Laurie Rudman suspected as much. Rudman, associate professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, studies reactions to “counterstereotypicality.” That is, she studies what happens when our stereotypes fail us, whether they are stereotypes about others or ourselves. What happens when we encounter a compassionate lawyer? An opera-loving trucker? A wild-and-crazy party animal of a certified public accountant?
Previous research led Rudman to conclude that negative stereotypes about feminism and feminists are widespread in the culture, even among young, educated women. This confirmed her anecdotal experience – and unsettled her.
“If African-Americans ridiculed and stigmatized Martin Luther King Jr., that would be really big news,” Rudman said. “But this negative stereotyping seemed to be happening under the radar. And to find out that college women didn’t know very much about Gloria Steinem and the other women who fought for the rights they enjoy … that was really hard to bear.”
Having established that “feminism has a branding problem,” Rudman and graduate student Julie Phelan set out to find out how much truth there was in the negative stereotype that feminist women were likely to have unhappy love lives.
Rudman designed two surveys, one for college sophomores administered in person to 513 students and one for adults between the ages of 18 and 65, taken online by 471 respondents. Both surveys asked how respondents felt about career women and whether they identified themselves as feminists. Relatively few did, though more women did than men. There followed a series of questions intended to the health of the respondents’ relationships – quality, equality, stability, and sexual satisfaction.
Their study “showed that there was no correlation between self-identification as a feminist and homosexuality,” Rudman said, and that feminists or people whose partners were feminists were more likely to be satisfied with the quality, equality, stability, and sexual satisfaction in their relationships than non-feminists or their partners.
The peer-reviewed journal Sex Roles accepted Rudman’s work for publication (it’s in press as we write) and issued a press release, which attracted the attention of a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, whose story ran on November 17. Within a few days, it popped up in papers in Australia and India, with headlines like this one from the Brisbane Times: Want a Happy Love Life? Marry a Feminist.
There also was considerable reaction in the blogosphere, much of which either praised or condemned the work on ideological grounds. Liberals tended to say they always knew that feminists had rewarding romantic lives; conservatives tended to say that Rudman was a feminist with an agenda.
Rudman is a feminist, and she is happy to admit that she has an agenda when it comes to deciding what to study and what questions to ask. Are feminists negatively stereotyped? Yes, her research indicates, they are. Are the stereotypes true? No, her research says, they are not. “I would never have done this if I didn’t care about the image of feminism and about women’s history,” she said.