A couple weeks ago, I ran across an item on the website Jezebel that rounded up quotes from nearly 20 prominent women titled, “The Many Misguided Reasons Famous Ladies Say ‘I’m Not a Feminist.’ ” I read with a mixture of hopefulness and dread.
“Feminist” is one of those barometer words that gets pulled out and held up to any woman in a position of power or influence. And in a year that’s seen Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg urge women to “Lean In” in order to achieve their goals, it’s clear women cannot stop thinking, sorting, strategizing about who they are at home or at the office — or what to call themselves.
Sandberg’s corporate compatriot, Yahoo head Marissa Mayer, included in the Jezebel roundup, said she didn’t consider herself a feminist, but believes in “equal rights, and that women are just as capable, if not more so, in a lot of different dimensions … I do think that feminism has become in many ways a more negative word.”
Also on Jezebel’s list was the Princess phone of pop stars, Taylor Swift, who has the ears of young women worldwide and thinks the term “feminist” sets up a competition between the sexes.
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“I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls,” she said. “I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”
In any case, before long there could be a woman in the White House, and the “feminist” debate isn’t going away.
Over the phone the other day, I asked Rebecca Sive whether she is a feminist, and the longtime public-affairs strategist and author of “Every Day is Election Day” (a primer for women looking to suit up and seek elected office) didn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,” Sive told me, in advance of her Wednesday appearance at Town Hall Seattle, where she’ll talk about how women can take their place on the political stage. “What feminism means, at heart, is equality. The really important thing is what do you believe and what are you committed to? And I dare say that most women would say they believe in equality.”
But Sive, too, seems aware of the dangers of the “f” word.
“I try not to get bogged down in those conversations,” Sive added. “The goal is, if you and I share an agenda, let’s find out what that shared agenda is, and let’s work together. Get past whatever names you might call me and I might call you.”
And that’s the problem. I support the idea behind “feminist” — equality. That’s something I strive for every day, as do the women I know. It means choice. Freedom. Taking our place in society without asking men, “I’m sorry, were you standing here?”
Though I didn’t realize I was a feminist until I got yelled at by the late Betty Friedan, who told me that if it wasn’t for her and her flamethrower of a book, “The Feminine Mystique,” I wouldn’t have the job that allowed me to interview her in the first place.
Women like her built the house of equality and opportunity, she said, and it was hard work. Women like me just moved in but have a responsibility to care for the place. Update it, expand it, but honor the bones within.
As for the name on the mailbox? Feminist?
But I also understand Swift and Mayer, in that the word “feminist” seems to have been misappropriated by the conservative right to such an extent that even some of our most visible female role models see it as a scarlet “F.” “She’s a big feminist,” people will say. Code for thin-skinned. Conspiracy theorist. An angry linebacker in a skirt and pumps.
Why else would only one-fifth of Americans identify themselves as feminists — according to a Huffington Post/YouGov poll conducted last spring — while the vast majority (82 percent) believe that men and women should be social, political and economic equals?
It’s discussion that is bound to come up when Sive, 63, comes to Seattle to talk about her book, which includes research and true-life stories of women who have entered politics. (Her lecture is being co-hosted by elected and appointed women leaders, including Seattle City Council President Sally Clark, State Sens. Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Karen Keiser, Mercer Island City Councilwoman Tana Senn and retired Judge Anne Levinson.)
So there’s a little bit of preaching to the choir, but there’s no denying what Sive writes in her book: “We are in the midst of the greatest leap forward for women’s political leadership since the Nineteenth Amendment granted American women the right to vote in 1920.”
From her home in Chicago, Sive was still smiling about the recent election, which put first-time women mayors in New Haven, Conn., Rochester, N.Y., and Minneapolis. “It was an exciting day, demonstrating that women are increasingly entering the fray and figuring out a way to prevail.”
Sieve has never run for office, but has been a public official and foundation officer whose focus from the start has been advancing women’s issues and leaders. She is doing her best to help by telling the stories she has heard over the years as a public-affairs strategist and co-founder of the Midwest Women’s Center who also served as an adviser and fundraiser to former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and four female U.S. senators.
After years of stuffing notes and cocktail napkins into a folder, Sive sat down and wrote those stories, but also conducted interviews with women such as Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Beyond the interviews, “Every Day is Election Day” outlines how a woman with an eye to public office can surmount public barriers, conquer private fears and run a winning campaign.
“We’re in this whole new place,” Sive said. “America and American women, where it is almost a matter of course that women will seek the highest office in the land.”
Speaking of which, when she addressed the National Organization for Women during her first run for president, Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “If you look in the dictionary, the word feminist means someone who believes in equal rights for women in society, in the economy, the political process — generally believes in the equality of women. And I certainly believe in the equality of women.”
While on the face of it this is an adamant declaration of her feminism, even Clinton falls back on the literal definition of the word — a pre-emptive defense against its divisive connotations.
There’s no doubt she’ll get the yes-or-no question — “Are you a feminist?” — in the run-up to 2016. The question is, will she wield the answer, or have it wielded against her.
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org.