(WOMENSENEWS)–For decades, the media has run periodic stories claiming that the women’s movement is dead, dying or seriously stalled.

Press headlines have painted the movement as a “passing fancy” and “a lost cause,” and have often held feminists responsible.  A representative article from the Los Angeles Times came straight to the point: “Feminists Have Killed Feminism.” Pronouncements that “feminism has fizzled” are typically followed by some galvanizing event that arouses women, and the movement will appear at least temporarily revived. The widespread coverage of Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” is one recent illustration.

The demonization of feminism has extended roots. A Harper’s Magazine article is typical: “‘Feminism’ has become a term of opprobrium to the modern young woman. For the word suggests either the old school of fighting feminists who wore flat heels and had very little feminine charm, or the current species who antagonize men with their constant clamor about maiden names, equal rights [and] women’s place in the world.”

For much of the last quarter century, commentators on feminism have been posing a common question. As Time put it to Gloria Steinem, “Since most women today embrace the goals of the women’s movement, why are so many of them reluctant to embrace the feminist label?” Steinem responded: “Women have two problems with the label. The first is that people don’t know what it means. . . . The second is that people do know what it means.”

She has a point. One problem in mobilizing around women’s issues is the negative association that many women have with the term “feminism.” The term has been demonized by the right and caricatured by the press. A second problem is that feminism implies activism, and that makes many women uncomfortable.

Mixed Public Opinion

Public opinion polls over the last two decades underscore the problem. Taken together, they reveal a striking ambivalence. On the one hand, the women’s movement and its underlying principles have commanded widespread support. For example, over 75 percent of American women report that the women’s movement has made life better and has been helpful to them; four-fifths of women and men approve of the movement to strengthen women’s rights. When asked if the United States continues to need a strong women’s movement to push for changes that benefit women, between 48 and 58 percent of Americans say yes. And when polls give the dictionary definition of feminism as someone who supports political, economic and social equality for women, most polls find 65–77 percent of women and 58–70 percent of men consider themselves feminist; in one 2013 survey, 82 percent of Americans agreed with the statement.

On the other hand, the most recent polls offering no definition find that only about a quarter to a half of women identify as feminist. In one survey, less than half of women believed that feminism is relevant to most women and only about a quarter (28 percent) felt that it is relevant to them personally. Negative perceptions persist, even among those who believe that gender bias is a problem. In a survey of registered voters, a majority thought that women are not treated equally in the workplace (63 percent), in politics (63 percent), in the armed forces (55 percent) and in the press (54 percent). But only 14 percent considered themselves a feminist and only 17 percent would want their daughter to be one.

Links to Activism

Multiple studies have focused on why women who support feminist goals fail to identify as feminists and whether it matters. The consensus is that identification is significant because it correlates with activism.

The disconnect between the substance and image of feminism has been a long-standing barrier to mobilizing Americans around gender issues. Those negative associations are partly a result of how the media framed early activism. Press caricatures often perpetuated the image problem they claimed only to describe. If, as Time magazine once argued, “[h]airy legs haunt the feminist movement, as do images of being strident and lesbian,” one reason is that mainstream publications continually featured such descriptions.

Disproportionate early coverage of the movement centered on sensational tactics by fringe groups, such as the SCUM (Society to Cut Up Men) and WITCH (the Women’s International Feminist Conspiracy from Hell), which made headlines by hexing first lady Pat Nixon. Shulamith Firestone told CBS News that “pregnancy is barbaric,” and Ti-Grace Atkinson likened marriage to cancer. When protestors at the 1968 Miss America pageant deposited lingerie and cosmetics in a trash can, the media took poetic license. Although no bras were in fact burned, the label stuck. Media coverage of the 1977 International Women’s Year conference in Houston centered not on mainstream women’s issues, such as passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, but on radical conference planks and placards such as one reading “Mother Nature is a Lesbian.”

Although radical tactics declined after the 1970s, the image of militancy stuck. In 2012, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer told documentary filmmakers that she didn’t consider herself a feminist because although she “certainly believe[d] in equal rights” she didn’t have the “militant drive and the sort of . . . chip on the shoulder” that she associated with the label.

That association has been repeatedly reinforced by a broad range of religious and social conservatives, men’s rights activists and media commentators. Groups like the Independent Women’s Forum and Concerned Women for America provide a platform for female critics, and right-wing talk shows feature anti-feminist men. Some research finds that these conservative women’s groups receive more mainstream media coverage than organizations like NOW and the Feminist Majority Foundation.

BIO:  Deborah L. Rhode is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law and director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession. She graduated summa cum laude from Yale University, attended Yale Law School and clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall. She is the former director of Stanford’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender. Her books on women include “Justice and Gender,” “Speaking of Sex,” “Gender and Law, “Women and Leadership” and “The Beauty Bias.” Her new book “The Trouble with Lawyers” will be published by Oxford University Press in June 2015.

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