The F-word: Then and Now

In 1968, Gloria Biggs was the executive women’s editor at TODAY, a Gannett newspaper in Coco, Florida. She wrote a column headlined “To Catch a Woman” for a trade publication in which she provided advice about how women’s newspaper sections could cater more successfully to target readers. In the penultimate paragraph she noted:

I’d like to emphasize that I’m not a feminist. I’m not like that early 20th Century suffragette leader who gave a discouraged follower some advice: “Call on God, my dear! She will help you!” I’m not a feminist. I’m glad to have men run the show.

Years later, when Gloria donated her papers to the Women and Journalism archive at the University of Missouri, she affixed a post-it note to this page that read, “Nancy – I wince when I read the lines above on not being a feminist but then realize that in 1968 that’s the way it was and that’s the way I was or thought I ought to say I was.”

The F-word was as controversial then as it is now.images (3)

Less than two years after Gloria’s disavowal of feminism, she corresponded with Al Neuharth to congratulate him on his appointment as president of Gannett. She used the opportunity, though, to press her case for changes in the both the content and operation of its newspapers, noting that “Women’s Liberation is no passing fad. As the movement grows, it will affect the newspaper industry in two sensitive areas—the woman reader and the woman employee.” She continued:

The activists in Women’s Lib are very few in numbers compared to the placids. But the passionate arguments of the activists inevitably will seep into the consciousness of American women at all levels.

Why wait?

Why wait until the rumblings of discontent come from women employees imprisoned in a dreary world of mediocre pages and second class status? Why wait until the newspapers’ own “Silent Majority” of women readers expresses its disapproval of reading material that is not oriented to changing values, simply by not reading that material?

I recognize there are obstacles. But obstacles, after all, are designed to be overcome. Nobody has proven that better than you.

Three years after that, Gloria Biggs was named editor and publisher of the Melbourne Times – the first woman to achieve this pinnacle in the Gannett chain and the congratulations poured in. One note from a bank news bureau director noted that “We have a couple of top vice presidents in our member banks in Orlando, very lovely, very chic, and very very smart girls.” In responding to a letter from Florida governor Reubin Askew, Gloria downplayed the gender angle of her accomplishment:Gloria Biggs

Although it is, of course, a thrill to be the first woman promoted to publisher of Gannett’s 53 newspapers, I find now that I have been the job for a while that the fact of being a woman or a man isn’t very significant. Professional competence is what really counts.

So what are we to make of all this? Gloria Biggs was an incredibly accomplished journalist. She broke an important glass ceiling. She pushed for the importance of the rights of women in the newsroom and for the publication of socially relevant content on the women’s pages. Why wait, she asked? But she also eschewed the feminist label. She also discounted her groundbreaking position as publisher because competence is what really matters.

One thing I make of this is that Gloria could comfortably join a host of contemporary debates about feminism that are reignited whenever another celebrity woman states that she’s not a feminist. Katy Perry says, “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.” Taylor Swift says, “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. 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.” Marissa Mayer says, “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist.”

Feminist now whatAnd then there are the rejoinders. Lena Dunham says, “The idea of being a feminist—so many women have come to this idea of it being anti-male and not able to connect with the opposite sex—but what feminism is about is equality and human rights. For me that is just an essential part of my identity.” Ellen Page says, “I don’t know why people are so reluctant to say they’re feminists. Maybe some women just don’t care. But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?” Sheryl Sandberg says she is “proud to be a feminist.”

Now, I’m a communication scholar. I get that words make a difference. Labels matter – they structure our identities and our interaction in important ways.

I’m a feminist. I can give you the short answer for why – because I believe men and women should have equal rights and opportunities – or I could talk about the “why” for many hours. I embrace this label. But I also understand that words and labels matter not because they sort people into discrete categories but because they provide an opening for dialogue about our values and our actions. There is not a singular or correct definition of the F-word, in spite of the myriad flowcharts available on the internet. So when anyone says they’re not a feminist, we should see it not as an opportunity for derision but as an opening for dialogue.

I think my mom nailed it almost 40 years ago in a column written in the midst of second wave feminism’s crusade for gender neutral language. In commenting on terms such as “committee person” and “chairwoman” she wrote:

I really have no quarrel with the terms, although they get a little confusing and unpronounceable, and I understand the feeling that brings them into being. But I think sometimes insisting upon their use is missing the point of the whole issue.

What the women’s movement really wants to do is change the stereotypes of thinking rather than language. I really don’t care whether I’m a newsman or a newswoman or a newsperson so long as my employer accepts me on an equal basis with my male colleagues in terms of respect, responsibility and salary. And I find it far more important to have a capable woman as head of the committee than to worry about whether she’s called the chairman or chairperson.

Language changes probably will come, but the substance of women’s liberation is more important than its semantics.

True then, and true now. So rather than arguing about the F-word, let’s talk. About the accomplishments of women. About all the amazing ways to be a woman today. About our goals in the workplace, in relationships, and in families. About the ways in which the world is still a sometimes unjust – and sometimes scary – place for women. And after we talk, let’s get to work.

 

Thanks to the Women in Journalism Collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri and to the Washington Press Club Oral History Project – these archives of primary source materials are invaluable.

71 thoughts on “The F-word: Then and Now”

    1. But surely as long as you’re pro female rights you’re a feminist? I’ve read several articles about men identifying as feminists. It just so happens that the majority of people who are interested in female rights are women.

      1. I think there is also an historical context. Is it necessary to be a feminist if you believe in gender equality? Right now, I believe the answer is still yes. Not because men are in absolute control of the world, or because men don’t have their own issues of inequality to bear but because right now, in 2014, gender inequality is borne significantly more by women than men and the fight is more urgent for women than men. I have a young daughter and I genuinely hope that by the time she is a woman, feminism will be unnecessary and can be replaced by an overall egalitarian philosophy.

      2. Yes, absolutely. I believe that people who fight for all kinds of social justice would love to work their way out of a job! But, for now, fighting for equality for our daughters and granddaughters means there is still an important role for feminism.

  1. Some say that the English philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the first book on the beginning of first-wave American feminism.back in 1790. That was a long way back don’t you think?

  2. I think language plays a major role in forming identities. Although feminism is an ideology, language shows the deep-seated norms of the patriarchal setup. Language is important and so is it’s semantics.

    1. Absolutely! I’m a communication professor, so I definitely believe in the power of language in forming identities. 🙂 At the same time, it’s not just about language, but also about entrenched systems and institutions … lots of ways to work for equality for all.

  3. I am a women. I don’t see myself as a feminist, but I wouldn’t say I’m not. I believe in equal rights for everyone, but not just for women, men are also treated badly at times for being men, like they have to make up for being male and the bad actions of all the males before then., then there’s gay lesbian bisexual transgender rights, racial discrimination.. I think activists should focus on equality in general rather than equality for a specific group

    1. I absolutely agree that there should be equal rights for all! But there are times when there are entrenched problems that need to be worked on one at a time, be they related to gender, sexual orientation, race, or a host of other issues. So let’s continue to fight ALL of these good fights.

  4. I believe that the reason women today are afraid to admit that they are feminists is because of the new form of negative connotation with the word. We have begun to define feminism as people who believe women should be superior to men rather than just equal. Feminists of the world today are believed to be looking to gain the upper hand on men, put them in their place like men did to us not so long ago. I do think this definition is false, but with so many young people hearing and learning of this new definition, it is nearly impossible not to face harassment for calling yourself a feminist today.

  5. My mother never sought a label. At 18, she joined the Marines, all 5’0″ 105 lbs of her, in 1970. By 1972, she had me, her only son and child, with an unfortunate jarhead called my father. She worked tirelessly over the decades to come; went back to night college but came up a few credits short. She took over ownership of a retail shop in 1989 and sent me to college at Purdue in 1990. She never sought labels or acclaim in her entire life. She experienced the worse life had to offer, an abusive husband, a critical condensending female boss, a lack of financial resources and so on. Yet, unto her final days in 2011, as a victim of cancer and dementia, she sought no victim status or label to assuage her self worth. My point: i can understand the labeled plight of feminism more when the said woman feels it best to do her best to be about the doing life right, instead of the pulpit of loudest person standing. This not to say suffer in silence but instead to make it about the cause and not the singular path we all do tread. JMO.

    1. Your mom sounds like an incredible woman who went through incredibly difficult things in her life. And it sounds like she worked hard to raise a great son with very little support. I think feminism is all about trying to provide support for women like her (and others) – not about loudly proclaiming from a pulpit (or the newspaper column, in the case of my mom). I think it’s all about working for fair treatment of everyone – and when the particular fight being fought is for women, it is called feminism. But it’s not just a label – it’s about hard for for equality for ALL across a wide range of contexts.

      1. Agreed. I guess as time wears on I find people (not you) that place labels pretty easily on anything whether they understand impacts of those labels or even the contexts to which they should apply. Your piece got me thinking on that…and that road trekked hasnt been one paved at all. Thanks for the response.

    1. Thanks for the shout-out and for your further thoughts on feminism. And you are so right: “Ultimately, we are all humans. Our talents, skills and abilities may not be the same, but that does not mean was should not have equal opportunities, rights and chances in life.” Yes!

  6. I really enjoyed this article. As someone who shied away from the term “feminist” not too long ago, I can only now see how effective and entrenched patriarchy is to have been able to take one of the most inclusive movements and minimize it to a four-syllable word used to denote a select few men-hating, butch, angry women who’ve forgotten their place. It’s a damn shame.

    -Valentine
    Flux: Encountering Adulthood
    http://www.fluxforum.com

    1. Thanks … you’re right that angry women give feminism a really bad name! Feminism is really just about finding ways — through systemic change and simple thoughts and behaviors — that allow both men and women to live lives of potential and value. Not an easy thing, but worth fighting for!

  7. Thank you for this, I have trouble articulating why I am a feminist sometimes, I’ve even denied the label because that was easier than explaining. This will help me the next time someone asks if I am a feminist and why. Again, thank you.

  8. It is so true that people shy away from identifying themselves as ‘feminists’. Unfortunately, for all the wonderful things our female predecessors achieved, they also created a negative connotation for the F word. It is typically associated with more extreme behaviour, like burning bras in the street!
    One of the focuses of my blog is empowering women so we can all have greater choice – and guilt free! So there is a feminist undertone there 🙂 I’d like to see the break down of stereotypes of women being the homemakers and men being the breadwinners opposite is just as valid too

    1. There are definitely a great many paths for empowerment – choice is a critical component of third wave feminism, and so glad that you’re writing about this. I’ll definitely check out your blog!

      Interestingly, though, that bra burning thing that gave feminists such a bad name didn’t even happen (at least the original time it was written about). It was a joke that was taken seriously in the media and the image never went away.

  9. Until recently, I was reluctant to label myself a feminist. Blog posts and articles like yours changed my mind. Any hesitation I had is long gone now. When I get questions or, the incredibly rare, hostile response my reply has always been something like “Why wouldn’t I support equal rights for everyone? Don’t you?” Usually I get a smile or a thoughtful look. Thank you for the great post! Maybe one day the “F-word” won’t have such negative connotations.

    1. So glad my post spurred you on to write more about feminism and the way you see it – really enjoyed reading your post. Among the most important points you made is the simple idea that there are so many valid ways to be a woman – especially in the 21st century. When we fight with each other about some of the details that come up in debates about feminism, our divisions then get in the way of valuing the many ways of being a woman today.

    1. Yes, reproductive issues and abortion rights have clearly been an important issue for many feminists for many years. I can certainly understand your desire to not align with a movement that has advocated positions that are clearly in opposition with your own values. My belief (that I know some self-proclaimed feminists would disagree with) is that there is room in feminism for a variety of positions on reproductive rights. Indeed, I think this is an area where people on the both sides of the issue have drawn such strong and unwavering lines that productive dialogue has been all but impossible. I would like contemporary feminism to be an arena in which dialogue among women on this issue would be possible. A pipe dream, perhaps, but I’m like that….

  10. Reblogged this on huntress post and commented:
    I agree every woman should be feminist if they think that women should have all the same rights as men it is not a matter of whether you think women should have more power or shut out men it is a matter of whether you think that you should be able to do everything he can do. I even think women should be able to take their shirts of in public because men can

  11. I would like to draw a distinction between (a) the abstract and essentially meaningless criteria for being accepted into the group known as ‘the feminist movement’ (b) the practical definition of ‘the feminist movement’ in the real world.

    I would argue that feminism should be defined by the real-world behaviour and views of feminists, and especially those prominent (well funded) feminists who actually influence or even dictate political policy, social standards and changes in culture.

    Feminism should be defined by what it does, rather than what it says it wants to do.

    The “am I a feminist?” flow chart describes the criteria for being ACCEPTED into the group known as feminism. It does not describe what feminists actually do or say in the real world.

    This might be easier to understand if we imagine a flow chart for determining if you are a Nazi or not.

    STATEMENT: I love my great country and I support policies which ‘protect my homeland’ from outside threats.

    YES: You are a Nazi
    NO: You are not a Nazi

    Hopefully you now see the problem with relying on such simplistic flow charts 🙂

    If history shows us anything it is that unworthy, immoral or downright evil causes always attempt to gain public support using ‘no brainer’ slogans which cannot rationally be argued against (“freedom for all”, “save the planet”, “make a fortune from home”, “free ipod”, “equal rights for everyone”, “change you can believe in”, “putting people first”, “protect the homeland” etc)

    1. I agree with you that it is critical to move beyond labels … I’m not a huge fan of the flow charts either! It is important to analyze the specific policies and behaviors advocated by any interest group. It is in these debates about behavior and policy that progress can be made toward overall goals (your Nazi example is a clear case in point here … as are many religious groups, etc.). But the shorthand labels can be helpful in pointing to overall values. And, for me, I support the general statement of valuing the equality of men and women in various phases of life.

      1. “…And, for me, I support the general statement of valuing the equality of men and women in various phases of life…”

        But do you really think feminism is about valuing the equality of men and women?

        I can’t think of a single example of the feminist movement advocating gender equality that would make men better off, or make women worse off.

        For example men receive much higher conviction rates and much harsher sentencing than women for the same crimes. I don’t see any feminists fighting to fix that inequality.

        90% of work related deaths are men. I don’t see any feminists campaigning for better working conditions for men….. or campaigning for more women to get involved in all those dangerous but necessary jobs in society like mining, fishing, logging, waste disposal etc.

        Women have the legal right to terminate a pregnancy to avoid having to pay for the raising of a child, but men do not have this right and are forced to pay for a child even if they didn’t want it. I don’t see any feminists discussing this inequality.

        And let’s not forget the case of the teenage boy raped by an older woman who then used the law to force him to pay child support for the resulting child.

        Feminists speak out against men hitting women (and rightly so), but feminists often go on daytime TV and defend their right to hit their own infants and babies – a much greater abuse of power and strength. I don’t see these feminists being ejected from the feminist movement, along with the 90% of mothers who also admit hitting their children. Feminists are not interested in equal rights for infants and children it seems.

        Victims of both domestic abuse and rape are split about equally between men and women, but far more public resources, media attention and concern is directed towards helping female victims than male victims. I don’t see the feminist movement attempting to address this inequality. I see them constantly promoting rape and domestic abuse as if only females can be victims and only males can be perpetrators.

        Men are far more likely to be victims of physical assault in public but I don’t see the feminist movement attempting to address this issue.

        This is a deliberately loaded question, but I think it cuts to the heart of the matter: do you support equality, or do you support feminism? 🙂

  12. Since feminists are for equal rights and equal opportunities, I wonder whether “equal” should be the term used at all. Like it or not, females are different than males in both biology and psychology, and therefore can never be “equal” (by definition). Equivalent rights and equivalent opportunities should be the terms used, and using them might even turn a few minds from actively opposing feminism to supporting it.

    Take the Olympics, for example. There are sports for women and sports for men, but they are kept separate for the exact reason that women are inferior athletes (biologically) and could not compete with their male counterparts. If they were given equal rights, the they would combine the genders into the same event. But doing so is plainly not right, so instead they give the men and women equivalent opportunities by allowing only women to compete with women and only men with men.

    1. Yes, clearly there are a lot of different ways to see equality, and biology does matter at times. But there are also times when there are assumed differences that really don’t exist – presumptions about what men and women are “good at” or what they should or shouldn’t do. So while it sometimes makes sense to think about equity rather than equality, we should be careful that our assumptions not get in the way.

  13. I think I’m more a “Katy Perry” in this conversation. I’m afraid of the label because I don’t like the automatic association, but on the other hand, I’m a woman with a PhD in genetics…so…by our female ancestors’ standards, I should by all accounts be a feminist…right? Well, I’m weird. I think women are strong, but I get annoyed at something that are rather unusual. For example:

    1.) I’m offended by scholarships for women (what, we can’t compete with the boys so we need extra help?)

    2.) I was furious at the idea of the Marines considering lowering physical standards for women (suck it up, ladies; three pull-ups is not an unattainable goal)

    3.) The “77 cents to a man’s dollar” argument drives me nuts because of the number of variables not explicitly stated in the delivery of that statistic. Women don’t negotiate their first salaries as much as men do, women don’t work the same number of weekly hours that men do (check the Bureau of Labor if you don’t believe me), and men and women select different career paths. Women are much more to pick a job based on having a positive social impact whereas men are more likely to pick jobs simply based on pay. I’m sorry, but anyone with a masters’ degree working at a non-profit (more common choice for women) will still make less than someone with a BA at a corporate job (more common choice for men.) And take away higher education, master plumbers make 60-80K with a high school degree. Secretaries make 20-30K a year with just a high school degree. So, ladies, quit looking for comfortable office jobs if you want to make money. Go…fix…nasty toilets…ew.

    4.) I’m pro-life in 99.1% of situations. Rape victims aside, ladies…we’re insulting our own intelligence by acting in ignorance of basic reproductive biology. Take control of your actions. Buy your own condoms if you must.

    Since these thoughts, among others, rarely sit well with my friends who do consider themselves feminists, I don’t get to consider myself part of that club, even though I’m a reasonably intelligent and well-educated women. Ah well…somebody’s loss. I’ll figure the rest out later.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, LucidMystery (and love that name for a scientist!). I appreciate your positions on many of these issues – as the playing field is increasingly leveled, positions regarding scholarships and differential standards can definitely be argued to be problematic. And yes, the wage gap stuff is never reported in all of its true complexity. There are many reasons for the pay gap that are within women’s power to address (negotiating style, different career paths, etc.) and absolutely women can make different choices if pay is a primary motivator. But there is still unequal pay for even the same jobs. And there is still the issue of why the work that women often choose is valued less (monetarily) than work that men often choose. And we still could go a long way toward not punishing women (and men!) for the choices they make regarding work and family. So, yeah, complicated.

  14. When I was growing up, my female guardian told me: “you have 3 things against you in this world. 1 . You’re black. 2 . You’re poor. 3. You’re female.”
    I am surely by her standards, incorrigible…
    I am a feminist. I say this because I refuse to waste a second of my life atoning for the fact that I exist.

    1. I absolutely agree that there are a lot of wonderful ways to be woman, and I don’t think feminism is at all about being anti-male. I, too, appreciate the males in my life and believe there are a lot of great ways to live out our gender roles … so we’re definitely on the same page!

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