Research suggests that gender egalitarian attitudes have become more common over the past several decades (see Scarborough et al., 2018). However, many people who endorse feminist attitudes distance themselves from the feminist label (Zucker & Bay-Cheng, 2010). In fact, the phenomenon whereby people support feminist principles but reject the feminist moniker is so prevalent that researchers refer to it as “the feminist paradox” (Abowitz, 2008).
The most common reason why people reject a feminist identification is to eschew the stigma attached to the feminist label. Research has supported common knowledge that the public holds myriad negative stereotypes (e.g., man-haters) about women and men who call themselves feminists (Alexander & Ryan, 1997; Anderson, 2015), despite evidence to the contrary (Anderson et al., 2009). Studies consistently show that this stigma is a powerful deterrent to people’s willingness to stand in solidarity with feminists and engage in gender-based collective action (Moore & Stathi, 2019; Wiley et al., 2013). In fact, one study found that participants were twice as likely to use the label “feminist” to describe themselves after reading a paragraph containing positive stereotypes about feminists (e.g., independent, intelligent) compared to paragraphs containing negative or neutral descriptors (Roy et al., 2007). Attitudinal associations with the word feminist can affect people whether or not they are consciously aware of the beliefs they hold. In fact, two studies have shown that negative implicit attitudes, or unconscious bias, about feminists can also predict reduced feminist identification, less willingness to intervene in sexist situations, and lower likelihood of engaging in feminist activism (Redford et al., 2016; Weis et al., 2018).
Nevertheless, many people still do identify as feminists, though reported rates of feminist identification are highly variable. Take, for instance, two large-scale surveys published within the last year. In one survey of 17,551 adults from 24 different countries, 58% of respondents identified as feminists. Rates of feminist identification varied by country, with 37% (Germany) to 83% (India) of respondents identifying as feminists, depending on the country surveyed (Statista Research Department, 2019). However, in another study of 18,800 adults across 27 countries, the average number of people who agreed that they were feminists was only 33%, with the highest rates of feminism in India, Spain, and South Africa (44-50%), and the lowest rates in Japan, Hungary, and Russia (18-20%; Ipsos, 2019). Given that these two surveys were administered at nearly the same time, what can account for these vastly different results?
Interestingly, people are more likely to call themselves feminists when a clear definition of the term is presented to them. For instance, in a 2019 survey of over one thousand American women between the ages of 19 and 29, only 29% indicated that they were feminists. However, when provided with a definition of the term (i.e., “someone who advocates and supports equal opportunities for women”), this number jumped to 61% (Ipsos, 2019). Similarly, a 2018 study of European women found that, while 80-91% of participants agreed that women and men should be treated equally, only 8-40% identified as “feminists”. Yet, when the word “feminist” was accompanied by a definition, 42-70% of women adopted the label (Abraham, 2018). Unsurprisingly, in the Statista survey, “feminist” was clearly defined for participants (i.e., “someone who advocates and supports equal opportunities for women”), but no definition was provided in the Ipsos survey. Taken together, these findings highlight the fact that ambiguity and confusion around the term feminism may limit people’s willingness to adopt the label.
Gender also plays a large role in whether or not people call themselves feminists. Specifically, in nearly every report, feminist identification is more common among women than men. For example, a national survey of 1,610 American adults found that 60% of female respondents considered themselves to be a “feminist” or a “strong feminist”, whereas only 33% of male respondents placed themselves in these categories (Cai & Clement, 2016). Further, a very recent report from five European countries (Denmark, Sweden, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain) found that women were consistently more likely than men use the feminist label to describe themselves (YouGov, 2019). While demographic information is not available for the Statista survey, when the Ipsos findings are broken down by gender, rates of feminist identification are much higher for women than for men (Ipsos, 2019). Men’s resistance to adopt a feminist identity may be due to a variety of factors, such as a belief that men cannot be feminists or that men should not take up space in the feminist movement.
Regardless of gender, location, or the manner in which the question is asked, several reports have indicated that more and more people, and young people in particular, have begun identifying as feminists in recent years. For example, in a recent report from the Girl Guides in the United Kingdom, the proportion of girls and young women between the ages of 11 and 21 who indicated that they were feminists rose 12 percentage points from 2013 to 2018, jumping from 35% to 47% (Girlguiding, 2018). Also, according to a 2019 survey of 4,000 young women and men, two-thirds (67%) of women between the ages of 18 and 24 in the United Kingdom identified as “feminists”, a 60% increase from the previous year (Gallagher, 2019). Similarly, recent reporting from YouGov indicated that 38% of women and 22% of men identified as feminists in a 2018 survey, up 6% and 3% respectively from the previous year’s report (Ballard, 2018). In sum, though reported rates of feminist identification vary by location, gender, and information presented about feminism and feminists, rates of feminist identification appear to be stable, if not on the rise in certain parts of the world.
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