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Joan C. Williams's picture

Co-written with Katherine Ullman

Like just about every other feminist on the Internet, I've read quite a bit about Marissa Mayer lately: She's the new CEO of Yahoo, she's about to have her first child, she's going to be making $59 million, she's behind some of Google's most influential contributions and she likes periwinkle turtlenecks. But then I read some strange rumors about Marissa Mayer saying that she's not a feminist.


A woman (from Silicon Valley, no less) enters the ranks of Fortune 500 CEOs -- that elite, all-powerful, nearly 4% female club -- and she's not a feminist?

In an interview for the series Makers, Mayer explains, "I don't think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don't, I think have, sort of, the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that." Before we go any further, let me make clear I am not planning to bash Marissa Mayer for spurning feminists everywhere. On the contrary, when it comes to her views on feminism, Mayer is just not that extraordinary. She's just a famous example of a larger trend among women.

Don't believe me?

Three years ago, a CBS News polll found that only 24% of women surveyed identified as feminists and 17% thought the word was an insult. Interestingly, when provided with a definition of a feminist -- someone who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes -- that meager 24% shot up to 65%. What does this tell us? Women ascribe additional meanings to the word feminism and those alternative meanings are too often negative. Identifying as a feminist, it seems, is not the simple two-step process British journalist Caitlin Moran hopes it would be; "A) Do you have a vagina? And B) Do you want to be in charge of it?"

When a woman identifies as a feminist, above all else she makes clear that feminism is still a relevant political identity, i.e., that gender inequality still exists and shouldn't. That's the simple part in claiming feminism, and it's why a majority of women identify as feminists when given a simple definition. What's seems to be complicated about adopting the title feminist is that it carries multiple, often negative, connotations. For one thing, the number of women who identify as feminists might be low because women of color associate the mainstream feminist movement with its white roots -- and the resilient trend among contemporary white feminists of failing to include women of color (and their perspectives) in important conversations.

But white women are not immune to the term's complex nature. For white women, and women of color who aren't otherwise put off, the word feminist simultaneously suggests one's femininity -- by pledging allegiance to womankind -- while also connoting "militancy" (as Mayer suggested), often associated with masculinity. A woman who presents typically masculine qualities may find the term feminist too feminizing, while a woman with typically feminine qualities may find it too aggressive or militant. In other words, feminism might feel too feminine for some women and not feminine enough for others. This may be why the numbers show that women understand feminism so differently, and often negatively. Perhaps some women refuse to claim feminism not because they fail to acknowledge gender bias and inequity. Perhaps, these women navigate the word feminism -- and their relationship to it -- very much the same way they attempt to balance on the gender bias tightrope; a double bind in which women must choose whether to be liked, but not respected, or respected, but not liked.

Take for example a friend of mine, a female athlete who coaches at a small private school in North Carolina. When I asked her about her feminist identity, she responded, "because I was more of a tomboy, I grew up having a hard time understanding and empathizing with girly issues and interests." Note the word "girly" here; to a tomboy like my friend, adopting feminism meant aligning herself with typically feminine qualities she wants to distinguish herself from -- in part because she feels they lack the legitimacy. Case in point: "I guess I was (am) an inherently aggressive and confident person--two characteristics, when put together, that aren't typically equated with femininity." This friend felt that by identifying as a feminist, she ran the risk of losing the legitimacy she gained among men through her confidence, assertiveness and incredible athletic ability: "I don't demand respect from anyone. I expect it."

Mayer herself presents an interesting case study; on the one hand, she seems to want to disassociate herself with womankind (she famously said, "I'm not a woman at Google; I'm a geek at Google"). On the other hand, she presents femininely (think cupcakesOscar de la Rentathe color purple) and is quick to ensure no one thinks she's harboring any "militancy." Mayer does what any New Girl will tell you is a smart strategy to avoid gender bias in your career: She mixes the masculine with the feminine. Some women adopt this strategy in their dress or tone -- Mayer does it with feminism.

In the wake of news about Marissa Mayer (or actress Melissa Leo, or performance artist Marina Abramovic), the question was often posed, do trailblazing women have the responsibility to identify as feminists? I think it's a fair question, but a difficult one to answer. Why? Because I think we all too often fail to recognize how the practice of navigating gender bias -- the very practice women must master in order to be successful in today's workplace -- may force women to deny the identity of a feminist all together. We don't know, of course, whether these women have secret feminist leanings or whether they've failed to identify a single moment of sexism in their conscious lives. Perhaps we'll never know, and perhaps it doesn't matter. Let's focus less on these women's responsibility toward feminism, and focus instead on feminism's responsibility to women like them, and the young women who follow, who grapple with feminism. What can we do to remove the stigma? What can we do to remove the pressure? What can we do to engage better and earlier with young girls? These, I think, are the more important questions.

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