A new study of feminism could knock Rush Limbaugh’s “feminazi”label right out of the American lexicon.
And help Hillary Rodham Clinton win the presidency?
Well, we’ll see. If the word gets around, the study has potential to pack some kind of punch with its findings that shoot down stereotypes of feminist women as controlling, sexually unappealing and ill-suited for love and marriage.
Traits of women who identify themselvesas feminists show up as quite the opposite in a Rutgers University survey of more than 500 adults. Feminist women in the study were more likely than non-feminist women to be in relationships with men. Male partners of feminist women reported more stable relationships and greater sexual satisfaction than did men with non-feminist partners. And women linked having partners who share their feminist beliefs to healthier relationships.
The data show that feminist attitudes may actually improve the quality of heterosexual relationships, said Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan, who directed the research. The study found no support for a stereotypical belief that feminist women are more likely than other women to identify themselves as single, lesbian or sexually unattractive. Reported in the October issue of Springer’s journal Sex Roles, the research combined a laboratory survey of 242 American undergraduates and an online survey of 289 older adults, considered more likely to have had longer relationships and more life experience.
Feminism vs. tradition
The findings didn’t surprise Sara Evans, a University of Minnesota Regents history professor whose specialty is American women — or her husband, she said. A longtime student of feminism, Evans has written five books, each of which dwells to some degree on the subject.
Stereotypes, as inaccurate as they usually are, remain difficult to bust through because there’s power – and often fear — behind them. In the case of feminism, “stereotypes allow people to defend a gender hierarchy, a traditional notion of males and females as polar opposites, one dominant and the other weak,” she said. “Feminism challenges all of that.”
She believes that’s precisely why couples in the Rutgers study who have feminist attitudes report having more satisfying relationships than other couples. “Relationships that are grounded in equal and mutual respect are just defined as healthier than those in which one partner is dominant and one is dependent,” she said. “Friendships work because they’re between peers. When there’s an extreme power difference, it’s hard to feel equality and mutual respect.”
American culture, she said, remains uncomfortable with powerful women. “All through the ‘90s, I puzzled over why people hated Hillary Clinton so much,” she said. But it’s important to acknowledge that some things have changed. “Probably 15 years ago, we wouldn’t have thought we’d be where we are today, with the leading Democratic candidate being a woman,” she said. And Evans is curious about the attitudes today’s teenage girls have toward feminism.
Can a study like the Rutgers survey change people’s attitudes about feminists and feminism? Evans’ fear is that, like many academic studies, it may attract too little attention to make much impact in challenging contradictory beliefs.
Where is Oprah when you need her? “We need to get the word out,” Evans said.