It’s been quite a year for Swift, who has matured in public in a way few female stars have the courage to, staging a dispute between her different public “selves” in a video for her song “Look What You Made Me Do” earlier this year. Meanwhile, she pursued a lawsuit against a former radio host whom she accused of groping her in 2013, a move heralded by the Guardian as a “universal feminist statement” long before #MeToo. Swift has openly embraced feminism since 2014 and tweeted in support of the Women’s March in January, so you might think, given our current focus on women’s rights and dignity, that “Reputation” would land with a girl-power splash.
But you’d be wrong. Very wrong. In fact, Swift is already under fire from feminist critics. And their attacks reveal something very ugly about modern feminism: While today’s feminists claim to champion the rights of all women, they speak only for women who agree with them – vocally, frequently and on demand.
Anticipating “Reputation,” Bustle editor Rachel Simon insisted that the 27-year-old Swift “can’t just say that the media has painted her as a fake feminist or a manipulative liar; she needs to say ‘I deserved it.’ ” Even after her sexual assault lawsuit, feminists pounced on Swift. Salon writer Rachel Leah retorted that Swift is “known to wave the feminist banner only when it directly benefits her.” Bustle agreed, decrying Swift’s feminism as a “deeply flawed,” “self-serving” “white feminism.”
As proof of her feminist failures, editor Kadeen Griffiths listed Swift’s many faults: not criticizing President Trump, not “publicly support[ing] organizations” like Planned Parenthood and not attending the Women’s March (her tweet apparently wasn’t enough.) Outlet after outlet has pressured Swift to condemn the president in the name of feminism. In January, the Daily Beast went so far as to accuse her of “Spineless Feminism.” Swift may be the highest-paid artist in the world, but her decision to speak out on issues as she pleases rather than as others call on her to means she gets little credit for the space she’s made for female artists.
In other words, being a feminist requires speaking out on certain things in a certain way.
Yet the feminist movement pretends to include everyone who advocates for women. Gloria Steinem, for instance, describes a feminist as “anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.” Hillary Clinton states that a feminist is “someone who believes in equal rights.” Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg calls feminism a “belief” that “men and women should have equal opportunity.” Actress Emma Watson, a U.N. Women goodwill ambassador, echoes: “If you stand for equality, then you’re a feminist.” According to Swift herself, feminism is “basically another word for equality.”
And yet, according to Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti, feminism means nothing if everyone is a feminist. “Without some boundaries for claiming the word feminist, it becomes meaningless,” she declared in 2014. The first boundary she had in mind? Abortion politics. “So once and for all: Can you be an anti-choice feminist? No.”
Likewise, January’s anti-Trump Women’s March, claiming to represent “all women” of “all backgrounds” in statements to the media and in its branding, argued as much with regard to abortion. While the group initially approved pro-life groups led by women as partners, it removed them after a feminist uproar — and apologized “for this error.”
That uproar included Valenti, who tweeted that she was “horrified.” Jaclyn Friedman, who writes for outlets like the Guardian and Time, called including pro-lifers “bulls—.” Broadly editor Lauren Oyler added, “You’re not a feminist (or at all smart) if you don’t support safe and legal access to abortion for all women.”
The consensus seemed unanimous: Pro-life women are not welcome. According to Knights of Columbus/Marist Poll data released in January, that means counting out the 87 percent of women who don’t think abortion should always be available at any point during a pregnancy and 41 percent who identify as pro-life. (Gallup data presents similar numbers.)
In October, the Women’s March only amplified its message with its convention, which again ignored antiabortion and conservative women. “There is no such thing as a feminism that tolerates opposition to abortion,” abortion activist Erin Matson announced to applause at the Detroit convention. “It is simply impossible to be a feminist and oppose a woman’s right to her own body.” There wasn’t a panelist included to point out that every woman begins life as an unborn baby girl, many of whom are often targeted (even in the United States) for sex-selective abortion.
We have no idea what Taylor Swift thinks about any number of specific political issues: how she feels about Trump, what she thinks the goals of feminism ought to be, where she comes down on abortion or anything else. But the ongoing denouncement of Swift proves that you don’t even have to have convictions as firm as antiabortion feminists to be counted out of today’s movement. All it takes to get exiled is to not affirm the party line loudly enough. And for any movement seeking to advance the cause of women as a whole, that’s a problem.
The test of a feminist’s commitment should be how she treats women who are different from her. It shouldn’t matter if Swift agrees or disagrees, if she speaks or remains silent. We should applaud her ability as a person, independent, with her own heart and mind, to be who she wishes. The same should go for any number of women who hold different political views but agree that women’s voices should be a part of the national conversation. Their feminism is real, their perspectives matter, and they should be welcome to contribute to a movement that promotes women’s welfare and status. That should be feminism’s reputation.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the results of a Knights of Columbus/Marist poll on abortion. The percentage of women who don’t think abortion should be available at any time during a pregnancy is 87 percent, not 77 percent. The poll found that 13 percent of respondents said the statement that most closely represented their opinion on abortion was “abortion should be available to a woman any time she wants one during her entire pregnancy.”