I first "came out" as a feminist long before I knew what the word meant. I was 11 years old, and my mother told me that I alone should clear the table because "you'll need to do the same for your husband, whereas your brother will have a wife to help him."
Faced with such injustice (or, as I probably saw it then, parental favoritism), it was easy for my headstrong pre-teen self to reject the strange philosophy that burdened me with excess chores. But since my early activism, this blatant inequality has been complicated by an array of issues encompassing matters as disparate as strip clubs and pubic hair. As history marches on, gender behavior and incidents of sexism have become ever more subtle, and feminism has developed a reputation as outdated extremism. Although it seems that everyone advocates gender equality, few are willing to be identified as "feminist."
Feminist Coming Out Day works to combat this stigma. The event, headed by Harvard graduate Lena Chen and begun at the university last year, aims to give feminism a proud and public face. Participants wear buttons and t-shirts that proclaim, "This is what a feminist looks like." They post their photos on Facebook and blogs alongside their individual reasons for identifying with feminism. In just one year, Feminist Coming Out Day has been adopted by 15 universities that host campus-wide events to celebrate feminism. Gender-defying film screenings ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is one suggested option) are held alongside discussion panels, and a larger online community unites these events into a coherent movement.
Feminist Coming Out Day was formed through collaboration between the Radcliffe Union of Students and Queer Students and Allies, and it borrows the "coming out" concept from the L.G.B.T. movement. Campaigns for gay rights first emphasized coming out as a means to give homosexuality a human face and show friends, families and associates that gay individuals defy stereotypes. Though Feminist Coming Out Day acknowledges that coming out as gay is far more potentially dangerous than coming out as a feminist (for this reason, the event is even considering a name change for 2012), the phrase "coming out" accurately describes the event's focus on public de-shaming.
Although there are many reasons given for opposing feminism, the most common (and offensive) argument is that feminists are simply unattractive bra-burning zealots. In 2003, a U.K. study by the Equal Opportunities Commission found that feminists are largely viewed as "ballbreakers." Many young women I know are unwilling to identify with the movement because of feminism's unpleasant connotations, as well as the notion that it is extreme, outdated and, most of all, unnecessary.
One friend succinctly surmised this line of thought with her unshakeable belief that "the word 'feminist' just sounds anti-male." At the time, I was tempted to say that her perception of a women's rights movement as innately unattractive is itself indicative of societal sexism, but my argument was silenced by fear of the all-dismissive eye roll. The ugly assessment of feminists is so deep-set that any attempt to defend feminism can quickly brand you as a "radical man-hater." In response to this prejudice, the diverse range of men and women who publicly identify as feminists on Feminist Coming Out Day is a strong and effective means of challenging the clichéd perception of feminism. Together, the large number of participants who "come out" as feminists show that feminism has many faces, and that the movement cannot be so easily dismissed by references to unshaved legs and aggressive personas.
Feminist Coming Out Day also has a second purpose: to re-align discussions on the broader subject of feminism itself. All too often, debate over sexism can be dismissed by an eager rejection of feminism based on one particular argument. For example, concerns about the treatment of women in the workplace can be written off as politically correct paranoia simply by reducing feminism to the particular belief that the traditional role of motherhood is outdated. Feminist Coming Out Day is not concerned with these specific worries and refuses to judge women's choices about Barbie dolls or careers. Those who "come out" as feminists are left to personally consider what constitutes feminism, and this tolerance enables Feminist Coming Out Day to unite women. By definition, the event rejects factionalism, focusing instead on one basic concern: a desire for gender equality.
The simplicity of Feminist Coming Out Day's goal should not be misinterpreted as insignificance. Although some may question how a movement can attain gender equality if it cannot even define the term, Feminist Coming Out Day has a clear-cut purpose. The event rises above the stigma and contradictions that muddle so many conversations on sexism, and the power of the event lies in its one simple assertion that feminism is pertinent today.
I'm still not sure if I know what the word '"feminism" means, but Feminist Coming Out Day suggests that subjective interpretations are more important than any absolute answer. I live on a campus where women constantly advance their intellectual abilities and talents, but stand on a cold street every weekend as they wait for acceptance into an all-male final club. The painful juxtaposition between women's career potentials and their struggle to understand gender roles is obvious whenever I hear an undergraduate student talk about motherhood as they finish their senior year thesis. We have made significant improvements in gender equality, but the battle is far from over yet. And so, with a hopeful confidence in future progress, I am proud to be a feminist.