The Soapbox: Why I’m Disappointed That Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer Doesn’t Call Herself A Feminist

Last week we learned that Marissa Mayer, former VP of Google, would be heading to Yahoo as its new CEO. She’s be the company’s first female CEO and probably the first-ever pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 tech company. Even if you couldn’t care less about Yahoo, you probably thought to yourself “yay for the ladies!” even just a smidge.

Interestingly, now a statement that Mayer made while participating in PBS’s “Makers” series have come under scrutiny: how she does not label herself a feminist in part because she implies the term means a “militant drive” and a “chip on the shoulder.”

You can watch the video above, but I’ve transcribed her full comment here:

“I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe women are just as capable, if not more so, in a lot of different dimensions. But I don’t have that sort of the militant drive and the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. And I think it’s too bad, but I think  ‘feminism’ has become in many ways a more negative word. There are amazing opportunities all over the world for women and I think there is more good that comes out of positive energy around that than negative energy.”

I have to say that I’m dismayed that Mayer has characterized feminism like this, especially given how she’s reaped the benefits of it. (I’ll get to that point in a moment.) But in fairness, Mayer also isn’t anomalous in not embracing the label: several female celebrities eschew the specific word and I know this because I was the one who asked them about it. The burlesque performer Dita Von Teese got kinda touchy with me about the use of word and “Juno” screenwriter Diablo Cody calls herself a feminist but feels super-frustrated at other feminists who trash her. Those women are just two examples; I’m sure we could find lots more if we sat around doing a depressing Google search. (And this is a tangential issue, but I wanted to note it: there are huge swaths of women of color who prefer to call themselves a “womanist” rather than a “feminist” out of a belief that the word “feminism” mainly applies to middle-class white women. So, there’s that.)

Certainly no one has to be a feminist in the sense that they believe in the idea that men and women deserve equal opportunities in life. Everyone is entitled to their beliefs; behavior is truly what is important. And via that same line of logic, no one who is a feminist has to use the “feminist” label. Again what truly matters is their behavior. Yet I just don’t understand why people don’t use a label if it applies to them or why they misuse a label. And I’m not talking about someone like Sarah Palin or anti-abortion crusader Lila Rose who misuse the label “feminist” for political gain. I don’t understand why someone like Dita Von Teese or Marissa Mayer wouldn’t use a word to describe themselves — however loaded it may be — when the word clearly describes them. If someone believes in God, that person is not an atheist. If someone eats no meat and consumes no dairy products, that person is a vegan. Labels do mean something in a literal dictionary definition way, even if the exact definition continues to be in flux (just as it is with other labels, like, say “conservative”). So if someone has been successful and ambitious and fought for her own prosperity and that of the women around her, why should we say, “Oh, okay, you’re not a feminist”?

I get why people like Rep. Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin are fuzzy on the word “feminist.” It behooves them to not make anyone (read: powerful men) uncomfortable; their entire political livelihood depends on not being perceived as threatening to the Judeo-Christian patriarchy. But someone like Marissa Mayer, I should think, would know better than to think “feminists just have a chip on their shoulder!” Her beliefs, as described by the Makers video, are feminist. My sense is that Mayer won’t toot her horn as a feminist because she doesn’t want to be percieved as “militant” (her word) and thus threatening, which would make her male co-workers nervous. And it’s a shame she hasn’t chosen to advance past that stereotype. She is one of the most powerful women in the country.

It’s her choice, of course. But it’s a disappointment. Marissa Mayer (and Palin and Bachmann and Von Teese and Cody and you and me and every other woman in America) is a beneficiary of feminism. As blogger Chloe Angyal at Feministing put it, “You know what’s also too bad? Your failure to acknowledge that without feminism, you could never have become the first woman CEO of Yahoo.” The success of any woman in America today has not happened in a vacuum. Our foremothers went on hunger strikes and were locked up in jail to fight for the right to vote. They fought for birth control and safe, legal abortion and laws against domestic violence and rape crisis hotlines and Title IX. I’m sorry if you thought all that was too “militant” or was done with a “chip on [their] shoulder,” Marissa Mayer, but I frankly am proud to call myself a feminist because of all that.

Feminism is a century’s-long social justice movement that has made life better for women and girls and, yes, men and boys, too.  It bothers me when people do not show it due respect. It especially bothers me when someone in a male-dominated field who has benefitted from the spoils of feminism doesn’t show it due respect. And while I understand that hectoring other people to appear grateful won’t win me any pats on the back, it’s a fair enough gripe to have in such a big moment of “I’m not a feminist but …”


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