Myths and controversies surrounding feminism

Why is feminism often controversial? Read more about some of the most common objections to feminism and discover five amazing feminist ideas that might change your world.

Mary Kelly talks about different reactions to feminism

© Moderna Museet Stockholm

Feminism is always controversial. It raises the question of sexual difference and inequalities. It asks: what does it mean to be a woman; how does she differ from a man; and why are women often apparently subordinated? As you read the narrative and listen to the extracts in this section, consider your own opinions of feminism. Did you have any preconceived ideas before you started using this site? Have your opinions changed through listening to the experiences of the women interviewed?

We have suggested below some of the most clichéd, but also most common, objections to feminism. Drawing on the evidence of the oral histories in the Sisterhood and After archive, we have then tried to answer them from the point of view of the activists who loved and lived in the movement.

Sue O'Sullivan gives her views on separatism and having sons

Do feminists hate men?

The WLM was founded on small groups, workshops and women’s centres, and political campaigns in the name of women. Women wanted to have economic independence, political equality and a space of their own in order to discover who they were, as independent women. They did not want to be exclusively defined as wives, daughters, or even mothers or sisters. Some women-only workshops and meetings were seen to be vital in this process, other feminists, a minority perhaps, wanted and established entirely separatist communities. The fact that feminists have attempted to create these spaces for women alone has often been misinterpreted as man-hating. Rather than being anti-man, most feminists are anti-patriarchy, and dream of finding new and better ways for all people to live together.

Today in Britain antagonisms between the sexes are arguably less strongly structured through sexual difference. Women have expanded their working environments, have control over their fertility, increasingly share the childcare and household work with the men in their lives; for many the sexual division of labour at home and at work has shifted. Also, men’s bodies have become objectified and commodified in similar ways to women’s in the advertising industry, digital media and new forms of ‘popular entertainment’. Queer and trans feminism, both new gender-sexual liberation movements which grew up in the 1990s, have also provided different ways of building alliances between women and men who feel alienated by stereotypical roles based on their sex. They drew on longstanding solidarities between gay and lesbian liberation movements.

Sue Lopez talks about support she received from men

Barbara Jones talks about the fear of 'scary feminist women' 

Feminists are ugly and wear awful clothes – well, it gets said a lot!

There is no line on make-up, glamour or self-adornment among feminists. Early in the WLM many young and beautiful women felt liberated by cutting their hair, abandoning make-up and wearing jeans, but Bridget Bardot, Audrey Hepburn, sometimes even Marilyn Monroe, chose this look. Feminists challenged the assumption that women should wear make-up and dress in a certain way. Women sat in consciousness-raising groups heavily made-up, with cropped or highlighted hair and dungarees, with silk scarves under brocade and beaded jackets over long skirts. Velvet, wild curls, vivid colours, henna, elaborate knits, leather and sheepskin jackets were ubiquitous among feminists of all ages. You can see some of the varying fashions in Sue Crockford’s film of the Ruskin conference in Activism.

The freedom to choose how you look can matter deeply to some women (as it does to some men). It can be a sign of self-esteem, a source of great pleasure and can introduce an aesthetic into everyday life cheaply and easily. In early 20th-century Britain, the ‘shop’ or ‘factory’ girl was the first to dress ‘like an actress’. Clothes are also functional and the wearing of utilitarian clothes was important to women’s movements. Feminists from ethnically oppressed groups also reclaimed particular styles and fashions as part of a wider politics of heritage and pride. Gail Chester talks movingly about the politics of hair as a Jewish woman, for example. Feminists in the 1970s also explored wearing clothes that opposed consumer culture, enabled freedom of movement, and conveyed political or social authority and power rather than sexual status.

Stella Dadzie describes becoming a feminist as a young girl

Feminism used to be important, but it’s not needed now

'It’s technically impossible for a woman to argue against feminism. Without feminism you wouldn’t be allowed to have a debate on a woman’s place in history'
Caitlin Moran, How to be a Woman (London: Ebury Press, 2012).

Moran puts the matter cheekily. But we might ask more seriously how we can understand the new global networks and initiatives by women and gender activists that are developing everyday: why do they keep arising and what are they fighting for? For example, Ugandan political theorist, Sylvia Tamale, brings together African initiatives on sexual, gender and human rights. Closer to home, the young British women’s organisations Reclaim the F-Word, Million Women Rise, the Birmingham Women’s Networking Hub and the global Slutwalk were all founded within the last ten years.

Eileen Evason on the women's movement in Northern Ireland

Feminism is racist, imperialist, upper class and generally exclusive

This charge is less of a myth than an ongoing controversy. It remains one of the biggest challenges for women’s rights advocates today. It is true that feminist movements have historically been more commonly spearheaded by wealthier women, though this is a pattern in many countries, rather than just the white West and North. One possible explanation is that women’s movements, like most social movements, depend upon education, and a degree of income, to resource themselves. Another argument is that educated or middle-class women are motivated to push for their rights and interests as they have already secured their basic needs such as a decent income. Early 20th century suffragettes and suffragists, for example, were often wealthy women with high social status who were angered that they possessed little more than the civil rights of a child.

Of course, there were many working-class campaigners for suffrage too, notably the millworker Annie Kenney. Many black women and working-class women have asserted their difficulties with the term ‘feminism’ because too often it has been led by white middle-class women who have not been sufficiently connected to the equally important struggles for race equality and class emancipation. For that reason, in the 1970s African-American women proposed ‘womanism’ to be a less tainted term, and today ‘women’s rights’ have more global currency than ‘feminism’. More recently, feminism has been given a bad name because it has been used by powerful neo-colonial interests, particularly in the USA, as a justification for military intervention such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. The terms ‘femo-nationalism’ and ‘homonationalism’ (because intervention to ‘liberate’ gays and lesbians in the Middle East and North Africa has also been a feature), have been coined by Sara Farris and Jasbir K. Puar to express anti-racist feminists’ concerns about a hijacking of a movement by its political opponents.

Mary Kelly talks about the transexual rights movement

Five amazing feminist ideas

An introduction to the Women’s Liberation Movement would not be complete without a reference to some of its original and influential ideas. These are just five:

  • Time is political. This is an idea that fed straight into workplace struggles. Trade Union women’s activists and many feminists interviewed for this history, testify to a vision of better work conditions which goes far beyond the demand for equal pay. How can we restructure the division of time spent at work and at home? Understanding the politics of time as well as the gendered division of labour could free men as well as women.
  • Morality comes from caring relationships. This idea draws on ancient ethical philosophies but was given far more life and detail by feminists who showed that nursing, mothering, friendships, love, and many areas traditionally viewed as ‘women’s work’, support a good society just as much as the world of court and parliament. The ‘ethics of care’, as this is known, values the personal relationship and differences between people, challenging simple ideas that we are all are ‘the same’ under the law.
  • Bodies are part of how we think, exist, relate. Again, feminists did not invent this idea but developed it in a myriad of philosophies, literary texts, art works, as well as political practice. They challenged a powerful tradition which suggested that women were less capable than men of reason, and that this was because of their messy, leaky, child-bearing bodies. While asserting women’s ability to reason, feminists in the period of the WLM also wanted to celebrate the body as a source of self and of mind.
  • Everyday life is interesting. Much like the valuing of bodily life, feminists reclaimed the domain of the domestic and the everyday as a source of investigation and sometimes pride. ‘Ephemera’ like diaries, letters and family albums are just some of the records newly valued in this light.
  • What may be true for you is not always true for me. As the WLM evolved to recognise its connection with and need of, many other political movements, political thinkers have developed ideas of ‘intersectionality’, ‘standpoint philosophy’, ‘transversality’ and more. All of these emphasise that the struggle for gender rights is different in different times and places, and that all truths are conditioned by who, when, what, and why they are being asserted. Differences must be respected, even as coalitions and alliances must be continually reinvented.

Perhaps the biggest and most basic great feminist idea is simply that gender relations are not set in stone. They have a history, and they have already been transformed many times, sometimes in ways that feminists like, sometimes not. But they can change. The WLM was a moment when women – and some men – felt this very keenly, and tried to steer the direction in ways that were emancipating for all.

Barbara Taylor discusses mother / daughter relationships

Banner credit: 'All-women shortlist' cartoon © Jacky Fleming www.jackyfleming.co.uk

  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.