I have always identified as a feminist, ever since very early childhood when I first heard the word. It seemed to me that any self-respecting female had to be a feminist. I was blissfully unaware that the word carried any negative baggage, and even now, it shocks me when otherwise ordinary people say that the word carries negative associations for them. To me, the word "feminist" is a shorthand way for women to say, "My rights and my dignity are important to me and I don't take them lightly and I won't compromise them." (I provide a more comprehensive definition of feminism here. Also, as I said in the prior post men can and should be feminists too!)
When I was twelve, my dad, in an effort to nurture my professional ambitions, took me to lunch with a highly successful woman in his profession. She was a take-charge, kick-ass kind of woman at the top of her game. At the beginning of the lunch, my dad announced, "Happy is thinking of becoming a professional woman, but she is not a feminist." I was mortified. I felt like I was dying a hundred deaths inside. I imagined I saw the woman flinch a little bit. Lunch was wrecked for me. Unfortunately, I was too young and shy and awkward around adults to feel confident enough to correct my father then and there. I have no idea what he possibly could have meant by his comment, but to me, it was as though he had said, "Happy is thinking of becoming a professional, but she definitely does not think well enough of herself to believe that she or any other woman should be a take-charge, kick-ass woman like you." To this day, it would be terribly embarrassing for me to ever utter the words "I'm not a feminist," no matter who my audience might be.
Now, of course, I realize that "feminism" is just a word and it means different things to different people. As Sydney observed, many people who say, "I am not a feminist," are really saying, "I am not a hairy, man-hating lesbian." Or maybe they are saying, "I am not a Democrat," or "I don't believe in affirmative action." But even though I know this intellectually, the first thing I think when I hear a woman say she is not a feminist is that this woman lacks self-respect, that this woman doesn't value her rights or her dignity, that this woman wouldn't think it was such a big deal if maybe her right to credit were taken away, or her right to buy a house, or her right to work in certain professions. To me, it's the disavowal of feminism that carries all sorts of negative baggage and connotations.