Applied Sciences

A Rose by Any Other Name: Attitudes Toward Feminism as a Function of Its Label

Marsha B. Jacobson

University of Dayton

Male and female subjects were asked to rate one of the following labels on a variety of evaluative dimensions: ”equal rights for women” (ERW), ”feminism” (FEM), “women’s liberation” (WLN) and “women’s lib” (WLB). It was found that there were differences among the labels, with ERW being the most positive- ly evaluated and WLN being the most negatively evaluated. Furthermore, there were sex differences on some of the dimensions wherein females made more favorable evaluations than males. Subjects’ ratings were mixed, being favorable on some dimensions and unfavorable on others Interpretations and implications of the results are discussed.

The concept of women’s political, economic, and social rights goes by various names. The four most common labels for this concept are ”equal rights for wom- en,” “feminism,” “women’slib,” and “women’s liberation.” WhOe the four labels denote basically the same thing, they do not necessarily connote the same thing, and as a result people may have differential attitudes toward them.

Consider, for example, the words “steadfast” and “stubborn.” They both refer to not changing one’s position, but the former is perceived to involve an element of strength and is seen as a positive quality, while the latter is seen as being unreasonably unyielding and is considered a negative quality. In the same vein, “adventurous” and “foolhardy” both denote risk taking, but the former is seen as being positive because of its association with glamor, while the latter is viewed in a negative light because it implies imprudence and recklessness. Clearly, then, concepts that are denotatively similar can be connotatively quite different.

It has been empirically demonstrated that concepts with similar levels of meaning can take on different meanings by being associated with other concepts that have a positive or negative affective tone. Staats and Staats (1958) paired national names (e.g., “Swedish” and “Dutch”) and men’s names (e.g., “Tom” and “Bill”) with positive words such as “happy,” negative words such as “ugly,”

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and neutral words such as “chair.” They found that names paired with positive words were rated as being more pleasant than names paired with neutral words; the latter names, in turn, were rated as being more pleasant than names paired with negative words.

Similarly, Nunnally, Duchnowski, and Parker (1965) conditioned chil- dren’s attitudes toward nonsense syllables through use of a roulette wheel. If the wheel stopped on one syllable, the child won two pennies, if it stopped on the second syllable, the child lost one penny, and if it stopped on the third, the child neither won nor lost. They found that the children most frequently attri- buted positive qualities to the syllable associated with winning and most fre- quently attributed negative qualities to the syllable associated with losing.

In a series of papers, Asch (1946, 1948, 1952) has shown that the context in which a concept is presented affects its meaning. Asch (1946) presented one group of subjects with a description of a person as being kind, wise, honest, calm, and strong. Another group was told that the individual was cruel, shrewd, unscrupulous, calm, and strong. Both groups were asked to write synonyms for “calm” and “strong.” The subjects given the first description took “calm” to mean peaceful, gentle, and tolerant, while subjects given the second description interpreted “calm’ to mean cold, calculating, and conscienceless. Similarly, subjects given the first description interpreted “strong” to mean just, forceful, and courageous, while subjects given the second description saw it as meaning ruthless, overbearing, and overpowering.

Lorge (1936) has shown that a given quotation is more readily agreed with when it is attributed to a prestigious source than when it is attributed to a less admired source. Asch (1948) discounts the prestige effect and says instead that subjects interpret a given quotation differently depending on the author to whom it is attributed. For example, Asch (1952) presented subjects with the following quotation used by Lorge: “I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms are in the physical.” Some subjects were told that it was written by Thomas Jefferson (who actually did write it) and some that it was written by Lenin. All subjects were asked to write what the statement meant. Subjects who thought Jefferson was the author indicated that he was referring to peaceful political changes, rather than preserving the status quo. On the other hand, subjects who thought the writer was Lenin assumed that he was referring in general to outright re- volution and in particular to the Russian revolution.

In the present study, males and females are asked to rate the concept of women’s political, economic, and social rights on a variety of evaluative dimensions. The concept is presented under the four different labels referred to earlier. Given the experimental findings described above, it is expected that there will be differences in how the four labels are evaluated by the subjects, although the author has no a priori basis for predicting the direction of the differences.

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As for possible sex differences, various authors have found that women tend to hold more favorable attitudes toward the concept of women’s rights than men do (e.g.. Albriglit & Chang, 1976; Doyle, 1976; Sarup, 1976; Spence & Helmreich, 1972). However, in analyzing each of the 55 items that consti- tute their Attitudes toward Women Scale (AWS), Spence and Helmreich found that men had more liberal attitudes than women on several of the items. Thus, it is expected that women will indicate more favorable attitudes toward the con- cept on some, but not all, of the evauative dimensions.


Ovenuew of Design

A 2 X 4 between-subjects factorial design was used, with two levels of Sex and four levels of Label.


Sixty-four males and 64 females served as subjects. They were recruited from classes in introductory psychology at the University of Dayton as part of a research participation requirement.

Rating Scale Dimensions

Ten dimensions were chosen as dependent measures. Others could also have been used, but in the interest of time it was decided to limit the number to 10. The following dimensions were chosen because they seemed relevant to the concept under study: (1) moderate-radical, (2) friendly-hostile, (3) right-wrong, (4) objective-biased, (5) rational-irrational, (6) feminine-masculine, (7) peace- able-argumentative, (8) good-bad, (9) warm-cold, and (10) beautiful-ugly.

Each dimension was presented on a 7-point rating scale. It was determined at random that dimensions 3 ,4 ,8 , and 9 were ordered from positive to negative, while dimensions 1, 2, 5, 7, and 10 were ordered from negative to positive. It was also determined at random that the sixth dimension was ordered from feminine to masculine.


The male experimenter told the subjects that the purpose of the study was to assess their attitudes on ideologies of current interest. Each subject was

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then given a five-page booklet. On the top of each page was the name of the ideology to be rated (written in capital letters) and below it were the 10 rating scales described above. The first (CAPITALISM), second (ASTROLOGY), fourth (RACISM), and fifth (CHRISTIANITY) ideologies were included as fillers.

The third page in each booklet referred to the concept under investigation and was headed by one of the following labels: EQUAL RIGHTS FOR WOMEN, FEMINISM, WOMEN’S LIBERATION, and WOMEN’S LIB. Each label was pre- sented to 16 males and 16 females.


To simplify the presentation, we designate equal rights for women as ERW, feminism as FEM, women’s liberation as WLN, and women’s lib as WLB.

Table I shows the mean ratings on each dimension by sex and by label. Given that a rating of 4.00 represents the midpoint of the scale, it appears that, regardless of sex or label, the subjects have mixed feelings about the concept. On the one hand, they tend to perceive it as somewhat right, rational, feminine, good, and beautiful, while on the other hand, they tend to perceive it as some- what radical, hostile, biased, argumentative and cold.

As expected, there are differences in how favorably the four labels are evaluated. Analysis of variance shows a significant main effect of Label for moderate (F(3, 120) = 6.45, p < . 0 1 ) , friendly (F(3, 120) = 3.39, p < . 0 5 ) , right (F(3, 120) = 2.78, p < .05), objective (F(3, 120) = 3.89,p < .05), rational (F(3, 120) = 2.82, p < . 0 5 ) , good (F(3, 120) = 4.04, p < .01), warm (F(3, 120) = 6.19,p < .01), and beautiful (F(3, 120) = 3.82,p < .05).

It is interesting that the direction of the differences is always the same. ERW is evaluated most favorably, followed by WLB and FEM, with WLN evalu- ated most negatively.

Analysis of variance also shows a main effect of Sex for right {F{\, 120) = 6.67, p < .05), rational (F(l, 120) = 5.72, p < .05) peaceable (F(\, 120) = 3.28, p < . 1 0 ) , good (F(\, 120) = 3.68, p < . 1 0 ) , and beautiful (F(l, 120) = 5.19, p < .05). The females give the concept higher ratings on right, rational, good, and beautiful, but perceive the concept as being more argumentative than the males do.

There were no significant Sex X Label interactions.


While feminism is by no means a new concept, it is currently enjoying a rebirth and thus seems new to those who are unfamiliar with its history. This

Labels for Feminism 369

Table I. Mean Ratings of Dimensions by Sex and by Label^














Combined M F

Combined M F

Combined M F

Combined M F

Combined M F

Combined M F

Combined M F

Combined M F

Combined M F



4.13 3.69 3.91

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