Despite persisting gender inequalities in contemporary European societies, women may still reject feminism because they tend to associate it with ‘man-hatred, lesbianism and unfeminine women’ says Dr Christina Scharff, lecturer in the Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries. Women may also view feminism as ‘no longer necessary’ to modern life, says Dr Scharff, in research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
Dr Scharff said: ‘In many contemporary western European societies the mention of ‘feminism’ often provokes unease, bewilderment, or overt hostility. Feminism, it seems, is met with suspicion, even in countries that pride themselves on their allegedly progressive stance on gender and sexuality.’
In her research Dr Scharff interviewed a diverse group of 40 women from Germany and Britain to record their responses to feminism, a label they ‘overwhelmingly’ rejected. The results are surprising given the resurgence of feminist activism in both countries investigated.
Over time, increased opportunities to work and to decide when to have children have allowed contemporary women to see themselves as empowered individuals. They have benefited from social changes and can manage their own lives. Many of the young women interviewed by Dr Scharff described feminism as a ‘collective movement’ in which women fought together for their rights. In their view, a collective struggle is no longer needed in Western Europe. Individual freedom is more important, even if this means dealing with discrimination alone, without the support of a group.
Furthermore, while the participants frequently portrayed themselves as empowered, they tended to characterise women in other cultures and communities as passive victims of oppressive cultures. Seeing the ‘other woman’ as powerless, according to Dr Scharff, is central to women’s sense of being empowered themselves. She describes such stereotypes as a legacy of Europe’s colonial past and argues that these clichés are in part responsible for the view that women in Western Europe no longer need feminism.
Dr Scharff was surprised by the vehemence with which many of her subjects rejected the discussion of feminism. Many of the participants distanced themselves by claiming feminism connoted homosexuality and/or a lack of femininity. In doing so, she concluded the women were ‘performing’ their womanliness and heterosexuality.
‘Young women who discuss feminism often feel they have to navigate, or pre-empt, being regarded a man-hater or a lesbian,’ said Dr Scharff. The study shows how young women who describe themselves as pro-gay can subscribe to negative views of homosexuality in their rejection of feminism.
Dr Scharff said: ‘What gets overlooked in all these responses is that feminism represents many different theories and approaches. Indeed, there is no one women’s movement with a unified set of goals, particularly in a cross-cultural context.’
As opposed to making quantitative claims about the amount of support for feminism, the research focuses on the reasons why these women rejected feminism so vehemently. The qualitative study is unique in being cross-cultural. It draws on gender studies, cultural studies, critical psychology, queer theory and sociology in its findings.
The research appeared in the book Repudiating Feminism: Young Women in a Neoliberal World (Ashgate Publishing) in May 2012. The book was shortlisted for the BSA Philip Abrams Memorial Prize.