Powerful Women Who Reject the Feminist Label
The word "feminist" can’t seem to shake folks’ preconcieved notions. Unfortunately, many people incorrectly equate the word with being aggressive and hating men. Feminists aren’t against men. Feminists are against discrimination and want equality for folks of all genders in every sphere of life.
While some powerful women, like Dolly Parton, have been maligned by earlier iterations of the feminist movement and are uncomfortable with the term "feminist," others simply seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means and have bad-mouthed the term "feminist," thus perpetuating harmful, misogynistic stereotypes. These famous women reject the label — find out why.
Although she’s known for empowering women, fighting for equal pay and discussing gender-based discrimination, Dolly Parton doesn’t self-identify as a feminist. "I must be [a feminist] if being a feminist means I’m all for women," Parton said. "But I don’t feel I have to march, hold up a sign or label myself."
And her rejection of the word makes sense. When Parton was coming up, the privileged women — largely college-educated, wealthy and white — who spearheaded second-wave feminism excluded poor women. Moreover, they accused her of objectifying her own body. "I think the way I have conducted my life and my business and myself speaks for itself," Parton said. "I don’t think of it as being feminist."
Icelandic musician Björk has said, "[I don’t identifiy as a feminist] because I think it would isolate me. I think it’s important to do positive stuff. It’s more important to be asking than complaining." The assertion is surprising coming from the boundary-pushing singer, who has basically merged her music with performance art.
"You could probably call my mother a feminist," Björk added. "And I watched her isolate herself all her life from men, and therefore society." Okay, a lot to unpack here. First of all, Björk is wary of isolation? Given the shooting locations in the "Black Lake" music video — and, you know, her whole artist persona — this is news to us. All jokes aside, this take is perplexing given her music’s strong political — and, yes, often very feminist — bent.
The Voice judge and American Idol superstar Kelly Clarkson tried to "Breakaway" from the label, initially saying, "No I wouldn’t say feminist — that’s too strong. I think when people hear feminist, it’s like, ‘Get out of my way, I don’t need anyone.’ I love that I’m being taken care of and I have a man that’s a leader."
Misogyny like this — some people take it for a lifetime. Luckily, Clarkson revised her assessment. "I feel people have associated the word ‘feminist’ with…‘man-hater’ and all these things. And I’m definitely not that girl. That’s what I meant by that. Obviously I believe in [equal rights]. I’m not an idiot." We appreciate the clarification, but this definitely goes to show that so many folks have a twisted perception of the word "feminist."
"My biggest thing is really sisterhood more than feminism," actress Shailene Woodley has said in the past. "I don’t know how we as women expect men to respect us because we don’t even seem to respect each other. The word ‘feminist’ is a word that discriminates, and I’m not into that."
Clearly, the Big Little Lies star is contending with some internalized misogyny and has overlooked that fact that women act this way in a society and culture designed to suit men. Woodley tried to clarify her statement, adding, "I do not want to be defined by one thing [like the label ‘feminist’]." What she’s overlooking? Labels can be numerous. And labels can be empowering insofar as they help us reaffirm and express our convictions.
Although singer Katy Perry has had her fair share of feuds and missteps, one thing is for certain: She’s willing to listen and grow. Back in 2012, Perry was named Billboard’s Woman of the Year and, in a celebratory interview, she told the magazine "I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the power of women." Contradictory? Undoubtedly.
In 2014, Perry was asked about the label on an Australian morning show. "A feminist?" Perry said. "Um, yeah, actually. I used to not really understand what that word meant, and now that I do, it just means that I love myself as a [woman] and I also love men." Okay, so she might still be a tad confused on the whole equal rights situation, but it’s progress.
Initially, superstar Taylor Swift was hesitant around the "feminist" label too. "I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life," she said. While that’s a nice sentiment, it’s not taking into account factors like workplace discrimination and the gender pay gap.
But in 2015, just ahead of the release of her women-fronted "Bad Blood" video, Swift changed her tune. "Misogyny is ingrained in people from the time they are born. So to me, feminism is probably the most important movement that you could embrace," she told Maxim. "Because it’s just basically another word for equality." Sexism? You can’t just "Shake It Off."
Despite the way she advocates for equality these days with projects like her Born This Way Foundation, Lady Gaga once declared, "I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men, I celebrate American male culture — beer, bars and muscle cars." Like so many others, her take is undergirded by a fundamental misunderstanding of feminism.
Like Dolly Parton, it may also have been a bit of a business decision: Distance from the word seems to make popstars more palatable to a wider audience. By 2009, however, Gaga wasn’t afraid of alienating anyone, calling herself "a little bit" of a feminist in a very casual way to the Los Angeles Times. The publication wrote, "Like many female pop stars, she’s rejected the term in the past. But she’s evolving."
Despite being an empowering role model, country music superstar Carrie Underwood has really distanced herself from feminism. "I wouldn’t go so far as to say I am a feminist," Underwood stated. "That can come off as a negative connotation. But I am a strong female." Jesus, take the wheel.
First of all, the use of the phrase "strong female" — instead of "strong woman" — recalls the way misogynists call women "females." But, perhaps more to the point, the reason the term "feminist" continues to have a "negative connotation" is due in part to the fact that strong women continually distance themselves from the word and, in doing so, reaffirm that very negative connotation. It’s a shame Underwood isn’t ready to help change those associations.
Even outside of the pop world, Madonna was a pioneer in the ‘80s and her persona and actions helped expand society’s perception of women and sexuality. Nonetheless, the legendary popstar has always shirked the feminist label. Instead, she’s landed on a broader term.
"I’m not a feminist," Madonna explained. "I’m a humanist." Although human-centered philosophies have existed since the days of ancient China and Greece, the more modern definition came about during the Renaissance as a philosophical and ethical viewpoint that emphasizes the value of human beings. In an effort to remove gender from her label, Madonna created a term that feels "All Lives Matter" adjacent.
"I think of myself as a humanist, because I think it’s less alienating to people who think of feminism as being a load of strident bitches," Sarandon said. "It’s a bit of an old-fashioned word. It’s used more in a way to minimize you." It’s true: The label has been co-opted by people who oppose equal rights, pay and education, and hurled at women with agency as an insult.
Unfortunately, sexists have made us afraid to claim the term, to claim equality. But instead of shrinking from the label, it might be more productive to reclaim "feminist." Later, the star of Thelma & Louise (1991) added, "Men can be feminists, really all feminism means is equality. I don’t know why there was such a backlash against it."
Actress and author Demi Moore was reportedly devastated when she had to drop out of the film Lovelace (2013). Due to personal circumstances, Moore had to forgo a cameo as famous feminist Gloria Steinem. Irony of ironies? The actress doesn’t consider herself a feminist.
"I am a great supporter of women," Moore said, "but I have never really thought of myself as a feminist, probably more of a humanist because I feel like that’s really where we need to be." Allegedly, Moore feels that women are already "empowered." It’s hard to know if she’s just trying to be palatable to a wider audience with her humanist answer, or if Moore’s privilege has barred her from seeing very real issues like the gender pay gap.
Sarah Jessica Parker
We couldn’t help but wonder: Did Sarah Jessica Parker realize what she was saying? Despite being hailed as an icon for her starring role on the woman-fronted Sex and the City, Parker is yet another celeb who’s putting distance between herself and the term.
"I took a page from [the playwright] Wendy Wasserstein’s book," Parker said. "She said ‘I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist.’" Much like Madonna, Parker (and Wasserstein) would rather cling to something more palatable and connotation-free. But, in doing so, these self-identified humanists might be undermining — or at the very least not helping — feminists who are fighting to reclaim the word.
Evangeline Lilly is known for her trailblazing roles. Whether she’s starring as Kate in Lost, taking down Orcs as an Elvish warrior in The Hobbit series or teaming up with the Avengers as Wasp, the actress consistently plays strong, game-changing women. But the action star still isn’t keen on the term "feminist."
"I’m very proud of being a woman and, as a woman, I don’t even like the word ‘feminism,’" Lilly said. "When I hear that word, I associate it with women trying to pretend to be men and I’m not interested in trying to pretend to be a man. …I want to embrace my womanhood." This weirdly binary take is a bit watered down. While it’s important for women to not assimilate for the comfort of men, there’s also nothing wrong with women and other folks embracing masculinity.
Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Ray’s take on the movement begs the question: Will you still love her when she no longer embraces feminism? Of the topic, the singer said, "For me, the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept. I’m more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what’s going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities."
What she doesn’t realize? You can be fascinated by whatever’s happening in a galaxy far, far away and still care about equality — right here on planet Earth. The popstar added, "Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, god. I’m just not really that interested… My idea of a true feminist is a woman who feels free enough to do whatever she wants." So, doesn’t that make Del Ray a feminist by her own defintion?
When it comes to Joni Mitchell and her music, all of us are like the Emma Thompson character in Love Actually: Here for a good cry, to really feel something. What we’re not feeling? Mitchell’s longstanding take on feminism. "I’m not a feminist… I don’t want to get a posse against men," the musician said.
Mitchell went on to say that there are "Too many [A]mazons in that community. The feminism in this continent isn’t feminine, it’s masculine. Our feminism isn’t feminism, it’s masculinism." Here, Mitchell wrongly equates power with masculinity. And she wrongly takes a shot at the Amazonians. (Wonder Woman does not approve.)
This singer-songwriter rose to fame in the ‘90s as Ginger Spice, a member of the best-selling girl group of all time, the Spice Girls. Here’s the thing: You can be one of the faces of the most successful women-helmed musical group in history but still say outright terrible things about other women.
Geri Halliwell said that feminism is "about labeling" and added that "for me feminism is bra-burning lesbianism. It’s very unglamorous. I’d like to see it rebranded. We need to see a celebration of our femininity and softness." Sure, celebrate historically "feminine" qualities, but please stop with the high-key homophobia just coursing through your argument, Ginger.
French actress Juliette Binoche believes that "[Feminism] just puts people in a stereotyped way of thinking. I think creation and doing, being active, is more important than talking about it." In the same interview, Binoche went on to say that her mother self-identified as a feminist and brought her along to demonstrations and marches.
"I know the anger," the actress said, "so this word ‘feminist’ divides me. I think we need the voices of women and we need the feminine on one side. I think men are frightened of the feminine." Bustle calls this reaction "exceptionally French." Again, it seems like the connotation has blurred another person’s understanding of the movement — though at least Binoche doesn’t deny feminism’s power.
The Big Bang Theory actress Kaley Cuoco has a real privileged outlook on feminism. She has stated that she’s well aware of the work that paved the way for women, and that it happened "before [she] was around." But…she doesn’t seem to understand that equality still isn’t a reality.
"I was never that feminist girl demanding equality, but maybe that’s because I’ve never really faced inequality," Cuoco said. (This would equate to a whole lot of privilege.) She added, "I cook for Ryan [her ex-husband] five nights a week: It makes me feel like a housewife. I love that." Okay, and that’s cool: Feminism isn’t about stripping away the things you like to do — it’s about letting you do things inside and outside of those traditionally gendered roles.
Actress Salma Hayek isn’t beating around the bush when it comes to her feelings on feminism. "I am not a feminist," Hayek has said. "If men were going through the things women are going through today, I would be fighting for them with just as much passion. I believe in equality."
Okay…? But (cis) men aren’t going through what women and other folks are going through — and that’s why we need feminism. More perplexing: If Hayek really believes in equality, like she says, she would recognize that fact. We just can’t get over the fact that she’d bring up some alternate-reality scenario instead of facing our own very real circumstances.
"Given my experience of being passed around like gender-politics cocktail food, I don’t identify myself as a Feminist, capital ‘F,’" Monica Lewinsky has said. And, honestly, who can blame her? Most of us would be jaded if we were in her position. Lewinsky received flack from both sides of the (political) aisle for her relationship with President Bill Clinton.
At the time, Lewinsky was a 22-year-old White House intern, and Clinton was a 49-year-old man with all the power in the free world. At the end of the day, folks blamed and shamed Lewinsky. Recently, folks — mainly feminists — have recognized the power imbalance and very gendered shaming that were at play in Lewinsky’s past. Nonetheless, it’s easy to understand why she’d be skittish of identifying passionately with the label.
Carla Bruni, an Italian-French musician and supermodel who married former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has claimed that feminism is old hat — and unnecessary. "My generation doesn’t need feminism," Bruni claimed. "There are pioneers who opened the breach. I’m not at all an active feminst."
In short, Bruni thinks the fight is over. No doubt, her position of privilege has clouded her ability to recognize the need for feminism — and the fact that the fight for equality isn’t over. To make matters worse, Bruni stated, "I’m a bourgeois. I love family life, I love doing the same thing every day." Feminists can love family life too. And, again, your privilege is showing.
The 25-year-old singer-songwriter Meghan Trainor often writes about female empowerment, body image and other topics feminists hold close. However, she has also distanced herself from the feminist label, saying bluntly, "I don’t consider myself a feminist, but I’m down for my first opportunity to say something to the world to be so meaningful."
The popstar, who rose to fame nearly overnight, went on to add, "If you asked me, ‘What do you want to say?’ it would be, ‘Love yourself more.’" Here’s the thing: Self-love and putting yourself first aren’t in direct competition with being a feminist. You can put love and acceptance first and still be a feminst, because, at the end of the day, those are very feminist concepts.
"Feminism," singer Lily Allen said. "I hate that word because it shouldn't even be a thing anymore." What’s frustrating about this? Even though we’ve made great strides in some venues, like suffrage, women (and other folks) still face discrimination on the basis of gender in the workplace and elsewhere.
Allen went on to say, "We’re all equal. Everyone is equal, so why is there even a conversation about feminism? What’s the man version of feminism? There’s isn’t even a word for it. There’s no reason for it." Right, there’s no reason for it, because (cis) men don’t face the same sort of discrimination and hurdles. The only thing antiquated here is Allen’s take.
Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow has made waves with her lifestyle brand Goop thanks to some of the brand’s more not-so-genuine products. However, even though Paltrow’s take about feminism isn’t quite on the money, she scores points for being authentic here. In advising a friend, Paltrow said, "This may not be feminist, but you have to compromise."
Actually, compromising is totally cool — in relationships, it can be a building block, so long as one person isn’t the only one doing the compromising. Paltrow added, "And if you want what you’re saying you want — a family — you have to be a wife." Unfortunately, that’s where Paltrow really misses the mark. Family, be it biological or chosen, can come in myriad forms — being a wife (and mother) is just one option.
It’s difficult to know where, exactly, singer Miley Cyrus stands on virtually any issue. She’s been outspoken — about various movements, about her own identity — but a lot of what Cyrus says seems to be in flux. And that’s understandable: She’s grown up in the spotlight and is trying to navigate things in the public sphere.
Unfortunately, like so many other celebs on our round-up, Cyrus still has a fundamental misunderstanding of the term "feminist." She has said, "I’m just about equality, period… I just want there to be equality for everybody." That’s a noble stance. And, also, the same stance feminism embodies.
Sandra Day O’Connor
Sandra Day O’Connor, a retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was the first woman nominated to the Supreme Court. On this historic nomination, O’Connor said she "felt a special responsibility… I [had to] do an adequate job so it would be possible for other women to be appointed without [people] saying, ‘Oh, see, a woman can’t do it.’"
Although O’Connor was a moderate Republican, she often cast the swing vote in landmark cases. But despite this — and despite her sense of responsibility — she told the New York Times that she didn’t identify as a feminist and preferred to be called a "fair judge and a hard worker." O’Connor said, "I never did [call myself a feminist]. I care very much about women and their progress. I didn’t go march in the streets."
Emmy- and Oscar-winning actress Melissa Leo may have a bunch of accolades to her name, but one label she doesn’t want to tack on to her identity is "feminist." In a 2012 interview with Salon, Leo staunchly said, "Well, I don’t think of myself as a feminist at all." You can’t get more to-the-point than that.
"As soon as we start labeling and categorizing ourselves and others, that’s going to shut down the world," Leo added. "I would never say that." She reiterated this viewpoint in a 2017 interview. Unfortunately, Leo doesn’t seem to recognize the power of labeling — of giving words to a movement and viewpoint. Instead, she’s nervous about alienating people who are bothered by the word — and perpetuating all those misleading connotations.
Three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep is known for her impressive craft, but, evidently, she really put her acting skills to the test in 2015’s Suffragette. In the film, Streep co-stars as Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the key organizers of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain. Why was it her best work?
While discussing the overtly feminist film and character, Streep rejected the label "feminist" herself — unlike co-star Carey Mulligan, who embraced the term. Instead, Streep describes herself as a humanist. To make matters more perplexing, Streep is one of the founding members of Hollywood’s branch of the Time’s Up initiative — a movement that is pretty darn feminist.
Actress Jacqueline Bisset has been on the receiving end of some high-profile sexism. She once mentioned "living with two men" — her roommates — and was shamed for it, with attackers assuming her relationships with the men were of a sexual nature. Later, she was criticized for being a "cougar" because of her relationships with men younger than her.
If anyone needs feminism, it’s someone on the receiving end of things men would never be criticized for (like dating younger women or having a roommate). Nonetheless, Bisset maintains that "Women are becoming so tough. I have never fully embraced feminism. I certainly thought it had some good points." At least she’s somewhat open to it.
American businesswoman and investor Marissa Mayer is undoubtedly one of the most high-profile and powerful women in tech. She’s known for being the co-founder of Lumi Labs as well as ex-CEO of Yahoo! And Mayer has a net worth of $620 million. But, despite all of her success and business smarts, Mayer still has a fundamental misunderstanding of feminism.
"I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist," Mayer said. "I think that I certainly believe in equal rights." Well, if you believe in equal rights, you are in line with the beliefs of feminists. Unfortunately, connotations have kept this powerful woman from identifying with the label too. "I don’t… have… the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that." Sigh.