This article made the rounds on Facebook recently, recycling the tried-and-true outrage generator, “dumb lady says she’s for equality, but isn’t a ‘feminist.'” Many reactions took the same general approach as Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic, who asserted, “being a feminist is very simple: It means believing that women are and should be equal to men in matters political, social, and economic.” This echoes Aziz Ansari’s well-circulated appearance with David Letterman in February, in which he claimed, “If you look up ‘feminism’ in the dictionary, it just means someone who believes men and women have equal rights, and I feel like everyone here believes men and women have equal rights, yeah?” Ignoring for a moment the potentially contradictory implications of the claim that the genders both “are and should be” equal (am I not a feminist if I think they aren’t in fact but they should be?), both these arguments seem to rest on the assumption that everyone is in agreement that men and women ought to be equal. I happen to agree with this claim myself, but I think it’s giving the public a lot of credit to assert that this is a universal viewpoint. They only way to claim that gender equality is uncontroversial is to separate the notion from any practical implications it might have, but this would be to reclaim the word “feminism” at the cost of losing everything worthwhile about it.
The backstory to this debate is the oft-bemoaned fact that many young women and other people who demographically should be amenable to the aims and value of the women’s movement are reluctant to identify themselves with the feminist label. According to one Huffington Post/YouGov poll, only 23% of American women consider themselves to be feminists. From this perspective, it makes tactical sense to argue that “feminism” is just equivalent to a set of beliefs that a lot of people would say they hold. But there are two problems with this argument, the first logical and the second pragmatic. First, Ansari’s mansplanation notwithstanding, that is not, in fact, “how words work.” Yes, if you look up “feminism” in a dictionary, you may find that it says something like, “the doctrine that women ought to have equal political rights to those of men,” but in addition to their explicit meanings, words carry connotations based in their histories, and, especially with politically charged words, we usually afford people some leeway on whether or not they want a particular controversial label applied to them. Abortion opponents are, in some sense, anti-choice, but they prefer to think of themselves as “pro-life,” and the same goes on the opposite side. People who don’t want to call themselves feminists aren’t dummies who don’t understand words; they know something about the history of the term that makes them hesitant to take it up as a label for themselves.
Nonetheless, there’s something right about the argument that if you believe in equality between men and women you should call yourself a feminist. Even if this isn’t everything that the word implies, it’s certainly a major part of it. The more important error in this line of thinking is that it’s presented as starting from an obvious and uncontroversial premise. Gilbert and Ansari assume that everyone already believes that men and women should be equal, so it’s just a matter of convincing them to accept the label. But does everyone really agree with this claim?
Ansari makes the case that everyone believes in equality by prompting them with the answer he’s looking for and waiting for applause. But the thing is, you shouldn’t evaluate what people believe about abstract notions like “equality” just by asking them. When it comes to comparing particulars with generalities, people are notoriously likely to contradict themselves, like how 48% of Americans oppose stricter gun control laws, but 93% support requiring background checks for all gun purchases. It seems to me that, as a guide to people’s beliefs about gender equality, it’s better to look at their behaviors and what they think about specific issues than to ask them about it in the abstract. And I think by that measure you’ll find a lot less support for “feminism” than this argument supposes.
Let’s start with one example of someone who’s recently enjoyed a surge in popularity among the American center-left, but who pretty clearly doesn’t endorse gender equality: Pope Francis. Many Catholics would make the case that women and men are “equal in the sight of God,” but church doctrine explicitly limits membership in the priesthood to men, and the Pope himself has expressed his view that this matter is not up for debate. There’s always room for tortured apologetics explaining how those two ideas are consistent, but it seems to me that someone who thinks women should continue to be barred from holding the most powerful offices in an organization he oversees does not think women and men are “equal” in any practical sense of the word.
It’s not really fair to just pick on religious leaders, however, because behaviors that express, shall we say, “reservations,” about equality are everywhere. Most people are familiar with the “wage gap” at this point, meaning the fact that women tend to be paid less than men for performing the same work. But perhaps that issue is due to persistent structural barriers and not indicative of any belief in gender inequality. More troubling, if we’re trying to assess the degree to which regular people believe in gender equality, is the “chore gap.” Research shows that, even as women’s workforce participation and earnings have risen, they continue to spend significantly more time than men performing household duties, especially child care. This is true even if we restrict ourselves to looking only at dual earner households (although it is the case that in such households men usually spend more time on paid work than women). How many of the hip, liberal men in Letterman’s audience do you think do half of the household chores in their own homes? If they don’t, doesn’t this belie the notion that these men “believe men and women should be equal?”
But a clearer indicator of a general lack of commitment to gender equality, if I can be allowed to coin a new term, is the “surname gap.” According to a survey conducted by the New York Times blog The Upshot, 70% of women take their husbands’ last names when they marry, and even this rate represents a decline from the 1990s. Conversely, so few men adopt their wives surnames that, according to one researcher interviewed by the Huffington Post, “any survey would have trouble picking it up.”
The thing is, as a proxy for people’s reflexive attitudes about gender, the surname gap seems like a pretty good thing to measure. The traditional naming conventions seem to express an attitude of inequality pretty clearly: a man’s identity remains the same when he marries, but a woman’s changes. Furthermore, unlike inequality in wages or the amount of housework each member of a heterosexual couple does, expressing a commitment to equality through their naming choices involves basically no cost to the people involved. You can understand why individual men are unwilling to take a pay cut in the service of a general notion of equality, or why, in a couple where the husband makes more money, he might be likely to do more work for pay while the wife spends more time on unpaid housework. But a marrying couple who decides to each keep their own names or that the husband will change his surname to match his wife’s risks nothing but a few quizzical looks from their friends and families. It costs next to nothing in this case to register your belief that men and women should be equal, and yet a vanishingly small number of men choose to do so.
I don’t bring this up to call out anyone who follows traditional naming practices in their family; people have different values that sometimes come into conflict, and it’s not my place to tell anyone how to balance a belief in gender equality with other things they might care about. My point is just that the widespread acceptance of patriarchal naming conventions reflects how little weight as a society we put on the notion that men and women ought to be equal. It clearly isn’t an obvious triviality that should be counted on for an easy applause line. This is, after all, a country where we still haven’t amended the constitution to guarantee that equal legal rights will not be abridged on account of sex.
But, moreover, gender equality shouldn’t be treated as a triviality because it actually is a substantive issue about which people might very well have different positions. As much as people like to talk about the ways that equality benefits everyone, the fact is that there will always be some circumstances where making men and women equal means taking something away from one group and giving it to the other. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise, at least, that some people would be against it. When we treat an issue like gender equality as a point of obvious agreement, we strip it of all its substantial but potentially controversial implications and let people off the hook for thinking about what their avowed belief in equality actually means. That’s how you get things like Hugh Jackman acting all self-congratulatory about how he took out the trash one time. By all means, we should encourage people to adopt the feminist label and to loudly proclaim their belief in equality. But the next step of that conversation should always be to remind them that these commitments mean something about how they should live their lives. One of the greatest things that feminism (as an actual intellectual and political movement, not a dictionary entry) has given us is the thesis that the personal is political, that how each of us behaves day to day actually has an impact on broader issues of justice, and vice versa. Don’t hide that or other substantive insights by telling people that feminism is “very simple” or just a matter of “how words work.” Remind them that gender equality is actually a demand, not for something facile or obvious, but for a major shift in a deep-rooted social structure. Feminists are asking for something important. It’s the right thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still something big.