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Study shows women agree on sexism… but not “the F word

Last fall, SheKnows Media launched a new initiative called #TheFWord, designed to stoke a conversation about feminism that looks at all angles and encourages all perspectives. We wanted to unpack how our community relates to the word feminism, the philosophy behind it and what feminists are doing today.

We fielded a nationwide survey asking women to tell us how you define feminism, how you identify with feminism (or not) — and whether feminism actually impacts your day-to-day lives. More than 1,600 responded, 98 percent of whom were women. We learned a few things that surprised us, while other responses validated and explained what we’ve been seeing across our sites and social channels.

Today, we’re rolling out the first set of findings from the study. I encourage you to fill in the form below to see our full first set of findings.

Feminist or not, you know what feminism is supposed to be

The basic info looks like this: We asked, “Do you identify as a feminist?” Forty-six percent said yes, 22 percent said no, and 32 percent were on the fence — with 26 percent saying, “It depends,” and 6 percent saying, “Not sure.” 

But whether they identified as feminist or not, the majority of women selected the dictionary definition of feminism as their number one choice to define the word: “the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities.”

So, what affects the choice to personally identify with the word feminism?

Age plays a clear role

  • If you’re a mid-millennial woman (age 25 to 29) or from the boomer generation (age 55 to 64), you’re most likely to strongly identify with being a feminist. Fifty-three percent of mid-millennials and 54 percent of boomers responded yes when asked if they identified as feminist.
  • Older millennial and Generation X women are less likely to say they’re feminists. Feminist identification took a 10-point dip among women age 30 to 54, with only 44 percent of this group responding yes to the question.

Our observation: Women in the 30-to-54 age group are most likely to be in the building phase of so many aspects of their lives — careers, families. Perhaps feminism takes a backseat for more women in this life stage?

Race plays a major role

In this study, the ambivalence and frustration with “the mainstream feminist movement” that I frequently see across the SheKnows community was borne out in the answers that came back: 

  • Women of color were most likely to respond “It depends” or “Not sure” to the question of whether they identify as feminist.
  • Twenty-five percent of African-American women, 21 percent of Asian women and 17 percent of Hispanic women agreed that feminism mostly represents white, highly educated and/or upper-income women — compared with just 8 percent of white women respondents.

I had a poignant conversation with my colleague, Brandi Jeter Riley, that illustrates all of the above. As she put it, “I have a full-time job, a home, a husband and a daughter. And as a black woman, the state of racial justice in this country seems more urgent and in need of my attention and activism right now. Feminism seems like something I can let slide for now and let other people worry about.”

Values also play a role

Two groups of women are most likely to identify as non-feminist: African-American women breadwinners with more traditional values; and conservative white stay-at-home mothers.

While even non-feminists chose the dictionary definition of feminism most frequently (42 percent), for these two groups the description of feminism as “a movement that rejects traditional values” was close behind (40 percent).

Looking at all of their responses, the first group (traditional African-American breadwinners) seemed to be coming more from a place of agreeing in principle with typical feminist goals yet deeply skeptical about the impact it would have on their lives. The conservative white stay-at-home moms were overall unmoved.

Since the most readily identifiable feminist goals currently revolve around issues of reproductive rights and equal pay, it’s reasonable to conclude that each of these non-feminist groups feels excluded from the current state of the movement — whether due to identity or to feeling that the movement is actually hostile to their life choices.

We all reap the benefits of feminism

Regardless of whether they identified as feminist, women reported benefiting from increased rights for women to a near equal degree. Among all respondents:

  • 96 percent of feminists and 91 percent of non-feminists have voted
  • 95 percent of feminists and 90 percent of non-feminists have taken out a credit card in their name
  • 92 percent of feminists and 89 percent of non-feminists have used birth control
  • 65 percent of feminists and 63 percent of non-feminists have started their own business
  • 20 percent of feminists and 17 percent of non-feminists have terminated a pregnancy

So, it would seem we all reap the benefits of past feminist-movement advocacy, but we are ready to stop paying #TheFemaleTax.

What is #TheFemaleTax?

We already know that women pay a price for their gender financially. You may know that Equal Pay Day is April 12, representing the date until which women must work to have earned what a man doing equal work has earned by the last day of the year before.

Of course, women as a group still earn 78 cents compared with a man’s $1. But even this well-known wage-gap statistic masks the fact that the divide is far worse for women of color. African-American and Hispanic women earn just 64 cents and 54 cents, respectively, in the same scenario.

Here at SheKnows, we were pretty surprised by so many reports of negative experiences and concerns that were not monetary. Turns out we pay an emotional, physical and intellectual price for being women, too. #TheFemaleTax is our term for the price women pay in the form of sexist microaggressions and aggressions.

  • 67 percent of feminists and 40 percent of non-feminists report being more frequently interrupted than male counterparts.
  • 66 percent of feminists and 43 percent of non-feminists believe they have had their ideas overlooked because of their gender.
  • At the most extreme, 63 percent of feminists and 44 percent of non-feminists have been sexually harassed.

There is a significant gap in these reports between feminists and non-feminists, yet even the lower numbers reported by non-feminists are striking — and disturbing.

How we respond to feminism depends on how we learn about it

Something that really intrigued me about the results of #TheFWord study was that television and the mainstream media seem to play a negative role in women’s understanding of and identification with feminism.

Those who identify as feminists reported that their knowledge of feminism is first informed by people they know (for millennial women, this included online friends) and second by books and articles. Those who don’t identify as feminist reported being most informed by television and the media, including celebrities.

It solidifies for us why encouraging more #Femvertising (advertising that employs pro-woman messaging, imagery and talent) is so important: We are influenced by what we see and hear all around us, every day, in this information-overload world.

It also leads me to want to start really pushing back on sexist media narratives. It seems we’re really in a world where the more you watch television, #TheLessYouKnow.

Feminism and the 2016 election

If the presidential election were held today, our survey found that Hillary Clinton (D) and Bernie Sanders (D) would earn 59 percent and 36 percent of votes, respectively, by those who identify as feminist. Among non-feminists, Clinton and Sanders would garner 23 percent and 16 percent of the votes. Meanwhile, only 2 percent of self-identified feminists said they favor Trump (R), compared with 37 percent of non-feminist respondents.

Once the nominees are mathematically set, we’ll be running the entire study through another data analysis to see how women who support the two candidates align and diverge on key political issues. We’ll also look at how their experiences with #TheFemaleTax and their perspectives on feminism relate, so stay tuned!

The final takeaway: Don’t put feminism in a box

Around here, we often say that women are not a single group that thinks, acts and votes the same. This study reveals that feminism is complex, and who does and does not identify as a feminist can’t be painted with broad brushstrokes (as Saturday Night Live crew recently reminded us with the brilliant “This is Not a Feminist Song”).

It’s clear there is work to be done within the mainstream feminist movement if the goal is to broaden identification as a feminist and make the movement more inclusive and relevant, particularly to women of color and women outside the workforce.

You can see an overview of the study here:

Want to see all the data? If you’re curious, you can download the full set of responses from #TheFWord study findings. They’re third-party validated and analyzed by Research Narrative. Find more information about SheKnows Media at

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