If I was maligned in any way, at least, did I come back to my core values and who I am.” She also spoke about the importance of owning up to moments when you have messed up.
Her advice to young feminists was especially interesting. She said, “This is going to sound perhaps weird, but hear me out. I do think young feminists need to realize when they too are upping the anxiety quotient in a situation. So, like, my deepest hope is that you know, your rage can be present. Like, of course. If you don’t have a certain level of disgust and feeling like this is just fundamentally not okay, like these structures that are inherent that you feel because of the body you walk through this world in. If you had the access to see that and feeling it, you can’t be okay with it. So absolutely feel rage and feel like you need to change something. But then work [to change something].” She says that we need to put in the work, not just participate in call-out culture and yelling matches. She told me that we should not ever strengthen the negative feedback loop and that we should never “just sit there.” She emphasized the need for discourse over debate, as well. She also mentioned the importance of intersectionality, saying that she “would hope that all of our citizens can understand the effin concept of an intersection.”
Her final quote and piece of advice are as follows:
“Actually do the work. Hold yourself to an integrity space that you would expect from somebody else. If you want to be better, or you want to be more prepared, you need to be stronger, you need to take it upon yourself to do the research, do the thinking, go to the uncomfortable space, hear the other side, think through it. Get to a space where you can articulate their opinion back to them, earnestly and credibly and then work from there. [And] remember intersectionality, because if not, you are unintentionally adding to or just shifting the paradigm, making it seem a little better but not ultimately doing a whole lot. That’s my take on it.”
Interview with Anonymous 2
I conducted my fourth and final interview on March 23rd with an administrator who would like to remain anonymous. For that reason, I will not publish her photo, nor the recording of our interview.
In response to my question of if she considers herself an advocate for women’s rights, my interviewee replied, “Most definitely, and I feel like I live that in my life choices and even the way I experience my interactions with my peers, with my own family, with my chosen profession, that kind of thing.” She also considers herself a feminist, and more specifically, she also said, “I think I’m an advocate for confidence and empowerment.”
When I asked her about any backlash she has received as a feminist, she replied, “I don’t think I have the words to describe the stereotypical response to [some women have to face]…” The rest of this portion of our interview has to remain off record, as she mentioned various encounters with colleagues that she did not want to disclose to anyone except me. The fact, even years later, she chose to hide those stories shows how deeply they hurt her.
She continued on and said that she still believes that sticking up for what she believed in was the best thing to do in every scenario that we had discussed. She said, “Voice matters more than my position,” and “I feel like I, having a voice is just who I am. And I’d rather speak up than not. But I also think that if you’re consistent and if you speak from a true place and you live that and that ultimately you’re respected for that, even if in certain moments [it does not feel that way at first].”
She overcomes backlash with spirituality and self-reflection. “For me, it’s… I’m oddly spiritual… I’m very self-reflective, and I can calm myself down and quietly see what I can do versus what I can do, and am I staying true to myself…” She also mentioned that she “lean[s] on a few people. I think one of the ways that I’m not really sure I was raised the way I wanted to raised my emotion is that we were raised to be very stoic… to not crack.” She now believes that keeping close friends with whom you can be vulnerable is important.
Below, I have compiled a few quotes from her response on what advice she would give to young feminists.
- “I would say, look for mentors. People whoa re going to know exactly what you’re talking about in the moment when you are hurting, and also stand there as someone who has survived and has a way of wort of soothing the moment for you, just by standing there with you. I think that’s the most important thing
- “If you can, don’t be too surprised by the backlash so that it gets to you.”
- “I’d say, don’t be afraid to look at yourself critically, but also don’t be shy of doing something you believe in.”
- “I kind of understand some of the backlash against feminism when it is seen as hateful. I struggle when someone’s political position or social activism position stereotypes me, and I guess I’d say, try not to make any more assumptions than you would want made against you.”
- “I don’t know how anybody could be [oppressive] if they were truly a humanist.”
- “I just don’t see feminism as a battle.”
- “Choose your inner circle wisely.”
- “Promoting goodness is essential.”
A Poll of the Gender Equality Club
As the final part of my investigation about the experience of feminists, I asked the attendees of my school’s gender equality club, a group of feminists, if they had ever experienced any form backlash for their feminist beliefs and activism. There were 18 feminists in the room. The graph below shows the results, which are admittedly skewed due to the small sample size and the fact that every person in the room is active in their role as a feminist.
Our following conversation revealed that some feminists had been yelled at in the past for their beliefs, others had been excluded from conversations, and others had received passive aggressive comments. None of the girls had ever been physically attacked or threatened, except for threats online.
Now I want to know from you! If you identify as a feminist, answer this poll:
I learned a lot during this process from my interviewees and from the conversation that I had with my school’s gender equality club.
I expected that most of the feminists that I talked to would have experienced backlash for their feminist beliefs, but I was surprised that every single one had, especially because I live in a very liberal area.
I learned the most from my interviewees. My four biggest takeaways from their advice are as follows:
- Remember intersectionality. Without it, feminists will never make the progress that we want to make.
- Listen intently and listen often, to all sides of every story.
- Get back up when people knock you down, and try to understand why they insulted or dismissed you in the first place.
- Always, always keep fighting.
I hope that you all were able to learn as much from my interviews as I did, and I encourage you all to reach out to experienced activists in your area to see what you can learn from them; even if you do not believe in the concept of social justice or feminism, you still may learn something.
Call to action: Along with following the advice of my interviewees, I encourage you all to reach out to experienced activists in your area to learn from them. Finding mentors, as I did, is a great way to learn how to overcome the backlash that many of us face in our social justice work. Whether you are a feminist or an activist in a different realm of social justice, it is important that we all learn from each other’s experiences in order to become the best activists we can be to help our causes.
Bourassa, Cheryl, and Deborah Lee. “Point: Feminism Is Still Relevant.” Points of View Reference Center, EBSCOhost, 30 Sept. 2016, search.ebscohost.com.menloschool.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pwh&AN=23700066&site=pov-live. Accessed 22 Mar. 2018.
Eisenstein, Hester. “Feminism Seduced.” Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 25, no. 66, pp. 413-31. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com.menloschool.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=55475131&site=ehost-live. Accessed 23 Mar. 2018.
George, Patricia, and Geraldine Wagner. “Counterpoint: The Feminist Movement Is No Longer Needed.” Points of View Reference Center, EBSCOhost, 30 Sept. 2016, search.ebscohost.com.menloschool.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pwh&AN=23700067&site=pov-live. Accessed 22 Mar. 2018.
Pollis, Carol A. “The Backlash against Feminism.” Journal of Sex Research, vol. 26, no. 3, 1 Aug. 1989, pp. 402-04. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com.menloschool.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=5699587&site=ehost-live. Accessed 18 Mar. 2018.
Anonymous. Feminism is for Everyone. Intelligence Squared, www.intelligencesquared.com/events/feminism-is-for-everyone/.
Anonymous. Interview. Career Confidential, careerconfidential.com/ultimate-guide-to-job-interview-prep/?utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F.
Anonymous. Stack of Books. Colegio San Pedro y San Felices, sanpedroysanfelices.es.
Bagan, Daniel. Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes. 2014.
SheBandit. Feminist Flower Heart. Redbubble, www.redbubble.com/people/shebandit/works/12255432-feminist-flower-heart?p=throw-pillow.
Wynn, Dan. Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes. 1971.