Do you believe in gender equality?

Do you believe in the reproductive rights of women?

Do you believe a woman should earn $1 for every $1 a man in the same job earns?

If you answered yes, then you are what we used to call a "feminist." But these days, a surprising number of women wince at that word. They find it archaic, even negative. They prefer terms like "self-empowered."

Many ask, "Why do we need a word anymore?"

Because, others answer, there are still ladders to climb at the very top.

Fifty years after the release of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," a new book by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg is jump-starting the stalled women's movement, as academics call it, and rekindling discussion of the "F-word."

Nasiba Kurti, 18, left, and Shubnum Gill , 20, right, both of Berkeley, stand on the UC Berkeley campus in Berkeley, Calif., protesting for International
Nasiba Kurti, 18, left, and Shubnum Gill , 20, right, both of Berkeley, stand on the UC Berkeley campus in Berkeley, Calif., protesting for International Justice Mission on Human Trafficking on Wednesday March 13, 2013. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff)

Even Sandberg admits shirking the word as an undergraduate at Harvard University in the 1990s, "accepting the negative caricature of a bra-burning, humorless, man-hating woman," she writes in "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead."

Then, she realized "the battle" was not over -- women have made great strides but occupy only 14.3 percent of executive posts at Fortune 500 companies, and there are social and structural issues that continue to prevent women from getting ahead. Now, she embraces the word: "I hope more women and men join me in accepting this distinguished label."


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Sarah Gold McBride, a 26-year-old historian at UC Berkeley, is on board. "I'm absolutely a feminist," she says. "I would be shocked if anyone in my generation, male or female, wouldn't call themselves a feminist. We have made major gains but there are still social and structural issues at the top that we need to fix. I think it's a good word to describe those strides."

Minda Berbeco agrees. Berbeco, 34, says being a feminist is not about standing up and waving your fist but about celebrating and creating an environment where women are supported and excel.

"It's about being thankful for the women who came before me, the suffragettes and the others who fought for a place to vote and a place in academia," says Berbeco, policy director for Oakland's National Center for Science Education. "It also celebrates the husbands, brothers, and fathers who helped make it happen."

Some see it a different way. "It's a bit of an old word," says Jill Denton, a 52-year-old Pleasanton realtor, business owner, and artist who paints trees with curvy female bodies as trunks. "I feel it refers to those groundbreakers who came before us. I'm grateful for what they did, and it's still a valid word, but I think I'd rather call myself an 'empowered entrepreneur.'"

Garima Raheja, of Fremont, says calling herself a feminist doesn't really fit, either. "Self-empowered" is more accurate. "Feminist to me means change. Radical change, like campaigning for divorce rights or university admission," says the 15-year-old high school sophomore, one of four girls in an engineering class of 34 students. "What we're trying to do these days is get on equal footing with men but we have the same rights and responsibilities that they have."

Shelley Correll, a Stanford University professor of sociology and director of the university's Clayman Institute for Gender Research, has heard the same argument from the women on campus since she began teaching in 2001 but says she urges them to consider where their views come from.

"There is this resistance to the label and that has come about from years of political campaigning with images of bra-burning and Rush Limbaugh's femi-Nazis," Correll says. "How many bras were even burned? Not that many."

As an academic and a feminist, what does she think about adopting a new word?

"I think it would be perfectly fine to adopt a new word but for me the reason this word is worth fighting for is that it's a term that carries history and power, and I think we need to resist the push to avoid those things," Correll says.

Today, Correll says she sees a slow shift among women 18 to 25, and a desire to adopt the word after further reflection of its inherent definition of gender equality -- and because they see women like Sandberg embracing it.

"They admire her," says Correll, who works with Sandberg through LeanIn.org. "Here she is working in corporate America but she has a family and admits leaving work at 5:30 p.m. to see her kids. She wants it all, and she's a feminist. Why reject a label that describes the things they believe in?"

Raheja, the high school sophomore, gives that some thought. "I guess I have made efforts to promote engineering with other girls so, yeah, you could call me a feminist," she says. "But not a feminist with a big 'F.' A feminist with a little 'f.'"

By The numbers

Women make up 51 percent of the U.S. population and 47 percent of the workforce.
Since the mid-1980s women have outnumbered men in undergraduate university programs.
Women in the U.S. hold 18 percent of senior management positions, lagging behind South Africa (28 percent) Southeast Asia (32 percent), and Russia (46 percent).
Women account for 4 percent of the nation's CEOs and 17 percent of corporate board members.
Women occupy 14.3 percent of executive posts at Fortune 500 companies.
Women earn 77 cents for ever $1 a man earns.
8.2 million American women run their own companies, a 50 percent increase since 1997.

Sources: Catalyst, Institute for Women's Policy Research, Grant Thornton IBR 2012