Feminist? Sure, just don’t call me one

April 18, 2016
Alisson Clark
feminism, psychology

Why do some people who believe in gender equality say they’re not feminists?

It turns out that the way you feel about prototypical feminists has a lot to do with your willingness to take on that label.

“People can have gender-equality beliefs and go either way on using the term ‘feminism’ to describe themselves,” said University of Florida researcher Liz Redford, a lead author on a new study in the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. “Sometimes their belief about what a feminist is can lead them to believe they don’t want to identify as one.”

Past studies on the subject have asked participants direct questions about their beliefs and feelings. Redford and her colleagues used an Implicit Association Test to evaluate gut feelings about feminist prototypes – “the central, representative feminist that comes to mind when they think of feminists as a group.”

Variations of the web-based test are used to reveal biases based on race, religion, sexual orientation and other characteristics. In the feminism study, participants were shown icons such as Rosie the Riveter and asked to switch between sorting them with positive images (such as a smiley face) or with negative ones (such as a hissing snake), working as rapidly as possible. If you can quickly sort feminist images with happy ones but have a harder time sorting them with negative ones, the thinking goes, you likely have a positive implicit attitude about feminists, while if the opposite is true, you likely have a negative implicit attitude.

The test can reveal feelings that people may not voice directly – either because they don’t know about them or because they’re concerned about how they’ll be perceived, says co-author Jennifer Howell, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio University.

“Implicit measures can get at that first association – their gut reaction,” Howell said. “It predicts behavior quite well.”

The researchers found that even when they controlled for the beliefs and attitudes that participants openly expressed, implicit attitudes had their own effects, predicting how strongly a person identifies as a feminist. 

But who says you have to identify as a feminist to act on your gender-equality beliefs? Doesn’t believing in feminist principles achieve the same ends?

Actually, it doesn’t. In a second part of the study, Redford’s results showed a strong correlation between identification and willingness to act on their beliefs in ways like joining a group or bringing up feminist issues in conversation.

And when the researchers gave 735 participants a chance to distribute $50 between four charities, those who identified as feminists were more likely to give money to a feminist foundation than those who held feminist beliefs but stopped short of identification.

“Identification matters,” Redford said. “It’s related to important outcomes.”

While the study stops short of showing causation, it could mean that people working to create positive prototypes – those “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts, or Beyoncé at the VMAs – are on the right track to spur feminist action, Redford said.

“The results imply that if we can change implicit attitudes, we can change identification and behavior.” 

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