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26 November 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 2:30am

Ugly, boring and angry?

Stereotypes of feminists as man-hating, bra-burning troublemakers persist across social and generati

By Courtney E Martin

As I travel across the country speaking about feminist issues I like to take a quick survey of the audiences. I ask them “What are the stereotypes you’ve heard about feminists?”
After a few timid moments, folks start shouting a flood of unsavoury characteristics: ugly, bitchy, man-hating, boring, angry, bra-burning.

The wild thing is that whether I am in a lecture hall in Jacksonville, Illinois, or a woman’s club in suburban New Jersey, or an immigration center in Queens, New York, whether I am among 15 year-olds, or 25 year-olds, or 60 year-olds, whether the crowd of faces that I see are mostly white, or mostly of color, or a welcome mix of all—this list tends to be almost identical.

I tell those in the audiences as much, and then I ask, “So how did all of you—from such vastly different backgrounds—get the exactly same stereotypes about feminism? Why would feminism be so vilified?”And to this they usually shrug their shoulders.

I believe that feminism has attracted so many unsavoury stereotypes because of its profound power and potential. It has gained such a reputation, been so inaccurately demonized, because it promises to upset one of the foundations on which this world, its corporations, its families, and its religions are based—gender roles.

If you asked diverse audiences to give you stereotypes about Protestantism, for example, you would have some groups that starred at you blank-faced and some that might have a jab or two. If you asked about the history of civil rights, even, you would get a fairly innocuous, probably even partly accurate sense of the progress afforded by sit-ins, freedom rides, and protests. But you ask about feminism and the whole room erupts with media-manufactured myths, passed down from generation to generation.

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Some of these stereotypes can be traced to events or controversial figures in the women’s movement, though they are still perversions. That whole bra-burning thing came out of the 1968 Miss America protests in which feminists paraded one another around like cattle to show the dehumanizing effects of beauty pageants, but they didn’t actually burn any bras.

There have surely been some feminists who despised men and advocated for female-only spaces; others have undoubtedly resorted to an angry MO; there were probably even a few shabby dressers (though, I have to tell you, us third-wave gals tend to be pretty snappy).

More recently one of the most pervasive misperceptions about what feminism purports to do is actually perpetuated by strong, intelligent women; I refer to the mistaken belief that feminism is solely about achievement, competition, and death-defying acrobatics (sometimes called multitasking). I like to think of this as “shoulder-pad feminism”—the do it all, all at once circus act that so many of my friends and I witnessed growing up in households headed by superwomen.

The ugly truth about superwomen, my generation has come to realize, is that they tend to be exhausted, self-sacrificing, unsatisfied, and sometimes even self-loathing and sick. Feminism—and the progress it envisions—was never supposed to compromise women’s health. It was supposed to lead to richer, more enlightened, authentic lives characterized by a deep sense of wellness.

Feminism in its most glorious, transformative, inclusive sense, is not about man-hating, nor is it about superwomen. For what it is, come back tomorrow…