Skip to main site content.
(photo: Unsplash; illustration: Katie Booth/Women in the World)


New survey on feminism spotlights issues of exclusion

By Alli Maloney on March 11, 2016

During a recent ice storm I sat with my mom and taught her to use the social-networking service Twitter. The platform has greatly influenced my understanding of feminism and its nuances, so I was excited to share a great resource with her.

There we were: two feminists, both white, one a British boomer born in 1964 and the other, a 25-year-old millennial. According to#TheFWord: A Study on Feminism, new research conducted by SheKnows about women’s relationships with feminism. her group and mine share a similar level of passion for the cause. In between falls Generation X (born between 1965 and 1984), a group SheKnows Media’s Chief Community Officer Elisa Camahort Page said are less likely to actively identify as feminist, because they have children and feel constrained by the pressure of “doing it all.”

“[It’s that] whole middle section of a woman’s life where she’s trying to do everything at once,” she explained.

The survey was answered by 1,622 respondents – the majority of whom were white, employed Gen X-ers – on what they knew about feminism, where they learned about the concept, and where it needs to go moving forward. Modern feminism has struggled from the weight of outdated definitions and an occasional lack of understanding about the movement’s efforts and track record, and with conversations about feminism occurring in great numbers online and off, the research provides an insight to where women stand on the issue.

Camahort Page wanted to find out how feminism’s precepts were perceived in the daily lives of women across different demographics and found that most surveyed — feminist or not — understood it to stand for gender equality. Who among those surveyed did not identify as a feminist? Mostly black female breadwinners and white conservative stay-at-home moms, who declined the label based on identity or personal value conflicts. They have still leveraged the gains of the feminist movement, the survey found — some without realizing — and about half of non-feminists learned about the word from television or media, while a large majority of self-identified feminists learned through acquaintances, articles or books. “In millennials, this was extremely stark,” Camahort Page explained. “Millennial feminists talk to their peers and cited online influencers…that they consider to be people they know.”

(Katie Booth/Women in the World; data from SheKnows #TheFWord survey)
(Katie Booth/Women in the World; data from SheKnows #TheFWord survey)

With my mom, I explained the people who I follow online, including the perspectives of a lot of smart black women. (She hadn’t heard of Johnetta Elzie or Feminista Jones, but now follows both excitedly.) The majority of my timeline — writers, artists, activists — help me understand feminism and how white women have failed to be inclusive in the movement, in turn making me a better advocate. It’s a tool for listening and learning to other women, and when I shared this thought with Camahort Page, she was not surprised that the research resonated. “Something that really came out in the findings was a sense of exclusion. We had a hypothesis that we would find this [feeling of exclusion] among women of color, as you can see if you’re following any prominent women of color on Facebook or Twitter,” she said.

Black and brown women were found to be more likely to be on the fence about feminism, responding “I’m not sure” to the survey question, “Are you a feminist?”, yet reporting harsher experiences with sexist behaviors like harassment, or lack of advancement in school or the workplace. Black women surveyed approached feminism with the greatest skepticism, the majority of respondents answering “it depends” to the same question. In general, they acknowledged what the movement claims to address — equality between the sexes — but admitted they feel excluded from its benefits in practice.

It’s no wonder black women feel ambivalent about feminism given the top survey responses to the question, “Who represents feminism?”, were Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem and Emma Watson. In fact, the complete list of 14 names only featured three non-white women: Maya Angelou, Oprah, and Malala Yousafzai.

Gloria Steinem on February 7, 2016 in New York City.
Iconic feminist Gloria Steinem in New York City on February 7, 2016. (Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Fund for Women’s Equality/ ERA Coalition)

Twenty-five percent of African-American women surveyed said they believe the movement promotes “mostly white, upper middle class and educated perspectives” while eight percent of Caucasians – who made up 77 percent of all those surveyed — agreed with this proposition. The data showed what feminists active in the movement are slowly learning in greater numbers: the intersectional disconnect is very real. Intersectionality refers to the ways different markers of identity (race, gender, class) can overlap, making for nuanced experiences among different kinds of women. In short: sexism is served differently to women of color, poor women, queer women, women with disabilities, and so on — a fact feminist efforts led by white women has often overlooked. “We can see in our circles – there’s a sense of skepticism and there’s a bit of a step away,” Camahort Page explained.

(Katie Booth/Women in the World)
(Katie Booth/Women in the World; data from SheKnows #TheFWord survey)

Positive or negative associations with feminism start early and stick, too – six out of 10 feminists have always identified as such, compared to nine out of 10 non-feminists. Of the young people between ages 10 and 17 surveyed, the most common feminist figures reported were mothers, reinforcing the belief that values are often handed down and that representation matters. Experiences shape the feminist view, and SheKnows found that feminists recall negative sexist experiences — being interrupted, harassed, paid unequally, or having ideas overlooked/discredited — more often than their counterparts, though both groups reported such experiences in high numbers. Camahort Page calls this experience of being female #TheFemaleTax because whether feminist or not, women pay a price for their gender.

Neither group, feminist or non-feminist, believes that women have received preferential treatment because of feminism.

Regardless of affiliation, researchers found that all women benefit from feminism. High majorities — over 90 percent — of both feminists and non-feminists told surveyors that they’ve voted, been able to get credit in their own names, and used birth control: possibilities all made available through gender-equality advocacy.

Twenty percent of feminists surveyed have terminated a pregnancy, while 17 percent of non-feminists have also experienced an abortion. Camahort Page said other research she’d seen had failed to show how women connect with feminism in their daily lives, so she and her team set out to learn and found that women who have benefited still don’t truly recognize what feminism has done. “They’re looking for the next level of accomplishment,” she said. “Women are ready for that next group of benefits to come their way.”

Camahort Page and her fellow researchers suggest feminism moving forward must shift its focus to include more than just the problems of working mothers, to include more men, and that white feminists should make a point to better understand and include the struggles of non-white women. Media representation matters too, and SheKnows suggests that women should go online to research the status of women, rather than turn to television, where women are often portrayed negatively and can influence a non-feminist viewpoint.

Follow Alli Maloney on Twitter