Men’s rights advocates (MRAs) often argue that feminism portrays women as always and ever oppressed, and thus *makes* women into victims. Related to this, MRAs argue that feminist beliefs are harmful for women themselves. However, the actual evidence is that having feminist beliefs and/or a feminist identity is good for women, and that having feminist beliefs or a feminist identity has a range of positive benefits.
First, what is feminism? Feminism is defined by the key ideas that women’s social conditions are unfair, socially constructed, and thus open to change (Hannam, 2006). In more detail, feminism is defined by 1) a recognition of an imbalance of power, with women subordinate to men; 2) a belief that gender inequalities are social in origin, and can be changed; and 3) an emphasis on women’s autonomy and empowerment. Finlayson (2016) notes something similar, that feminism is defined by recognition of, and opposition to, patriarchy, a system in which men have power over women (Finlayson, 2016). Finally, bell hooks writes that feminism is a movement to end sexist oppression (hooks, 1984, 2000).
Feminism as a social movement has achieved a wide variety of improvements in women's lives: in their legal status, their access to paid work and political decision-making, their cultural representation, their sexual and reproductive rights, their everyday relations with men, and so on. In this sense, feminism is very much 'good for women'.If you’re a woman, you can thank a feminist for the fact that you can: Own property. Vote. Have a job. Keep the money you earn. Get a bank loan. Go to university. Use birth control or contraception. Get an abortion. Marry who you want. Run for office. Keep your job if you become pregnant. Be legally protected from sexual harassment. Participate in a professional sport. And so on.
Feminism has positive impacts for women regardless of their own attitudes towards feminism or identities as feminists. (See here for a range of books and articles introducing feminism and gender, some in full text.) On this page however, the focus is on the impact on women of having feminist attitudes and/or identities themselves.
Feminism and women’s agency
Feminism emphasises women’s agency, their ability to act, and it focuses on encouraging women’s individual and collective empowerment. Feminism emphasises women’s agency even in the most dire and oppressive of situations. For example, feminist research on women living with intimate terrorism by a male partner has examined women’s efforts to manage and lessen the violence and to escape such relationships. And feminist work on men’s violence against women includes self-defence as one violence prevention strategy.
Feminist beliefs and feminist identity are *positive* and *empowering* for women, as various studies show. For example;
- Among women who have experienced abuse by a male partner, compared to women without feminist beliefs, women with feminist beliefs showed less self-blame and shame, had strong connections to and support from other women, and were more likely to embrace their personal agency and power (Gefter, Bankoff, Valentine, Rood, & Pantalone, 2013).
- Among women who have experienced sexual harassment by a stranger, those women who identified as feminists were less likely to blame themselves for the harassment than women who did not identify as feminists (Carretta & Szymanski, 2019).
- In response to sexual harassment, women who publicly identified as feminists were more likely than other women to seek help and support, and to see confronting harassment as positive and the right thing to do. As this study concludes, “a feminist identity may act as a buffer against the stresses of gender discrimination” (Leaper & Arias, 2011).
- In a study among young U.S. women, women were more likely to confront a perpetrator of sexism (of sexist jokes, unwanted sexual advances, unfair treatment, and so on) in their everyday lives if they identified as feminists (Ayres, Friedman, & Leaper, 2009).
- In another study, among women in Poland who had experienced sexual and non-sexual trauma, again, feminist identities and attitudes were protective of wellbeing. Women with feminist identification had better outcomes in terms of depression and self-esteem after the trauma than women without feminist identification (Kucharska, 2018).
Thus, feminism does not ‘turn women into victims’. Instead, it names and recognises the actual victimisation that women face, and it empowers women to resist and change this.
Taking feminist action itself is positive for participants.
- When women take public action against gender discrimination, for example by tweeting against sexism, this has a positive impact on their wellbeing. An experimental study finds that, compared to other women, women who take action felt increased psychological wellbeing and lower levels of negative affect (hostility and sadness) (Foster, 2015)
- Among sexual assault survivors, being involved in anti-sexual assault activism is positively correlated with both post-traumatic growth and positive affect. A study among 282 U.S. adult sexual assault survivors found that involvement in activism led to greater community connection, more meaning in life, and greater coping/ control which in turn was associated with more positive psychological functioning (Swanson & Szymanski, 2020). [NEW, Added Jan. 16 2021]
- On the other hand, when women ignore gender harassment or sexism, this can increase their tolerance of sexual harassment and decrease their support for survivors (Mallett, Ford, & Woodzicka, 2019).
People with feminist beliefs also are more likely to respond well to victims of violence:
- On college (university) campuses, resident assistants in university housing *with stronger feminist beliefs* were more likely to provide material support e.g. referrals in response to disclosures of sexual assault (Holland, Gustafson, Cortina, & Cipriano, 2020).
Feminist beliefs are good for women, and men
Feminist beliefs also are good for women’s (and men’s) relationships and sex lives.
- Among women, having a feminist identity is *good* for their mental health, body image, the quality and stability of their heterosexual relationships, and their sex lives, as a series of studies show (Kristin J Anderson, 2014, Chapter 6).
- Being a feminist means having a better sex life. Feminist women “are generally more sexually assertive, better able to negotiate pleasurable and safe sex, and experience more equality in their personal relationships” (Redfern & Aune, 2010, p. 74).
- Women with feminist beliefs are more inclined than women without feminist beliefs to have sex as result of their own sexual interests and wishes, not external forces (such as pressure from male partners), as a study among US college-aged women found (Schick, Zucker, & Bay-Cheng, 2008). In contrast, young women with greater support for traditional ideologies of femininity are more likely than other young women to be sexually passive rather than sexually assertive, have less comfort in their bodies during sex, and be less confident in advocating for safe sex (Curtin, Ward, Merriwether, & Caruthers, 2011).
- Women with feminist male partners have relationships with greater quality, equality, and stability and greater sexual satisfaction (Rudman & Phelan, 2007).
- Feminist men are more likely than non-feminist men to perform oral sex on their female partners, as a large Canadian survey finds. Women thus also benefit indirectly from feminist identities among male sexual partners (Stick & Fetner, 2020). [NEW, Added Jan. 13 2021]
- Feminist identity protects women from body image problems. Meta-analysis of 26 studies finds that women with feminist identities are more satisfied with their bodies and less likely to have eating disorders. Feminism fosters critical thinking and acting for one’s own empowerment (Murnen & Smolak, 2009).
- Feminist identity can protect women against involvement in unsatisfying or even violent relationships with men. Feminist women prefer men who do not conform to traditional masculine norms, and that is good for their relationships. On the other hand, women who accept patriarchal gender roles and sexism are more likely to want male partners who are emotionally controlled, dominant, etc. And this may mean unsatisfying, or even violent, intimate relationships (Backus & Mahalik, 2011).
Feminist women tend to feel better about their lives than non-feminist women and to have higher levels of psychological wellbeing.
- A study among 691 women in the USA found that women who held feminist and moderate values scored significantly higher on measures of overall wellbeing – particularly on measures of purpose in life, autonomy, and personal growth – than women with traditional values (Yakushko, 2007).
- Another US study found that women with stronger or more advanced forms of feminist identify reported higher levels of overall psychological well-being than other women. As the authors note, “It may be that women with a more advanced feminist identity are able to better differentiate between healthy behavior and socially ingrained behavior, empowering them to choose more beneficial life alternatives”, and such women “may also experience an increased sense of solidarity among women and validation of their experiences as women, both of which may lead to improved mental health” (Saunders & Kashubeck-West, 2006, p. 208)
Feminist beliefs also are good for men’s relationships and sex lives.
- A recent, representative Canadian survey found that profeminist men have more mutually pleasurable sex lives with women than non-feminist men. Compared to non-feminist men, self-identified feminist men reported having sex more recently and were more likely to perform oral sex on their partners. In the survey 21.8% of men identified as feminist (Stick & Fetner, 2020). [NEW, Added Jan. 13 2021]
- Feminist men had had intercourse more recently than non-feminist men. In their last sexual encounter they were more likely than non-feminist men to have had intercourse, performed oral sex and breast touching, and received oral sex (Stick & Fetner, 2020). [NEW, Added Jan. 13 2021]
- Men with feminist partners report greater relationship stability and sexual satisfaction than men with non-feminist partners (Rudman & Phelan, 2007).
- Men who hold more egalitarian attitudes towards gender have significantly higher levels of marital happiness than men with more traditional attitudes (Kaufman & Taniguchi, 2006).
Feminism is anti-sexist, not anti-male
The stereotype of feminists as ‘man-haters’ is false. Feminism is anti-sexist, not anti-male. Feminism sees nothing fundamentally bad about being male (nor nothing fundamentally good about being female). Feminism centres on a critique of gender inequalities.
Feminism is built on a fundamental hope for men and men’s lives. Feminism takes as given that the problem is not being male, but the social systems that shape men’s and women’s lives. Feminism recognises the good in what many men do and are.
Indeed, feminist women and men have *more positive* attitudes towards men than non-feminists:
- A U.S. study finds that feminist-identified men and women have lower levels of hostility towards men than non-feminist men and women (Kristin J. Anderson, Kanner, & Elsayegh, 2009).
- ‘Man-hating’ comes out of gender inequality. Cross-national research finds that hostility towards men among women is higher in more gender-unequal societies, with greater gender gap in resources, and with higher levels of male hostility towards women (Kristin J. Anderson et al., 2009).
Feminist scholarship is taught in universities in the form of Women’s and Gender Studies. The men who take Women’s and Gender Studies classes at university find them a positive experience, and more positive than other undergraduate classes (Flood, 2011).
Note: For further reading on feminism, see the bibliographies here. Particularly see the section of introductory works, including the collection of recent, book-length introductions, many in full text (PDF).
Anderson, K. J. (2014). Modern Misogyny: Anti-feminism in a post-feminist era. New York: Oxford University Press.
Anderson, K. J., Kanner, M., & Elsayegh, N. (2009). Are Feminists Man Haters? Feminists’ and Nonfeminists’ Attitudes Toward Men. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33(2), 216-224. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2009.01491.x
Ayres, M. M., Friedman, C. K., & Leaper, C. (2009). Individual and situational factors related to young women’s likelihood of confronting sexism in their everyday lives. Sex Roles, 61(7-8), 449-460.
Backus, F. R., & Mahalik, J. R. (2011). The Masculinity of Mr. Right: Feminist Identity and Heterosexual Women’s Ideal Romantic Partners. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35(2), 318-326. doi:10.1177/0361684310392357
Carretta, R. F., & Szymanski, D. M. (2019). Stranger Harassment and PTSD Symptoms: Roles of Self-Blame, Shame, Fear, Feminine Norms, and Feminism. Sex Roles. doi:10.1007/s11199-019-01073-5
Curtin, N., Ward, L. M., Merriwether, A., & Caruthers, A. (2011). Femininity Ideology and Sexual Health in Young Women: A focus on Sexual Knowledge, Embodiment, and Agency. International Journal of Sexual Health, 23(1), 48-62. doi:10.1080/19317611.2010.524694
Finlayson, L. (2016). An introduction to feminism: Cambridge University Press.
Flood, M. (2011). Men as Students and Teachers of Feminist Scholarship. Men and Masculinities, 14(2), 135-154. doi:10.1177/1097184X11407042
Foster, M. D. (2015). Tweeting about sexism: The well‐being benefits of a social media collective action. British Journal of Social Psychology, 54(4), 629-647.
Gefter, J. R., Bankoff, S. M., Valentine, S. E., Rood, B. A., & Pantalone, D. W. (2013). Feminist Beliefs Associated with Young Women’s Recovery from Male-Perpetrated Abuse. Women & Therapy, 36(3-4), 332-355.
Hannam, J. (2006). Feminism: Routledge.
Holland, K. J., Gustafson, A. M., Cortina, L. M., & Cipriano, A. E. (2020). Supporting Survivors: The Roles of Rape Myths and Feminism in University Resident Assistants’ Response to Sexual Assault Disclosure Scenarios. Sex Roles, 82(3), 206-218. doi:10.1007/s11199-019-01048-6
hooks, b. (1984). Feminist theory: From margin to center. Boston, MA: South End Press.
hooks, b. (2000). Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Kaufman, G., & Taniguchi, H. (2006). Gender and marital happiness in later life. Journal of Family Issues, 27(6), 735-757.
Kucharska, J. (2018). Feminist Identity Styles, Sexual and Non-Sexual Traumatic Events, and Psychological Well-Being in a Sample of Polish Women. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 33(1), 117-136. doi:10.1177/0886260515600163
Leaper, C., & Arias, D. M. (2011). College women’s feminist identity: A multidimensional analysis with implications for coping with sexism. Sex Roles, 64(7-8), 475-490.
Mallett, R. K., Ford, T. E., & Woodzicka, J. A. (2019). Ignoring sexism increases women’s tolerance of sexual harassment. Self and Identity, 1-17.
Murnen, S. K., & Smolak, L. (2009). Are feminist women protected from body image problems? A meta-analytic review of relevant research. Sex Roles, 60(3-4), 186.
Redfern, C., & Aune, K. (2010). Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement. Zed Books.
Rudman, L. A., & Phelan, J. E. (2007). The interpersonal power of feminism: Is feminism good for romantic relationships? Sex Roles, 57(11-12), 787-799.
Saunders, K. J., & Kashubeck-West, S. (2006). The Relations Among Feminist Identity Development, Gender-Role Orientation, and Psychological Well-Being in Women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30(2), 199-211. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2006.00282.x
Schick, V. R., Zucker, A. N., & Bay-Cheng, L. Y. (2008). Safer, better sex through feminism: The role of feminist ideology in women’s sexual well-being. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32(3), 225-232.
Stick, M., & Fetner, T. (2020). Feminist Men and Sexual Behavior: Analyses of Men’s Sex with Women. Men and Masculinities, 0(0), 1097184X20980789. doi:10.1177/1097184x20980789
Swanson, C. S., & Szymanski, D. M. (2020). Anti-Sexual Assault Activism and Positive Psychological Functioning among Survivors. Sex Roles, 1-14.
Yakushko, O. (2007). Do Feminist Women Feel Better About their Lives? Examining Patterns of Feminist Identity Development and Women’s Subjective Well-being. Sex Roles, 57(3), 223-234. doi:10.1007/s11199-007-9249-6.