What’s in a Word?

The word feminism may well be at the height of its popularity, not least because of the number of celebrities describing themselves as feminists but also the advent of so called ‘fourth wave feminism’ (more about the ‘waves model of feminist history later). Fourth wave feminism is seen to be characterized by online activity; the feminist bloggers, tweets, online calling out, petitions, dialogues, campaigns… (for example The Everyday Sexism Project)


But what about the word? The Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘feminism’ is pretty straightforward: the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of the equality of the sexes. Synonyms offered are the women’s movement, the feminist movement, women’s liberation, female emancipation, women’s rights. The Merriam Webster dictionary definition is slightly different, and also breaks it down a bit, here feminism is:
1) the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities
2) organized activity in support of women’s rights and interests.
In other words you can be a feminist without being an activist. But also while the OED definition seems to include the assumption that ‘the sexes’ are ‘equal’ (but that rights are not), the Merriam Webster one does not include that in its definition. This raises various questions – what does ‘equal’ mean here (taking rights and opportunities out of the equation)? What should it mean? Wikipedia gives the even more extensive definition a range of movements and ideologies that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment”. This to me seems pretty good, and acknowledges the diversity and ongoing nature of feminism as something ever changing, internally shifting and contesting, that cannot be captured with a single quote or historical model.

There is a global history of organizing around issues relating to women’s equality, liberation and justice with many people who believe that women should have access to this but who do not describe themselves as feminist.  The word was not initially used by the western Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) of the 1960s/70s for example, as for some it  seemed not radical enough – women’s liberation was about envisioning whole new social and cultural structures not just modifying legislation. Read Carol Hanisch’s (who popularized the phrase ‘the personal is political’) recollection about this.

Gradually the word feminism was taken up widely in the US and European contexts at least, however for a good number of women, it was problematic in other ways. It stood for a mainstream white women’s feminism that was proving itself unable to recognize that gendered experience was always refracted through other aspects of social and cultural identity.   One significant response to this was the coining of the term Womanism by the African American writer, Alice Walker, in her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.

Womanism was a term that Walker saw as connected to black women’s history,  that celebrated black women’s friendship, experience and struggles and included the necessity of supporting both black women and men.  You can read an interesting analysis here about Walker’s concept of Womanism by the important feminist thinker and writer Patricia  Hill Collins (pictured above right), written in 1996. Other supporters and advocates of women’s equality and liberation have also found the word to be problematic, because it suggests that to define oneself as a feminist means that you think gender oppression is the primary or most important site of injustice. (I would argue it does not mean that – necessarily). But also the ambivalence about the word is sometimes also because of what Susan Faludi (1991) has described as the ‘backlash’ where popular media succeeded in presenting feminism as ‘man hating’ (because women were jealous/’couldn’t get a man’) and humorless (because they couldn’t take a sexist joke), ‘unnatural’ and so on.

There is much online that evidences this – even the commentary under the word feminism in the Oxford Dictionary reiterates this. This widespread negativity around the term prevented many from claiming it. See for example this journalist’s article from a couple of years ago about ‘the pros and cons of abandoning the word feminist’.

Lastly the advent of queer theory, which denaturalised the fixed categories of gender and sexuality had a huge influence on many feminists and feminist thinking, and also perhaps tested the utility of a word that seem so identified with the category of ‘women’. Today much feminism does not just embrace all of this but is also defined by the incorporation of queer theory.

For us, the issues raised by supporters of women’s equality and freedom lead onto other questions about certain concepts associated with feminist thought such as universalism, essentialism and intersectionality. See Alison Phipps’s ‘Feminism 101’ presentation on the next post.


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