The Undeserved Stigma of the Feminist Fight


By Erin Fleming

Feminism should not exist. This is not to say that it is outdated or unnecessary, only that it should be outdated and unnecessary. Even though feminism has adapted over time to face the issues of different eras to keep itself from becoming outdated, anti-feminist sentiment continues to live on today, mostly due to mislabeling and misunderstanding of the movement’s purposes.

There are countless examples of commonplace discriminations against women that could clarify those purposes—from women and girls being objectified by popular media to legislation meant to limit the rights women have to their health—but there is little value in these stories to men, who have no real equivalent discrimination against them that would allow them to properly empathize with women’s struggles, to women unaffected by gender discrimination, or to those whose view of feminism is completely skewed because of media distortion.

Generally, only females who have been aware and subject to gender discrimination can truly identify with pleas to emotion, so a more logical and objective approach to feminism is the only way to properly understand its necessity on a more universal scale.

Anti-feminism is driven by deeply rooted cultural sexism that is encouraged by the popular media, which, instead of having the desired effect of stifling the feminist movement only serves to elevate feminism’s status as more people become aware of the media’s slander. Feminism is only as deeply rooted in American culture as sexism is; each exists to discredit the other, and the only way to rid society of feminism is to eradicate the sexism that feeds it.

Sexism and anti-feminist sentiment today stems from derogatory female stereotypes and lies that were generated from popular media during the 20th century. Even feminism in one of its earliest organized forms in the United States, the suffragists, was subject to social distortion and condescension from the media.

E.W. Gustin, a popular political cartoonist in the early 20th century, took the image of the suffragist movement and turned it on its face, making it easily dismissible and even laughable, by portraying women in traditionally male roles in the home.

A notable piece that attempts to discredit suffragists displays a husband, kneeling on the floor, apron-clad, cleaning supplies in hand and all-around pathetic-looking, taking commands from his wife, who stands tall, confident, dominant, pinching his ear; a caption reads, “My wife’s joined the Suffrage Movement (I’ve suffered ever since!)”.

This notion that feminists desired compete gender role-reversal has been used as fodder against the movement since its origins. Even when women asked only for the right to vote, they broke from their traditional subservient roles, which shocked and terrified society, partially because women realizing that they did not need to take the roles that were handed to them would cause uncomfortable societal change, but mostly because the patriarchal society feared that the injustices suffered by women would be placed upon men in the case of role reversal.

Even this comic recognizes that the treatment of women of the time was despicable and displayed fear of the same treatment being placed upon men; the husband, taking the wife’s usual place, is to be pitied—why must this man be forced to undergo such “suffering,” subjected to taking orders from his wife and silenced by her dominance? And his wife, despite taking the role typical of males, is made out to be cruel, unforgiving, and manipulative.

However, the artist does not intend to use this to point out the disparity between the treatment of genders, but instead juxtaposes these two figures in order to convey the notion of a woman being in charge as being ridiculous and laughable, and, by extension, he portrays the suffragist movement as ridiculous and laughable. He removes any amount of credibility that these early feminists may have had by associating them with the idea of complete gender role-reversal and by emphasizing his view that giving women power would negatively impact society.

Later, in the mid-20th century, the majority of women retreated to their kitchens after the liberated flapper trend of the Roaring Twenties was decided to have given women too much freedom. The domestic goddess reigned supreme, able to clean the entire house, prepare breakfast, and get dressed, with a full face of makeup, all in time to cart the kids off to school.

Women lived for their home and family before themselves, and women’s magazines offered short diversions for housewives chained to their work. Most major women’s magazines in the mid-20th century were, unsurprisingly, run by men, and were often very limited and repetitive in content; articles on effective cleaning strategies, short stories glorifying the subservient roles of women (housekeeper, child bearer, husband babysitter), recipes, sewing patterns.

But of course, women did not choose for what was often their only source of reading material to consist of this types of material; the men who wrote the magazines dictated what was considered to be suitable material about which women could read and think. This man-made, woman-targeted media submerged women in a frivolous world consisting of little more than the same domestic fluff reprinted monthly with different wording.

Many magazines assumed that women could not handle real issues and topics, since all that women tended care about seemed to center around makeup tips and child rearing techniques; what many of these magazines did not realize was that women were only interested in frivolous topics because those were the only ones being provided for them (Friedan).

These magazines lifted the housewife onto a pedestal, and, according to them, to have dreams beyond making the perfect home and raising the perfect family was nearly blasphemous. The career woman was portrayed as misguided, unstable, and incomplete, and was often turned into a housewife after realizing that her career dreams left her life devoid of the love of others. Women were not just discouraged from having their own lives; the social structure of the mid-20th century made it nigh impossible, since any woman with a life, a career, and dreams of her own was overwhelmingly frowned upon.

Housewives, self-defined solely as wife and mother, had nothing to contribute to their families and nothing to work toward in their own lives, so they were forced to live vicariously through those of their families in order to find a sense of purpose (Friedan). Women began to be stereotyped as being vapid and overbearing, unfit for leading lives of their own, unprepared for the full rights and responsibilities of unabridged American citizenship with the freedom to pursue their own liberated lives in order to find their own happiness.

But of course, not all women remained out of touch with the world, and as women gained the knowledge, confidence, and platforms necessary to voice their opinions, a new wave of feminism, commonly known as second-wave feminism (first-wave feminism being the suffragists) arose from a generation of young, educated, driven women in the late 20th century.

The battle for female empowerment gained momentum, and women began to take complete control of their lives, protesting discriminatory legislation and societal norms hindering women’s freedoms in career, marriage, and health. The push from feminists for women’s rights led to increased aggression from both sides, and the media resorted to labeling feminists as “’man-haters,’” Marxist, ugly, desperate, masculine, undesirable, sexually frustrated, and, “[i]n a now-famous statement that appeared in the Washington Post in 1992, [as] Christian evangelist Pat Robertson said … [women who] ‘leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians’ (Fisanick).

The stigma surrounding feminism after the media’s extreme distortion of the movement’s message turned many potential feminists away from the cause, fearful of labeling themselves as such for fear of becoming angry lesbians in the eyes of the world.

Some attempts have even been made to re-name feminism in order to dissociate it from the negative image that popular media had created for it and to make the movement seem more friendly to the modern form of feminism (third-wave), which primarily focuses on unifying men and women in a fight for complete gender equality.

Feminism’s wrongly tarnished image has hurt the movement’s popularity and made it more difficult for those who believe in its ideologies to stand up for them without being unfairly judged based on untrue stereotypes. However, this image is beginning to be lifted as feminist legislation regarding women’s reproductive health is being threatened by modern bills; more and more people are discovering for what feminism truly stands, without the wrongful stigma surrounding it.

Pressure applied by society plays a powerful hand in the prevalence of sexism in modern American culture. It was not biological inferiority that kept women subservient for so long—it was the societal expectation that they remain that way (Friedan). The idea of what a person should be will almost always outweigh that of what he or she could be. The consistent insistence from the media that a career woman’s life is empty and loveless from a lack of domesticity and obedience to her husband makes liberation seem undesirable. A woman who must put her child in daycare while she pursues a career is still viewed as being irresponsible—a woman is still expected to abandon her career for the care of a child; it is unorthodox to see a man doing the same.

Women, frequently throughout history, have been objectified, whether as objects lower meant to carry out the will of superiors, or as sexual objects designed solely to have sex appeal in order to have any worth. Even today, portrayals of “sexy,” thin, airbrushed women with perfect hair and bone structure in magazines, commercials, movies, television shows create an unattainable ideal to which many women are happy to strive in vain in order to appear as society dictates that they should (“The Sexualization of Girls Is Harmful.”).

Things that are widely accepted in today’s society, such as Playboy and beauty pageants, “epitomize the roles we are all forced [by society’s expectations] to play as women,” holding up societal standards that tell women to stay in high heels and corsets and that the most that they can achieve, besides childbirth, is being nice to look at and potentially sexually fulfilling (Morgan).

By enlarge, society and popular media refuse to acknowledge the modern need for feminism, making people more blind to the cause (Fauldi). Sexism still carries on today, and is glorified not just by men holding women to a certain standard, but by women willingly upholding these damaging standards.

Discouraging women, who make up approximately fifty percent of the world’s population, from taking on equal roles as those of men means that the United States loses the potential of a huge portion of the minds of the people. That is to say, in discouraging more than fifty percent of the population from fulfilling their full potential, we lose every possible idea, resolution, piece of literature, musical masterpiece, tactical strategy, treaty that could come from the minds of any of these women who are not encouraged to speak their minds or take on roles of power.

Certainly, employing women in positions of power would not necessarily cause world peace or the end of corruption; women are not moral superiors immune from the twisted claws of corruption (Steinem, “Women’s Liberation Aims to Free Men Too”). Corruption and greed can come from every corner; however, so can innovative ideas with the potential to solve longstanding issues, whether they be national or on a smaller scale.

Empowering women to take on positions of leadership and social equality also goes to empower men by removing the pressure of being the sole breadwinner and leader of a family (Steinem, “What It Would Be Like If Women Win.”).

Aside from sharing the burden of supporting a family, in the current economy a dual income is required for most families to survive. In families, sharing equal responsibility for maintaining a home, depending on the skills of each member, is much more practical than assigning certain jobs to each parent based on what society dictates as being normal.

The so-called Feminist Agenda does not consist of gender role-reversal, nor does it degrade men while boosting the status of women, despite what the popular media would like people to believe. It simply calls for equality between the sexes, with a full range of life choices being made available for all people, regardless of their genders, and for the freedom of all people to choose what path that their lives should take.

Women and men alike should be able to be caretakers or presidents without societal stigma encouraging one path and condemning another based on gender.

Works Cited

Fauldi, Susan. “Blame It on Feminism.” The Feminist Movement. Ed. Nick Treanor. San Diego: Greenhaven, 2002. 113-118. Print. American Social Movements.

Fisanick, Christina. Introduction. Opposing Viewpoints: Feminism. Ed. Fisanick. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2008. N. pag. Opposing Viewpoints. GALE Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <;.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Dell, 1964. Print.

Gustin, E. W. Hen Party. GALE Opposing Viewpoints in Context. N.p., 19 Oct. 1998. Web. 21 May 2012. <;.

Morgan, Robin. “No More Miss America.” GALE Opposing Viewpoints in Context. N.p., 2006. Web. 18 May 2012. <;.

“The Sexualization of Girls Is Harmful.” About Kids Health(2007): n. pag. GALE Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 22 May 2012. <;.

Steinem, Gloria. “What It Would Be Like If Women Win.” Women’s Rights(2003): n. pag. GALE Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <;.– – -. “Women’s Liberation Aims to Free Men Too.” The Feminist Movement. Ed. Nick Treanor and Scott Barbour. San Diego: Greenhaven, 2002. Print.

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Comments (2)
No. 1-2

While I 100% agree with the thesis of this article, I feel I need to point out that the history here is flawed. This is the trajectory of white, middle-class women and the movement, not all women in general. Poorer, browner women were often excluded, their needs overlooked. When middle-class white women "retreated to their kitchens", their poorer and browner counterparts continued to fight crushing sexism as they worked for pennies on the dollar outside of home. Many of them never got to fight for, let alone exercise the vote because their race was even more an impediment than their sex. When middle-class white women fought for reproductive freedom, they often forgot about how their poorer and browner sisters were facing their own struggles in the opposite- society often made it hard for them to be mothers, and even forcefully denied them that right, even as it denied wealthier whiter women the right to say "no". If we want an intersectional future for the movement, we need to be clear and honest about the past.