Rebranding Feminism by Linn Marie Tonstad


Linn Marie TonstadFeminism has a “brand”? A recent contest – still running, if you want to get in on it! – asks for suggestions about how to “rebrand feminism.” The contest has corporate sponsors. Saying that although feminism “has brought us the right to vote, drive and have our own bank accounts,” it is nonetheless the case that “Feminism has been given a bad rap, and gotten a bad rep.” Elle UK’s November issue does the same, claiming to rebrand “a term that many feel has become burdened with complications and negativity.”

I suspect that most readers here at Feminism and Religion will have similar reactions to this development: disgust and distaste. Why do feminists need to overcome the negative stereotypes and reactions that are used to dismiss them by anti-feminists? Most of us have heard the usual derisive responses, I suspect, and are tired of being instructed that it is our responsibility to overcome stereotypes we have done nothing to earn. I once wrote the words “feminist” and “Christian” on the board in an introductory theology class, and asked students what the first word that came to mind was in each case. Predictably, the first response for “feminist” was “femi-Nazi.” The student wasn’t intending to imply that such a designation was fair, but the immediacy of the reaction was telling. So why should feminists subordinate our political and social aims to corporate self-promotion? And is feminism really just about getting the vote, being able to drive, and having bank accounts? This list of issues brings together the trivial (when were women unable to drive in the UK or USA?), the liberal status quo (voting), and the assumption that feminism means the full ability to participate in the capitalist system. That’s not to suggest that these concerns are unimportant. But all of them involve acceding to an already-constituted public, financial, political, and social space. Is feminism simply about, as so many popular invocations have it these days, equality and giving women the same opportunities as men?

Even within feminist spheres, a version of rebranding is often practiced. We’re not like those old-school feminists, many say. We’re sex-positive! We’re no longer engaged in the sex wars. We’re trans*-affirming! Not transphobic like those 70s feminists were. We’re intersectional! Not engaged in single-issue politics like those older generations of feminists. These generational politics in feminist circles tend to divide older and younger feminists from each other, allowing younger feminists to congratulate themselves on their own wisdom and progressiveness, and leaving older feminists to wonder why they get no respect from the younger generation that benefits so substantially from the trails they blazed for us.

Rebranding, then – from “the personal is political” to “intersectionality”? – may be a more common feminist practice than it ought to be. What are we claiming when we distinguish ourselves from feminists who come before or after us? What is at stake in the generational politics of feminism? To ask that question is not, of course, to assume that newer developments are necessarily bad, and older good. Instead, it is a question about what we gain in identifying generations and trends, and distinguishing ourselves from our foremothers. Has the intersectionality of the Combahee River Collective’s statement ever been fully surpassed? What would it even mean to surpass it?

That said, I’d want to distinguish between developments in feminist language and the rebranding practiced by Elle UK and the corporate sponsors of the contest. Intersectionality has been a useful term for highlighting the ultimate insufficiency of single-issue social analyses, which is just what “the personal is political” implies in its radical specificity. Such developments reflect both the way that newer analyses benefit from older and the way that language inevitably shifts. In contrast, attempts to rebrand feminism through contests or advertising campaigns subvert its very nature. Feminism is about something deeper, something more difficult, something that goes far beyond equal rights under late capitalism or neoliberalism. Feminists want to throw a spanner into the systems of social reproduction and production, and into the systems of hierarchical value and self-interest that these orders assume and promote.

Such a task is far riskier than submitting a new feminist slogan or ad campaign to a contest. Becoming a feminist then requires a much more fundamental and ongoing restructuring and reorientation of one’s values and loves. If I am marked and shaped by all that surrounds me, as we all inevitably are, then I have to come to terms with the reality that I too am at best on my way to becoming a feminist (and that’s on a good day). Such a fundamental reorientation causes the world to appear in a new light, though. Old patterns of reference now appear stunted and limiting. New possibilities for life, love, and social organization appear on the horizon. In that sense, to become a feminist is a religious conversion, involving a reorientation of heart, mind, and self.

Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, tentatively titled “God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology.” 



Categories: Feminism, General, Media, Resistance

Tags: , ,

14 replies

  1. I’m not at all worried what the male destroyers of women’s liberation say. Of course the most successful movement for social justice in the history of the world would be hated and undermined. Men have a lot to lose when women decide to create liberation for themselves. And I don’t know what young people you are talking to, but I’ve met a whole lot recently who have been radicalized yet again, and they are the young radical feminists. They honor their mothers who were also radical feminists, and they have powerful voices.

    Equality with men? Don’t get me going on that. I want freedom from the male dominators, I want the men who kill and rape off the streets, I want women controlling their own wealth, and I think what men fear is women finally waking up. They fear this, because women will decide to end war by stopping the production of new soldiers…. Feminism isn’t about being nice to men, or rebranding or giving a damn about what patriarchy thinks. Feminism, my brand of feminism is about ending male supremacy and domination and creating a world of freedom for women. Men can go to their own little dog houses and do their own work. I don’t really give a damn about them, I expect them to get the heck out of my way, and do their own work to stop other men from being murders, rapists and obstacles to my freedom.

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  2. ” tired of being instructed that it is our responsibility to overcome stereotypes we have done nothing to earn.”

    This is exactly what feminism has been doing from day one, overcoming undeserved stereotypes. Why do you expect this to be different now? Because you’ve got the time to address the unearned stereotypes of “Feminist” rather than the undeserved stereotypes of “Women”?

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  3. Thanks Marie, a provocative and timely post!! Of course they left out the right to choose in that pared down list of what feminists have achieved. Also just as important, along with the vote, feminism gave women the right to run for public office. Here are five fundamental rights women did not have before the 1970’s, at least in the USA:

    1. Have a legal abortion in most states (1973)
    2. Get a credit card without a male co-signer (1974)
    3. Refuse to have sex with her husband (1975)
    4. Report cases of sexual harassment in the workplace (1977)
    5. Keep her job if she was pregnant (1978)

    What we need to remember, most importantly, is that in-fighting is maybe the only weapon left the patriarchal media can use to disassemble us. Nevertheless, if the concept of “feminism” does not disturb, or challenge the status quo, we are not doing our job.

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  4. Thanks for this great post, Linn Marie. As an older 2nd wave feminist (I’m 66), I would add that younger feminists stand on our shoulders. This doesn’t mean that we had it all right and younger feminists should adulate us. Au contraire! I’m thinking of my daughter, the 3rd wave feminist. One of the first feminist discussions we had from the two sides of this divide was about sexy clothing, something she loved to wear as a teen. When I questioned her about that, she told me that as a feminist I should understand that it wasn’t HER problem that men reacted to her choice of clothing. It was THEIRS! Right on! I replied. My generation of feminists had broadcast that understanding to the world, but we also attempted to give society no reason for blaming rape on us (and, of course, as a mother, I wanted my daughter safe). But she was right. This is just an example of how 3rd wave feminists have added much to our understanding of sex within patriarchy, BECAUSE we started the conversation, and had initial insights.

    What’s important here is that we not lose the insights as they accumulate. I was shocked when I read 1st wave feminist writings (later in my life) to discover that many things I had assumed we second wave feminists came up with were actually understood by the 1st wave. But they didn’t institutionalize their wisdom as we have in Women’s Studies, so it was buried. The same thing is true in your example. The term intersectionality is a great short-hand for what I was teaching in the 1970s in Women’s Studies. We didn’t have the word, but we had the concept. It was right there in Combahee River Collective’s statement published in 1978.

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  5. Loved this! Can this whole post be the new slogan?

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  6. Thank you, Linn Marie for posting this. The question is how to change the mentality away from women as outsiders. Why is there a White House Council on Women and Girls, and many other women-oriented groups? Leaving women’s values out of public discourse for about 5,000 years has taken a toll, leaving us with political, religious, and economic systems all patriarchal-based. And patriarchy is so entrenched, it is not questioned.

    But I believe there are women’s values. When I do play-reading workshops for my musical We Did It For You http://www.wediditforyou.org which is about how women got their rights in America, I ask participants what they think these values are. I get responses like cooperation, nurturing, family, and compassion. Peggy McIntosh in her White Privilege paper talks about men’s advantages of unearned and conferred dominance. Until men and women see it, it’s the invisible elephant in the room. We can talk all we want about the evolving of rights (which younger people don’t even get — tell them in the US how Alice Paul and colleagues were willing to die in jail and be force fed raw eggs so that no other generation of women had to fight for the right to vote anymore and you’ll get blank stares) but unless we place patriarchy front and center as the problem, we’ll repeatedly wind up in the insanity of a war on women (as we have today).

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  7. I am the person who helped bring the US creative competition to light–I had met an advertising women who left the business–who said that the movement needed rebranding. Meaning she wanted more women to identify with it. I thought what a great idea to widen the appeal to those who don’t identify. But really, maybe she and I and many others just can’t become one as the author says:
    “Feminism is about something deeper, something more difficult, something that goes far beyond equal rights under late capitalism or neoliberalism. Feminists want to throw a spanner into the systems of social reproduction and production, and into the systems of hierarchical value and self-interest that these orders assume and promote.”

    It makes me think I’m not deep enough.

    Maybe you should see how people tried to grapple with it creatively and their resulting creative.

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  8. Amy, I went to the website that’s offering this competition and was pleasantly surprised by some of the semifinalists, including the one that stated “You can’t re-brand feminism.” I think that the term rebranding was my original problem, since it seemed so superficial. But there were some good ideas among the semifinalists. Even though I wouldn’t/couldn’t run an ad campaign to help others understand feminism, I think that if these young people want to do it, it’s all to the good. Feminism runs a wide gamut of perspectives, and we need all of them to succeed, all the feminist movements. The “together” campaign was very creative, using “I am NOT a feminist” to show that “to get her equality, etc.” we have bring those letters to-get-her and do it together as a movement. But it’s a little weird to start out with the negative. Also the young Hispanic man who detailed many of the ways his life was negatively affected by sexism as well as how it hurts women did a good job. I just don’t think a man should win at this point in history, although I agree that “feminism is not just for women.”

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  9. THanks for looking at the site. Would you be so kind as to post that comment under the story–it would be very powerful coming from you. We are all working toward same goals, I hope we can do it together….

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