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Why Some Women Say They're Not Feminists Even If They're All for Gender Equality

The less-than-logical distinction reflects the complex connotations the term carries.
Actress Rose McGowan speaks to an audience at the Women's March/Women's Convention in Detroit, Michigan, on October 27th, 2017.

Actress Rose McGowan speaks to an audience at the Women's March/Women's Convention in Detroit, Michigan, on October 27th, 2017.

There have been countless stories in recent weeks of sexual predators in Hollywood. But for all the outrage and analysis of sexual politics, one word has been largely absent from the discussion: feminist.

Sure, it has been used by conservative writers in a pejorative way, and in her much-criticized essay, actress Mayim Bialik called herself "a proud feminist" while questioning the provocative way her peers often dress. But use of the term as a strong, positive, assertive adjective has been scarce.

Newly published research offers a possible explanation: The word has complicated connotations.

"Women who label themselves feminists are seen as less warm and more competent than women who express gender-equality beliefs, but do not label themselves," writes a research team led by psychologist Maartje Meijs of Tilburg University.

This reflects the fact that "women who label themselves feminists are seen as having stronger feminist beliefs than women who believe in gender equality, but do not use the feminist label."

In other words, the word "feminist" is viewed by many as synonymous with "radical feminist," or "extreme feminist." Score one for the right-wing media: The term has been tainted.

In the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, the researchers describe five studies. In one of them, 610 Americans recruited online were asked to consider the fictional resume of a female job seeker.

Some of them read a version in which she explicitly called herself a feminist; others saw an alternative document with that word removed. Each contained more subtle indicators of her feminist beliefs, including the fact she minored in women's studies.

The self-proclaimed feminist was judged to be less warm, and assumed to have stronger gender-equality beliefs, than the woman who expressed the same ideas indirectly. A female corporate executive might not care all that much if she is seen as a bit chilly, but an actress very likely would.

Another study "found that women with strong feminist beliefs are seen as more competent than women with weak feminist beliefs." Since the label "feminist" implies strongly held convictions, this suggests women trying to project authority could actually benefit from using the label.

So, calling oneself as "feminist" conveys more than one might think, and not all of it is good. That also goes for men: A 2009 study found "feminist men are seen favorably, but (they are rated) low in attractiveness and masculinity." Unless, of course, you're Alan Alda.