Last year, The New York Times surveyed the pop culture landscape, taking stock of which actresses publicly identified as “feminists” and which ones refused. Women’s decision to forego the label tended to reflect not a rejection of the tenets of feminism, but confusion over what the term means: Shailene Woodley said she couldn’t call herself a feminist because she loves men, while Marissa Meyer said she lacked the requisite “militant drive.”
A search through the New York Times archive—inspired by @NYTArchive’s tweets in honor of Women’s History Month—offers a window into how the debate over what “feminism” means has evolved, and how it’s stayed (infuriatingly) the same.
On February 18, 1914, The New York Times covered “the first feminist mass meeting ever held”: a debate at Cooper Union in which six men and six women offered “many definitions of feminism…differing in details, but agreeing in the essential fact that the movement sought freedom for women.” Contrary to Woodley’s assumption, feminism has never been about excluding men: The reporter noted that men in the audience outnumbered women.
On September 20, 1925, The New York Times excerpted a debate between a British writer and a politician on the controversy of the day: “Is a woman’s place in the home?” Feminist author Rebecca West believed women’s escape from the home was inevitable, though she was perhaps overly optimistic: “In about twenty years’ time American politics will largely be in the hands of women,” she predicted. Conservative Member of Parliament Alfred Duff-Cooper, meanwhile, argued that men and women “look different, they sound different, they act differently”—and it follows that “they ought to be used for different purposes.”
— NYT Archives (@NYTArchives) March 3, 2015
On February 7, 1927, the Times covered a forum on the topic of how feminism would affect the institution of marriage. The majority of the speakers at the “Fortnightly Forum” at the Park Lane hotel believed the women’s movement would make marriage “a freer, more comradely affair,” though the head of the Philosophy Department at Barnard College warned that the expansion of choices for women might be bad news for monogamy.
“A Feminist? Definition Varies With the Woman.” The piece the Times ran on November 8, 1975 wouldn’t be out of place in today’s paper. “What is a feminist? There are probably as many definitions as there are women…True equality between the sexes, development of women to their fullest potential and full partnership, freedom of choice, the breaking down of traditional stereotypes, the recognition of women’s many needs, abilities and responsibilities, are common threads among the definitions offered by women well known in various fields.” The news peg for this discussion—the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment—remains relevant, too; fifteen states still haven’t ratified the ERA.