For the past few years, feminism has been enjoying significant attention in the limelight. From Beyoncé choosing to include it in the iconography for her Beyoncé album and 2014 world tour, to the Women’s March in 2017 where over 5 million people came out in support of women’s rights, to the recent #MeToo movement protesting sexual harassment and assault, feminism is a topic that’s recently been a magnet for meaningful discussion, as well as press coverage.
But all of this attention has dragged a lot of controversy along with it. At the top of the debate is the longstanding question of what feminism is. But in the midst of the political discussion, it’s easy to forget that feminism is a word. We all have an idea of what we associate with feminism or what we expect feminists to look like, but what is the meaning of feminism really?
Feminism in the dictionary
Trusted Merriam-Webster (which coincidentally named feminism the Word of the Year for 2017) defines it as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes; or organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” It also claims that the first use of “feminism” in English appeared in 1841.
In the same vein, Dictionary.com says that feminism is “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.” Neither of these definitions is likely to spark controversy, nor do they seem to encapsulate the complex beliefs of a dynamic political movement. For this, we must dig deeper into feminism’s origins and etymology.
Origin of the word ‘Feminism’
Interestingly, “feminism” as a term was first associated with women’s rights by French philosopher and radical social utopian, Charles Fourier in 1837. He used the French féminisme to talk of empowering women. The English word “feminism” is a direct anglicization of féminisme, but the original French word can be broken down etymologically. Its origins are in the Old French feminin, coming from the Latin word femina, meaning woman, and “-isme” comes from the Latin suffix “-ismus,” which makes a noun into a practice, system or doctrine.
It’s already been noted that “feminism” first showed up in English in 1841, but it didn’t originally carry a political association — only noting that something was related to women. It came to reference women’s progressive politics in the 1890s with the movement for women’s suffrage (which has since been labeled the “First Wave” of feminism). The movement appropriated the term to suit their needs, rather than it being bestowed from elsewhere. But still this tells us little about the current usage of the word. The next obvious option is to look at what feminists themselves say of feminism.
So what is Feminism?
Investigating with the standard sources has only gotten us so far in our search, so it’s time to turn to the experts. Most works of feminist theory state that while feminism is hard to define, there are threads of continuity across time and belief (because there are many kinds of feminists with different immediate goals). For instance, feminism has continually conceptualized itself as separate from the mainstream culture. It is often radical, rebellious and political in nature, hence its close association with marches and protests. Feminism is also academically concerned with theory that criticizes dominant cultural beliefs — namely misogyny.
“Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.”
A quick detour for those that might be unsure of what misogyny is: Google defines it as the “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.” Much older than the word “feminism,” it comes directly from the Ancient Greek misogunia (μισογυνία), literally meaning “the hatred of women.” It can be traced back to 150 BC, but first appears in English in the 17th century.
One notable feminist academic who has written substantially on women’s struggles and critiqued social power dynamics is bell hooks. As a popular contemporary in feminist thought, her word on the topic may be enlightening to those still confused. In one of her many books, Feminism is for Everybody, she defines feminism as, “Simply put, [it] is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” Clearly, her idea of feminism is more political than the previous definitions and uses stronger language.
Another author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from Nigeria, has significantly contributed to the popular understanding of feminism. She gave a real boost to the word and definition of “feminist” with her TED Talk on feminism, where she says a feminist is “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes” (this talk and definition were sampled on Beyoncé’s song “***Flawless”). Adichie later wrote the book We Should All Be Feminists, and was quoted saying: “Whoever says they’re feminist is bloody feminist.” Compared to hooks’ remarks, Adichie’s definition lines up more with the dictionaries’ takes. Here it’s obvious that even modern feminists have different conceptions of feminism.
Now, if you’ve witnessed internet activism over the past few years, you’ve probably seen the now-famous quote “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullsh*t,” from Flavia Dzodan. (More work-appropriate sentiments that were inspired from this, like “If your feminism isn’t intersectional, then it isn’t feminism,” are also quite popular.) Her quote defines the “boundaries” of feminist thought outside of mere gender equality, but includes other “intersecting” identity issues that women face, such as race, class, sexuality, ability, and so on. This soft definition of feminism has become more popular lately with a wide influx of young people interested in feminism from the internet.
If you’re still confused about this whole feminism business (it can be a lot to take in), you can always fall back on this simple, quippy definition from Marie Shear:
“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”
What Feminism isn’t
Before we wrap everything up, it’s worth noting what feminism isn’t. Feminism doesn’t strive towards making women more powerful than men in society (that would be matriarchy), nor does it espouse hating men (that’s misandry, for those who are curious). The next time you see the infamous Pat Robertson quote, which says “[Feminism] is… a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians,” you can rest easy knowing it’s completely false.
So even if we didn’t find an easy, concrete meaning of feminism, through all of these definitions a cohesive idea of feminism emerges. Feminism is political, it is rebellious, and it aims to improve the lives of women across society. Adichie says we should all be feminists and hooks declares that feminism is for everybody — and after learning what it really is, who could disagree?