Hattie Caraway wasn’t supposed to be a senator. And she definitely was not supposed to stay one. Appointed to represent Arkansas upon her husband’s death in 1931, she was the first woman to grace the floor since suffragette Rebecca Latimer Felton was appointed to a novelty one-day term in 1922, and she was expected to relinquish her seat when his term expired. Instead, she campaigned to keep it, and actually won. So the New York Times dutifully dispatched reporter R.L. Duffus to pen the profile. “Whatever the length of her term in Washington, Mrs. Caraway is not likely to make herself a doctrinaire exponent of ‘women’s rights,’ ” Duffus predicted of Caraway’s political legacy. “Mrs. Caraway is too feminine to be a feminist. She is so feminine that, though she is the soul of hospitality, the male visitor to her office goes away with a chocolate instead of a cigar.” In 1943, after winning re-election twice, Caraway became the first woman in Congress to sponsor the Equal Rights Amendment.
If Duffus actually asked Caraway whether she personally identified as a feminist, it wasn’t important enough to print. The fact was that he did not receive his cigar. How times have changed. Today’s prominent women—senators, actresses, athletes, pop stars, whatever—all get asked the question. If the answer is “yes,” they’ll make headlines. If the answer is “no,” they’ll make bigger headlines: “Shailene Woodley on Why She’s Not A Feminist,” “Meghan Trainor: ‘I Don’t Consider Myself a Feminist,” “Lily Allen: ‘Feminism Shouldn’t Even Be a Thing Anymore.” When Redbook asked Big Bang Theory actress Kaley Cuoco if she identifies as a feminist last month, she replied, “Is it bad if I say no?” It is, as she would soon learn when her comment was rehashed in the Huffington Post, People, E! Online, Gawker, Glamour, and CNN. Cuoco quickly pulled the only escape hatch under such circumstances: She claimed that her quotes were taken out of context.
Why does anyone care if Kaley Cuoco is a feminist? When she’s not being asked the feminist question, she’s making news by talking about snorting Afrin and taking toilet selfies. When the New York Times asked a group of notable women what the word “feminist” means to them in 1975, the paper stuck to politicians and organizers, only straying from the bunch to query crossover artists—the poet Erica Jong and the actress Marlo Thomas. And for many years later, the question was typically tailored to famous people whose actual work was relevant to advancing (or undermining) women’s rights—as when New York magazine asked Playboy’s Christie Hefner in 1982 or palimony lawyer-to-the-stars Marvin Mitchelson in 1983 (yes and yes). When the Times posed the question to skier-model-actress Suzy Chaffee, it was on the occasion of her public campaign for Title IX and the ERA. And yet, this was her reply: “I’m more of an equalitarian than a feminist.” (She also told the paper: “I’m a Sagittarian with Scorpio rising, which makes me a sexy prophet.”) In 1989, when actress Natasha Richardson made the rounds promoting the Margaret Atwood adaptation The Handmaid’s Tale—set in a dystopian future in which abortion is outlawed—she told Newsday, “I’m not a feminist in any way at all, at all. But the abortion issue is different. When men say that women shouldn’t be allowed to choose, it just makes my blood boil.”
For years, the subject of feminism only came up in the typical celebrity interview if the celebrity wanted it to: Candice Bergen in the late ’70s, after she turned 30 and decided she needed to “combat ageism singlehandedly”; Jodie Foster in the late ’80s, defending her choice to play a rape victim who didn’t fit the Wonder Woman image of female strength. When a Russian-speaking crowd member shouted the question at Soviet first lady Raisa Gorbachev at a public appearance with Barbara Bush in 1990, she simply ignored it.
In 1991, everything changed. That was the year Meryl Streep gave new meaning to the F-word when she delivered this speech in front of the Screen Actors Guild:
Three years ago, women were down to performing only one-third of all the roles in feature films. In 1989, that number slipped to 29 percent. Of course, that was before the figures for  were tabulated. Just wait until they factor in our contributions to Total Recall, Robocop 2, Days of Thunder, Die Hard 2, The Hunt for Red October, The Abyss, Young Guns 2, Miami Blues, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Dick Tracy, and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. We snagged a good six or seven major roles in those movies. If the trend continues, by the year 2000 women will represent 13 percent of all roles. And in 20 years, we will be eliminated from movies entirely.
“I thought, F it,” Streep told the Advertiser after the speech made news. “Somebody has to say this.” Soon, every celebrity woman was expected to weigh in. Susan Sarandon, star of the summer hit Thelma and Louise, proudly told the Boston Globe that she was raising her son as a feminist and cautioned, “Am I going to shut up? No.” Jane Fonda’s marriage to Ted Turner was enough of a peg for Allure to wonder. (Fonda’s response: “[I] consider myself a feminist. I don’t necessarily feel it’s contradictory. It makes me feel good to look sexual, to feel sexual.”) Annette Bening, meanwhile, told the New York Times that she “abhors being called a feminist” and regards the movement as “a real turnoff.” For women who did claim the term in the wake of Streep’s statement, the backlash was fierce. The Sunday Mail ribbed Cher, writing that “the lady who has had Everything Lifted still feels downtrodden enough to gripe about the unequal earning power of men and women in Tinsel Town.” As Streep later said of the fallout from her SAG stand: “I know there’s a lot of vindictive talk going around about me. You know, ‘Streep’s a bitch, a feminist, a troublemaker.’ ”
It wasn’t long before even outspoken celebrity feminists began to see the question as a slight. Thelma and Louise had only been in theaters for a couple of weeks when screenwriter Callie Khouri tired of the provocation. “Look,” she told the Miami Herald in June of ’91. “This movie is not about feminism. It’s about outlaws. … Why does a movie written by a woman about women have to be a feminist manifesto, for Chrissakes? The very idea that it has to be feminist is sexist to me. The word feminist has a negative stigma attached to it. It’s a word that diffuses energy from the movement, you know?”
And then, as quickly as it came, the feminist question disappeared from the lexicon of the celebrity interview, coming up only when stars brought it up themselves. In 2004, Star Jones told Ebony, “I may have to turn in my feminist card on this statement, but … I don’t have a problem at all being submissive to my husband. None whatsoever.” And Shakira told the Times in 2005: “Guys don’t like women telling them what to do. It reminds them of their mothers, or something like that. … I don’t want to sound like a feminist saying this.”
In 2007, the Guardian posed the question to former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell—as she made a press appearance for her new charitable cause, lowering maternal mortality rates around the world—and she replied: “For me feminism is bra-burning lesbianism. It’s very unglamorous.” Halliwell instantly recognized her unwise word choice and suggested, “That’s your headline. ‘Geri Halliwell Says Feminists Are All Bra-Burners.’ ” The reporter assured her that it was “[not] much of a scoop.” Just give it time. As feminist blogs like Feministing (founded in 2004) and Jezebel (2007) rose to blend pop culture with politics—and siphon off fodder from mainstream reporters—every F-word dropped by a marginally famous woman was suddenly ripe for a take. And in turn, the massive success of the lady blogs compelled the mainstream press to follow their lead. Soon, asking a celebrity the question could set off a micro news cycle that might last for months. When Lady Gaga told an interviewer “I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men” in 2009, the tide of condemnation rose all the way to the opinion page of the New York Times. By 2010, Gaga was volunteering to Rolling Stone: “I’m a feminist.”
The year 2010 would actually prove to be a pivotal one for feminist interrogation. When the Times’ Jon Caramanica asked Taylor Swift if she was a feminist that October, she replied, “I have never really thought about that.” (She would soon.) And when New York Times Magazine columnist Deborah Solomon questioned Martha Stewart on the topic, she replied: “Do we really need to waste time saying, ‘I’m a feminist’?” (We do now.) That year, the question poked everyone from Dita Von Teese to Patti Stanger of Bravo’s The Millionaire Matchmaker. The inquisition claimed Bjork, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Juliette Binoche in 2011 (all nos); Melissa Leo, Katy Perry, Marissa Mayer, and Carrie Underwood in 2012 (them too); and Beyoncé in 2013 (“I guess I am a modern-day feminist,” buuuut: “Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman and I love being a woman.”).
By 2014, the biggest stars in that group—Beyoncé, Swift, and Perry—had changed their tune. And as more and more female celebrities have flipped to a default yes, the question has yielded diminishing returns. Miley Cyrus believes that she is “one of the biggest feminists in the world” while Twilight author Stephenie Meyer is a feminist “kind of by default,” and Cuoco was misquoted. While stepping up to claim oneself as a feminist used to be somewhat meaningful, the word has now been flattened into a press tour sound bite. And for many celebrities who take it on, the word itself has been reduced to its most benign interpretation—the idea that men and women ought to be equal. When the New York Times’ John Markoff asked a computer if it was a feminist back in 1993, even the robot went further than most modern celebrities do: “I honestly think that men and women are equal (although different) but it will be many more years before women achieve parity.”