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Keli Goff

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How Gloria Steinem Forced Me Out of the Closet

Posted: 08/15/11 08:30 PM ET

Recently I accidentally came out of the closet.

Now before the rumor mill begins buzzing I don't mean that closet (although thanks to my height, in TV makeup I've probably been mistaken for a drag queen more times than I care to count, but that's another blog post.) I'm referring to the other closet that many childless, career-oriented, single women find themselves boxed in: that of a closeted feminist.

I didn't even know that I was in the closet until I mentioned via social media that I had attended a screening of the terrific new HBO documentary on feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Gloria: In her Own Words. A self-professed fan of mine expressed "surprise" and later horror that I would identify with that "feminist stuff" considering how (allegedly) detrimental it has been to society.

I initially assumed he was joking. After all, I write about women's issues so much that during a recent interview about my new book (shameless plug alert) The GQ Candidate, a reporter asked me if I consider myself first and foremost a women's issues writer. I had never given the matter much thought, explaining that I write about issues that I find interesting and consider important. As a woman it's probably not a coincidence that a number of those issues affect women, among them reproductive rights, a topic I care a great deal about and have stated that I consider one of the most important political issues of our time. (Click here to see a list of the most high profile black feminist leaders.)

But as I noted on The Dylan Ratigan Show, my "fan's" criticism spurred some reflection on my part. I don't know that I have used the "f-word" once in any of my writing -- except to describe other people like Steinem -- but never to describe myself.

Conscious choice on my part? Definitely not. Subconscious choice? Well now I wonder.

According to a 2005 CBS News survey, though 69% of women polled believe that the women's movement has definitely made their lives better, nearly the same number -- 70% to be exact -- said that they do not consider themselves feminist. This despite the fact that a plurality of those polled still believe there are greater advantages to being a man in society than to being a woman. I assume that like my so called "fan" many of the women polled don't actually know the actual definition of the word feminist or feminism, which according to Merriam Webster is "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes."

Gee. Isn't that controversial sounding? Who would want to stand for that? (Sarcasm, in case you missed it.)

And yet as we see from the Steinem documentary, the word "feminist" has long been used as a pejorative by those opposed to the feminist movement's primary goal of gender equality. I guess it was easier for equal rights opponents to vilify the movement by exploiting people's ignorance of the true meaning of a funny-sounding new word. So they were able to successfully hijack it, and turn it into a synonym for man-hating, unattractive, angry, witch. (Which I guess would make the feminist movement a covenant. If so, pass me my broom.) "Witch" certainly makes a better political target than say, freedom fighter.

So perhaps the poll (and subconsciously my own writing) reflect the notion that even among those who support feminism's goals, there's a lingering fear that the word is so radioactive that using it may hamper our efforts to advance a feminist agenda, on reproductive rights or anything else.

But I'm beginning to wonder if this has become a self-defeating prophecy. So many of us who have benefited from the feminist movement, and continue to believe in its goals, have become afraid to use "the f-word" -- consciously or not -- so the idea of "feminist" as a bad word lives on generations after the movement first began. (I will say for the record that I do believe that some of feminism's more high profile voices bear some of the blame for younger women's fear of "the f-word." The politics of "with us or against us" are rarely effective at persuading converts, and unlike some feminists I don't believe that a woman choosing to pose in a men's magazine, or a man choosing to buy one, makes either one of them any less of a feminist than myself.)

The way I see it, the only way for us to stop f-word panic is for more of us to come out of the closet.

Allow me to do just that: My name is Keli, and I'm a feminist.

Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a Contributing Editor for TheLoop21.com, where this post originally appeared.

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