Has "Feminist" Become A Dirty Word?

May 01, 2013, 1:00 PM GMT+0

(Week of 4/27/2013) Just 28% of Americans consider themselves feminists, with women twice as likely as men to use that label for themselves. And the latest Economist/YouGov Poll suggests that for women at least, feminism is generational, with the youngest women and those who came of age during the 1970’s feminist movement the most willing to use that label for themselves.

Seven years ago, when CBS News asked this question, men were nearly as likely as women to label themselves feminists. Then, 21% of men said they were feminists, compared with 27% of women.

The willingness of women to call themselves feminists depends on their age. Only 28% of women 65 and older say they are feminists (the baby boomers now make up only a small proportion of this older group); 41% of women between the ages of 45 and 64 say they are. This group would have come of age and political awareness during the 1970’s, when the feminist movement was at its most visible and perhaps most active.

The next age group, women between 30 and 44, grew up seeing some of the backlash against the movement, and just 32% in this group call themselves feminists. But now, with what may be a renewed attention to women’s issues (including discussion of women’s role in the workplace, and controversies over funding for contraceptives) the youngest women in this poll, those between the ages of 18 and 29, are just as likely as those between 45 and 64 to call themselves feminists.

Democratic and Republicans women see the word differently. 48% of Democratic women but just 14% of Republican women would label themselves feminist. Education and income matter as well. More than two-thirds of women with family incomes of $100,000 or more would call themselves feminist, as would 53% of college-educated women.

Just 23% of the public thinks the word “feminist” is an insult, though some conservative commentators have used it as one. Men (28%) are more likely than women (19%) to see it as one. One in three Republicans regard “feminist” as an insult. In 2006, 18% thought the word was an insult.

But is it just the world or the concepts associated with the label? Poll respondents were given a dictionary definition of “Feminist” - someone who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. 57% then said that they would call themselves “feminists” with that definition. But once again, there were differences between men and women: 67% of women would now call themselves feminists, compared with 47% of men.

On this question, however, there were fewer differences among women by age group, suggesting that for women, at least, it is the word, not the concept that bothers many of them. And while only 14% of GOP women called themselves “feminist” when asked directly, 54% said they were feminist after reading the definition.

Among some groups, however, many reject the concept. Less than half of all men said they believed in the social, political and economic equality of women. And most men who identified with the Republican Party rejected associating themselves with the definition.