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Feminist Women Can Be Considered Heroes

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Past research suggests that women and men alike perceive feminism and romance to be in conflict (Rudman and Fairchild, Psychol Women Q, 31:125–136, 2007). A survey of US undergraduates (N=242) and an online survey of older US adults (N=289) examined the accuracy of this perception. Using self-reported feminism and perceived partners’ feminism as predictors of relationship health, results revealed that having a feminist partner was linked to healthier relationships for women. Additionally, men with feminist partners reported greater relationship stability and sexual satisfaction in the online survey.

Finally, there was no support for negative feminist stereotypes (i.e., that feminists are single, lesbians, or unattractive). In concert, the findings reveal that beliefs regarding the incompatibility of feminism and romance are inaccurate. Keywords Feminism . Close relationships . Feminist stereotypes . Intergroup relations . Gender attitudes Introduction Although feminists deserve the lion’s share of credit for advancing women’s rights, college-aged adults do not identify with feminists (e.g., Aronson 2003; Buschman and Lenart 1996; Renzetti 1987; Williams and Wittig 1997), and attitudes toward them are surprisingly negative (Haddock and Zanna 1994; Renzetti 1987; Rudman and Fairchild 2007). Feminist stereotypes are also unflattering; feminists tend to be stigmatized as unattractive, sexually unappealing, and likely to be lesbians (Goldberg et al. 1975; Rudman and Fairchild 2007; Swim et al. 1999; Unger et al. 1982).

The fact that women are just as prone to these views as men is particularly disturbing. It is difficult to imagine any other group stigmatizing the pioneers who struggled for their equality; for example, if African Americans disdained Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights workers, it would be inconceivable and cause for alarm. In an effort to determine why the seeds of feminism have fallen on hard ground, some authors have suggested that the “post-feminism” era has replaced women’s interest in collective power with interest in self-empowerment (Levy 2005; Riger 1993; Zucker 2004). For example, Rich (2005) described several women in her sample as hostile toward feminism because they viewed it as a movement for victims, or women who could not achieve success based on their own merit. Others have suggested that feminism is now subsumed in the language of choice, such that women can be either vanguards or traditionalists; as long as they choose their life’s path, it counts as feminist (Taylor 1992)— a view that negates the goals of the Women’s Movement.

Finally, it should be noted that feminism has always been subject to swings of the cultural pendulum, with advances toward gender equity being met with backlash designed to return women to their historically low stratum in the social hierarchy (Faludi 1991; Valian 1999). What is particularly disturbing is that, by eschewing feminism, women themselves may be participating in backlash. Thus, it is important to understand the reasons why women today tend not to embrace feminism. The goal of the present research was to follow up on evidence suggesting that both women and men avoid Sex Roles (2007) 57:787–799 DOI 10.1007/s11199-007-9319-9 L. A. Rudman (*) : J. E. Phelan Department of Psychology, Rutgers University, Tillett Hall, 53 Avenue E, Piscataway, NJ 08854-8040, USA e-mail: [email protected] J. E. Phelan e-mail: [email protected] identifying with feminists, and supporting feminist causes, to the extent that feminism is perceived to be incompatible with heterosexual romance (Rudman and Fairchild 2007).

Because these beliefs may undermine the ability to collectively advance gender equality, it was important to test their accuracy. To do so, we employed a laboratory survey of undergraduates and an online survey that included older adults who are likely to have had longer relationships, as well as greater life experience. The main objective was to examine whether heterosexual feminists (or men paired with feminists) have troubled romantic relationships, as is popularly perceived. A secondary goal was to investigate the accuracy of negative feminist stereotypes (i.e., that they are likely to be single, lesbians, or unattractive). Feminism and Gender Relations For intergroup relations researchers, gender is unique because men and women are intimately interdependent (Fiske and Stevens 1993; Glick and Fiske 1996). They depend on each other for sexual and emotional gratification, as well as sexual reproduction. Traditionally, they have been socialized to occupy different family roles (with men as breadwinners and women as caretakers; Eagly 1987).

As a result, women have historically been consigned to dyadic more than economic power (Johnson 1976), and their principal route to status and influence has involved attracting the best possible marital partner. The Women’s Movement sought to change that through the use of collective power, but women continue to be socialized in ways that hinder aspirations to the highest echelons of status and influence, in part by educating them in romance (Holland and Eisenhart 1990; Rudman and Heppen 2003). Cultural romantic scripts idealize women (i.e., place them on a pedestal), but they also emphasize male initiative and female passivity (Holland 1992; Impett and Peplau 2003; Sanchez et al. 2005). Indeed, women who automatically associate male partners with chivalry and heroism (e.g., Prince Charming, White Knight) also show less interest in financial independence and leadership roles, suggesting that implicit romantic fantasies can curtail women’s ambitions (Rudman and Heppen 2003). Further, the media often portrays feminists as radical man-haters, which could lead to the perception that they are lesbians who resent men (Bell and Klein 1996; Misciagno 1997).

This misperception may stem from the fact that feminists have courageously challenged cultural romantic scripts (e.g., De Beauvoir 1952; Firestone 1970; Millet 1970). In her interviews with women of all ages, Sigel (1996) found ambivalence toward feminism; although women appreciated the benefits derived from the Women’s Movement, they worried it had gone too far and negatively affected relations with men. For all of these reasons, it seemed likely that feminism might be viewed as incompatible with romance and if so, it might help to account for feminism’s current lack of popularity. To directly test this hypothesis, Rudman and Fairchild (2007) examined feminist orientations as a function of (1) the lesbian feminist stereotype and (2) beliefs that feminism creates heterosexual relationship conflict. They found that women and men alike shied away from feminism to the extent they viewed feminists as lesbians or perceived feminism to be incompatible with romance. For example, people who endorsed beliefs that “Feminism can cause women to resent men,” “Feminism can add stress to relationships with men,” and “Most men would not want to date a feminist,” were less likely to identify with feminists, to report positive attitudes toward them, and to endorse women’s civil rights (e.g., to support the Equal Rights Amendment).

Additional findings showed that unattractive women were rated as more likely to be feminists than attractive women, but that this difference was wholly explained by beliefs that unattractive women are low on sex appeal or likely to be lesbians. As a result of these unfavorable beliefs, young adults may view feminism as antithetical to romance and a hindrance to their own relationships. Overview of the Research and Hypotheses Our primary goal was to examine the accuracy of popular beliefs that feminism is incompatible with romance and thus, to test the credibility of a factor that causes women and men alike to shy away from feminism. Are feminist women (or men with feminist partners) likely to have troubled relationships? To our knowledge, this issue has yet to be investigated. As a first step, we conducted a laboratory survey of college students (Study 1) and an online survey designed to include older adults (Study 2). Because it takes two to form a healthy relationship, we assessed participants’ own feminism and perceptions of their partners’ feminism.

For example, people who are mismatched (e.g., feminist women with non-feminist partners) may have more difficulty in their relationships, compared with people who are matched with similar partners (Smith et al. 1993, 1995). Moreover, because men are typically more sexist in their attitudes than women and invested in women’s occupation of traditional roles (Glick and Fiske 1996; Haddock and Zanna 1994), non-feminist men might be particularly resentful of a female partner’s feminism, leading to poor relationship quality for them. As a measure of feminism, we combined participants’ identification with feminism with how much they liked feminists and career women. A comparable measure assessed partners’ perceived feminism.

As the first investigation of the perceived negative link between feminism 788 Sex Roles (2007) 57:787–799 and heterosexual relationship satisfaction, we examined several different components of relationship health (i.e., overall relationship quality, agreement about gender equality, relationship stability, and sexual satisfaction) to determine precisely what (if anything) leads to more conflict in feminists’ relationships and men’s relationships with feminists. Relationship quality included questions about trust and conflict within the relationship, as well as positive and negative emotions experienced within the relationship. Relationship equality assessed whether participants agreed with their partners about gender equality and the appropriate roles in the relationship. Because feminists challenge traditional gender roles, issues of gender equality may be a significant source of conflict within their relationships. Relationship stability assessed the likelihood of terminating the relationship—an important indicator of relationship health. Finally, Study 2 (which included older adults) assessed sexual satisfaction because female autonomy and independence, explicit goals of the feminist movement, are believed to create sexual conflict for men (i.e., undermine their satisfaction; Rudman and Fairchild 2007).

Examining only heterosexuals who are currently in a romantic relationship, we had the following hypotheses: Hypothesis 1 If feminism is incompatible with romance, women who are feminists should be more likely to experience poor relationship health, compared with women who are traditionalists. That is, feminism should negatively covary with indicators of relationship health. Hypothesis 2 Women in a mismatched relationship (i.e., feminists in a relationshipwith a non-feminist man, or traditionalists in a relationships with a feminist man) should experience more relationship turmoil than women who report sharing a similar feminist identity with their partner. In other words, feminism and partner’s feminism should interact to predict relationship health. Hypothesis 3 If feminism is incompatible with romance, men in relationships with feminists should be more likely to experience poor relationship health, compared with men who are paired with traditional women.

That is, partner’s feminism should negatively covary with indicators of men’s relationship health. Hypothesis 4 Men in mismatched relationships should experience more relationship turmoil than men who report sharing a similar feminist identity with their partner (as for women in Hypothesis 2). Finally, considerable evidence suggests that feminists are targets of stereotypical beliefs (e.g., Bell and Klein 1996; Goldberg et al. 1975; Rudman and Fairchild 2007; Misciagno 1997; Swim et al. 1999; Unger et al. 1982), but a test of their accuracy has not yet been undertaken. We combined our two samples to examine whether feminist stereotypes contain a kernel of truth. Hypothesis 5 If feminist stereotypes are accurate, then feminist women should be more likely to report being single, lesbian, or sexually unattractive, compared with non-feminist women. Study 1 The main objective was to assess the accuracy of beliefs that feminism is troublesome for romantic relationships (Rudman and Fairchild 2007).

To do so, we compared selfreported feminism and perceived partners’ feminism as predictors of relationship health for undergraduate heterosexuals currently involved in a romantic relationship. Method Participants Five hundred and thirteen volunteers (298 women, 215 men) participated in exchange for partial credit toward their Introductory Psychology research participation requirement. Participants who were not in a current relationship (129 women, 126 men) or who reported not being exclusively heterosexual (21 women, 14 men) were excluded for the analyses, leaving a sample of 242 volunteers (156 women, 86 men). Of these, 136 (56%) were European American, 60 (25%) were Asian American, 16 (6%) were African American, 17 (6%) were Hispanic American, and the remainder reported another ethnic identity.

Materials Self and Partner’s Feminism Participants responded to two items using 6-point scales ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree). The items were, “I am a feminist” and “My partner is a feminist.” To measure attitudes, they also reported (on four separate scales) how warmly they and their partners felt toward feminists and career women on thermometer measures ranging from 1 (very cold) to 10 (very warm). A principal components factor analysis showed that feminist labeling and attitudes toward feminists and career women yielded one factor, so we averaged these three items to form a single index of feminism (eigenvalue=1.83, Sex Roles (2007) 57:787–799 789 accounting for 61% of the variance, α=.71). A similar analysis indicated the comparable partner variables should be averaged to form a single index of partner’s feminism (eigenvalue=1.52, accounting for 52%of the variance, α=.72).

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