Why Do We Believe These Myths About Feminists?

Feminism has gotten a bad reputation, and a recent survey reveals that the most popular myths about feminism are alive and well. The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation's feminism poll reveals that many people still think of feminism as angry, antagonistic toward men, and more extreme than simply believing in the equality of the sexes. It looks like feminists have still got some work to do on the PR front.

The survey asked Americans if and to what extent they considered themselves feminists, and 47 percent fortunately did. But almost as many — 44 percent — considered themselves not feminists or anti-feminist (the rest had no opinion). Sixty-two percent had favorable opinions toward the women's movement, but still, 21 percent thought of it unfavorably. Why?

One of the reasons people don't consider themselves feminists is that they've consumed anti-feminist propaganda that paints the movement in a negative light. These messages are often based not on actual feminists' actions but on a warped view of feminism created to uphold tradition and defend male privilege.

Here are some of the myths that people hold about feminism, according to the survey, where people may have gotten these ideas, and what the truth is:

1. You Can Believe In Gender Equality Without Being A Feminist

As Aziz Ansari points out in the Late Show episode above, feminism by definition is the advocacy of gender equality. Yet despite only 47 percent of people in the Washington Post/Kaiser poll calling themselves feminists, 94 percent believe "men and women should be social, political and economic equals." Where's the disconnect? Some of it comes from stereotypes about feminists that render them "too aggressive," as Ansari puts it.

In addition, people may passively believe in gender equality but not realize to what extent gender inequality is a problem. They may believe feminism was once necessary but that we now live in a "post-feminist" country where equality has more or less been achieved. In fact, 30 percent of respondents described feminism as "outdated." However, once you gain awareness of rape culture, workplace discrimination, domestic violence, and all the many, many ways women are oppressed in the United States and other countries, it becomes hard not to find feminism necessary.

2. Feminists Blame Men For Sexism

Forty-six percent of Americans believe feminism "unfairly blames men for women's challenges." But if we believed that the decisions of individual men were to blame for injustice, we wouldn't see a need for a larger social movement. And if we blamed innate male characteristics, feminism wouldn't exist because we wouldn't find the problem solvable. Rather, we blame patriarchy — and I know that sounds like a fancy way of saying "we blame men," but patriarchy is best thought of as a set of behaviors that everyone exhibits throughout our entire society. Since these behaviors tend to put men in power, acts of violence committed by men toward women to maintain this power are prevalent. But men didn't start it, and men don't benefit from it. That's why so many men endorse feminism as a way to liberate themselves from gender roles. Feminism is trying to take down stereotypes like "men are more aggressive" and "women are more compassionate," not employ them.

In fact, many feminists consider feminism to go beyond gender. As Sian Ferguson writes in Everyday Feminism, we are really fighting a whole "kyriarchy" that places men above women, white people above people of color, humans above non-human animals, and many groups above other groups. Everybody upholds this system, but nobody is to blame for its existence.

3. Feminists Are Unnecessarily Angry

Forty-three percent of poll respondents described feminism as "angry," and that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if you see a group of people — particularly your own — constantly belittled and targeted, there's something wrong if you're not angry. However, there's a misconception that feminists are angry about injustice because they're just angry people. Like "crazy" and other ad hominem insults directed toward feminists, this stereotype serves to make feminism about individual women's problems and mask the larger issues they're calling attention to.

4. Feminists Judge Women's Choices

Thirty-two percent of respondents said feminism looks down on women who don't have jobs. But while some women, self-identified feminists or not, do look down on women for their choices, feminism is not to blame for that. In fact, feminism is about the right for women to make choices. Feminists' concern is not that women will freely choose to be stay-at-home moms but that they won't have other options because companies won't hire pregnant women, fathers won't participate equally in child care, or people will look down on women for putting their careers first. But if a woman who is not under these pressures still chooses to stay home with kids, there's nothing wrong with that. And even if she stays home due to those pressures, that's not her fault, and the goal of feminism is not to judge women like that but to help them.

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