During Monday night’s Q&A Maddie Mott drew our attention yet again to the challenges that using the word ‘feminist’ brings with it. She asked Australia’s Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash:  “how you can be Minister for Women yet not be a feminist. A feminist is someone that believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.

Senator Cash replied “merely because I don’t label myself as a feminist, because I don’t believe in labels, does not mean that I don’t get up every single day and fight for gender equality because that’s what I do.”

Why did Senator Cash refuse to call herself a feminist despite meeting the definition, and being subjected to continued pressure to do so? What makes her (and many others) distance themselves from the label?

Research by Professors Peter Glick and Susan T. Fiske helps us understand the reluctance that some women and men have to the ‘feminist’ label. They have led a multi-country, longitudinal project exploring attitudes towards gender. They have found that there are distinct sub-types of gender beliefs, labelled Hostile and Benevolent, that create an ambivalence in our expectations for how women and men should behave, and that predict our reactions when men and women behave outside of these expectations.

The theory goes likes this: Hostile responses towards women occur when they challenge traditional gender roles and stereotypes such as caring for others, being warm, kind and gentle, and taking on supportive roles. When women seek greater power in society, take more senior roles at work and question male-dominated organizational structures and professions, there may be a backlash response.  Those with Hostile attitudes believe women want to gain power by having control over men, they deny discrimination at work, they consider that feminists make unreasonable demands, and they see women as sexual teasers.

Benevolence provides a complementary counterbalancing that acknowledges dependency and intimacy between the sexes. Here, the virtues of traditional gender roles and stereotypes are magnified. Benevolent attitudes towards women see men’s and women’s roles as distinctly different and complementary, that men are incomplete without women. Men who express Benevolence towards women believe that women should be cherished and protected, that women have a purity and a superior morality to men’s and that men should sacrifice their well-being to provide for the women in their lives.

Hostile attitudes are based on an adversarial view of gender relations where women are seen to be taking control over men through feminist ideology. Researched attitudes towards women who identify as feminist have been ‘surprisingly negative’.  Feminists are stereotypically portrayed as competent but cold, unattractive man-haters, and feminism as incompatible with romantic love. This is why it’s a dirty word – this stereotype sets up a negative response to feminism – it’s challenging to identify with such a pejorative portrayal. And so it serves to maintain traditional beliefs and practices and marginalize those who act against them.

105 years after the first International Women’s Day, we can reflect on just how much progress we have made towards equality. Women, through the actions of early feminists, have significantly increased their participation in society, education, work and politics. The last five years in particular have seen an enormous shift in women’s participation and there is growing momentum for the increased involvement of women (and men) in non-traditional areas.

While ‘feminist’ remains such a contentious label it provides a reflection of continuing opposition, by some, to women’s participation outside of traditional gendered roles and behaviours. It surfaces the otherwise invisible and intangible barriers that prevent more rapid progress.

Let’s call it out. Do you believe in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes? Then feminist it is.


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