Feminism, feminist identity and man-hating: a research study

I briefly touched upon a fantastic piece of research into the myth of the man-hating feminism in the post about ambivalent sexism. It was quite an interesting paper which warrants further discussion. In order for this post to make sense, it is probably best to read the ambivalent sexism one first.

The paper is entitled: “ARE FEMINISTS MAN HATERS? FEMINISTS’ AND NON-FEMINISTS’ ATTITUDES TOWARD MEN“, by Anderson, Kanner and Elsayegh (2009). The title is the holy grail of psychology paper titles–it grabs attention and it manages to neatly summarise the research conducted.

In short, the authors administered a questionnaire to feminists and non-feminists. This questionnaire measured benevolent and hostile attitudes towards men. The group of feminists had a lower level of hostility towards men.

The questionnaire was constructed very similarly to the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: “hostile” items included “When men act to ‘help’ women, they are often trying to prove they are better than women”, while the “benevolent” items included “Women are incomplete without men”, and “Even if both members of a couple work, the woman ought to be more attentive to taking care of her man at home”. It was hypothesised that were feminists man-haters, they would be more inclined to agree with the hostile statements than non-feminists.

Of course, the authors also needed to measure “feminism”, or at least separate the feminists from the non-feminists along a meaningful dimension. Many of us are familiar with the statement, “I’m not a feminist, but…” proceeded by reeling off a list of feminist statements, so the task of identifying feminists is somewhat difficult. The authors used a rather elegant solution to this problem: participants were asked to write a definition of feminism, then asked whether they identified as a feminist.

Participants who were unable to define feminism were excluded. A worryingly large proportion of participants failed this criterion: from the original sample of 488 participants, only 296 were able to adequately define what feminism was. This shows an area where work is still required: many people do not know what feminism is, and therefore lack the knowledge to accept or reject its ideas.

In the sample of people who were able to define feminism, around 14% identified as feminist, with 58% identifying as non-feminist and the remainder unsure. There were gender and ethnic differences in identifying as feminist; 17% of women participants identifying as feminist, compared to just over 7% of men. White people were most likely to identify as feminist, with African Americans least likely–less than 5% of African American participants said that they were feminists. It is unsurprising that people from minority ethnic groups were less likely to identify as feminist–feminism is often seen as reflecting the concerns of and solutions for of middle class white women.

With feminism measured and large differences in ethnicity and gender found, analyses were conducted based on these differences. On the whole, it was found that feminists displayed lower levels of benevolence and hostility towards men, that is, feminists were less likely to report “hatred” towards men, but also less likely to report the infantilising, protective, hegemonically hetrosexual attitudes towards men.

Gender differences were visible: on the whole, women reported higher levels of hostility towards men, while men reported higher levels of benevolence towards men–this effect is also visible when assessing attitudes towards women, where it is reversed.

The paper was less than perfect, relying on self-report measures, and it is possible that feminists were filling in the questionnaire with a social desirability bias: feminist participants may still “hate” men and agree with sentiments such as “men believe they are better than women”, but they know that it is wrong to report this in a questionnaire. If this is the case, it’s still a start, that a chunk of the population believe these attitudes to be undesirable.

This research shows some directions for the feminist fight. Firstly, we need to raise awareness of what feminism is: an approach to fighting for gender equality. Additionally, the hostile and benevolent attitudes towards men were not zero in the sample of feminists–this suggests we need to work towards eradicating seeing a group through the lens of the “other”. This goes for all such attitudes, this is our goal: ambivalent sexism must disappear.

7 thoughts on “Feminism, feminist identity and man-hating: a research study”

  1. what do you mean ‘failed to define feminism’? do you mean they couldn’t come up with a definition or they defined it ‘wrong’? what is the correct definition if so?

    Because my definition is definitely different from yours!

    1. It was a reasonably representative sample–more generalisable than most psych studies.

      Definition of feminism was based on dictionary definition–an approach towards equality between genders. Fairly sufficient for feminism, although rather un-nuanced. Still, I’d say that’s an umbrella under which feminists (and many who do not identify as feminists though believe in the same) sit. Actually, would have liked to have seen a little more qualitative work into how definitions of feminism differ between those who accept the label and those who reject.

  2. I just skimmed the report and all the participants were undergraduates at one single university in Texas, USA! I really don’t see how that is ‘representative’ of anything.

  3. Let me suggest that perhaps the feminists were simply far more politically saavy and were aware of how their responses could be used to support a characterization which they did not wish to see published, so they were careful to give the “correct” response to avoid anyone painting them as manhating. The nonfeminists may have simply been more honest, not less tolerant. I have no reason to believe or disbelieve this hypothesis, but it IS a viable explanation of the data. This is why I feel any analysis of self reported data must not ignore the fact that people are for many reasons very often less than truthful. Perhaps a better tactic would be to posit hypothetical situations rather than soliciting abstract views. It woul not stop willful prevarication but perhaps if research shows that this makes the questions more “real” to the subject it would increase the likelihood of honesty. Of course then the problem is deciding which responses these hypotheticals were “feminist”. How? Another survey? This is why I put almost no weight on selfreported data.

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