If you could ban any word for 2015, what would it be? For Time magazine’s readers, the word “feminist” took a surprising early lead over “influencer,” “kale,” “literally,” “obvi,” and others, in the magazine’s annual poll to decide which term to scrub from the American lexicon. Facing a backlash and petition drive, the magazine eventually apologized presumably for offending women who consider themselves feminists.
Only 20 percent of Americans, including 23 percent of women, self-identify as feminists. Taking a look at some feminist efforts in 2014, it is no wonder that the term feminist provokes a negative reaction, and why so many women reject a term that was once synonymous with their empowerment.
Modern American feminism is becoming increasingly irrelevant because its causes and narrative don’t quite fit with the lived experience of American women. There is too much of a focus on getting attention no matter the means. And the underlying message often conveyed is that women are victims who can’t stand up for themselves. Welcome to feminism in America in 2014. Here are some lessons we learned from feminism gone wrong in America this year.
Banning Adjectives Isn’t the Way to Help Girls Succeed
Take the Ban Bossy campaign. In March, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and Anna Maria Chávez, CEO of the Girl Scouts, partnered to launch a campaign to encourage girls to succeed. It’s safe to assume that these accomplished women are extremely adept at navigating workplace relationships. How do they want to help girls succeed? By starting a social movement to ban the use of the adjective “bossy.”
The way to succeed isn’t by banning every mean word tossed at girls—but by teaching girls how to overcome the challenges they will face as they climb the career ladder. While this effort garnered some headlines, it hasn’t turned into a popular movement. Instead, it sent an embarrassing message: Are women so weak that they can’t face the word bossy?
Teaching Little Girls to Use the F-word for Attention Isn’t Cool
While some feminists attempted to ban the word bossy in 2014, others used much more offensive language to try to make their point. Apparel company FCKH8 posted a video, “F-Bombs for Feminism,” featuring young girls dressed as princesses in full make-up using the f-word and gesturing with their middle fingers to try to bring attention to sexism. Adults appear toward the end to sell “This is what a feminist looks like” and “Girls just want to have fun-damental rights” t-shirts. The video ends with a young girl saying, “Swear jar? I don’t give a f**k.”
The video got attention—more than 1 million views on YouTube. It also elicited a backlash. Teaching little girls curse words isn’t true empowerment. With shock-value videos like this one claiming to be “feminist,” it’s no wonder so many mainstream women want to disassociate with the label.
Using Male Models to Get Women to Vote is Insulting
For the first time, Cosmopolitan magazine, a magazine that is supposed to be empowering for women, participated in the midterm election this year, adopting the Democratic Party’s talking points on what benefits women. All of the candidates the magazine endorsed were Democrats. Cosmopolitan apparently couldn’t find one Republican woman to endorse.
As part of its effort, Cosmopolitan ran a contest asking college students their plans to get their peers to vote, with the prize being a party bus to shuttle students to the polls “stocked with snacks, prizes, shirtless male models, and more.” The magazine delivered. A bus of male models was dispatched to North Carolina State University to take students to the polls.
What message is this sending? That college women don’t care about issues and wouldn’t vote without some eye candy ushering them to the polls. Women don’t need male models to vote. This is insulting. It also sends the message that the way to empowerment is to objectify members of the opposite sex.
Enough with the “War on Women”
Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke hit the national stage when she testified on Capitol Hill to advocate for her religious university to provide birth control. She quickly became a feminist icon and the face of the so-called “war on women.” In November, she lost her race for the California state Senate to another Democrat. Her race was barely a blip on the radar of election night.
Fluke’s loss is symbolic of the broader failure of Democrats’ “war on women” campaign tactic, which could be felt in races across the country, from Kentucky to Colorado. Alison Lundergan Grimes, a 35-year-old woman running against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, for example, lost by double-digits. And Democrat Mark “Uterus” Udall, who dedicated his campaign to reproductive issues, lost his Senate seat to Republican Cory Gardner.
In fact, Republican women had several historic victories in the midterms: Take Elise Stefanik—the youngest woman elected to Congress at age 30. Stefanik promoted a vision of limited government that allows liberty and entrepreneurship to flourish. Try as much as Democrats did to sell women on the idea that the right was waging a “war on women” and they needed Democrats to come to the rescue, women saw through this messaging campaign tactic.
In 2015, feminists should focus less on attention-grabbing antics and more on substantive solutions that respect women as being smart, capable, and in control of their own lives, rather than as damsels in distress in need of assistance. At the very least, they could try to keep “feminist” off the list of words people want to ban next year.
Karin Agness is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum and founder and president of the Network of enlightened Women.