A Bad Word

In college, one of the first questions I am asked when meeting a new acquaintance is “what are you studying?”

My answer is: “Political science and women’s studies.”

The person will then ask in a slightly suspicious voice: “How did you get into that sort of thing?”

“Well,” I will reply, “I work for the WomanStats Project, it’s a database where we compile information about the security of women all over the world in an effort to-”

This is usually about as far as I get before the person asks in shock: “Wait, so you’re like a… a feminist?”

Unfortunately, I have gotten used to this response. I’ve met dozens of people who have been at first taken aback when I tell them what I study or where I work. Indeed, they often seem appalled.

Because of this, I have learned to respond with: “It depends on your definition of feminism.”

Often the person will proceed to tell me that feminists are women who hate men, are lesbians, are pro-choice, and are most definitely Democrats, and then look at me with even greater scrutiny, wondering if I will fit this description.

In response, I simply reference the words of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: “I do not wish [women] to have power over men, but over themselves” [1]. I tell them that for me, feminism means empowering women in situations where they have been disempowered. I study these issues because I believe women around the world have the right to own land, the right to choose when and whom to marry, the right to work, the right to access health care, the right to be free from gender-based violence, and the right to get an education. I acknowledge that there are a myriad of different feminist ideologies that touch every point on the spectrum, but at its core, feminism is about the rights and equality of women.

The irony is that after I explain this fundamental definition of feminism, my new acquaintance will almost always agree with me, and will express appreciation for what I have said.

Why does this happen? There is such a negative stigma associated with the word feminism that it alienates those who are actually feminists themselves, both male and female. Unfortunately, this stigma is nothing new. Ever since the first wave of feminism, feminist ideology has had a bad reputation because it challenged traditional, patriarchal gender norms.

What is particularly interesting is that in the present day, technology has opened the door for increased opportunities, as well as increased backlash, for feminism. For example, Twitter is often used as a medium in which to organize and campaign for feminist causes (think #YesAllWomen, #BringBackOurGirls, and #DirenKahKaha). On the other hand, trolls, the “slashing righteousness of other feminists” [2], and verifiable misogynists often combat these measures by using Twitter to accuse those involved of being too feminist, not feminist enough, or disillusioned.

Additionally, in our celebrity-obsessed culture, it is not surprising that many celebrities who denounce feminism have the potential to negatively impact fundamental feminist ideals by condemning certain cultural expectations of feminism (particularly man-hating). Unfortunately, a variety of female stars tend to shy away from associating themselves with feminism, despite many of them asserting that they believe in equality and see themselves as humanists [3].

Personally, I tend to think of females as humans, and I’m inclined to believe that many people would agree with this conclusion. If this is the case, it makes sense that feminism falls under humanism. As Hillary Clinton famously asserted, “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights” [4].

This phenomenon of labeling feminism as a “bad word” is not only annoying, it’s ironic. Ellen Page hits the mark: “…how could it be any more obvious that we live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?” [5].

Feminism is simply a word, it’s true. But it is a word that has a lot of power. It represents a movement that has been decades in the making, encompassing a variety of ideologies. It can ignite fear and hesitation, or it can empower and unite. I am not demanding that every person who believes in the fundamental principles of feminism call themselves a feminist. I can only hope that we will abandon the practice of rejecting the word feminism without truly understanding its meaning.




[1] http://www.bartleby.com/144/4.html

[2] http://www.thenation.com/article/178140/feminisms-toxic-twitter-wars

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/17/feminist-celebrities_n_4460416.html; http://time.com/87967/shailene-woodley-feminism-fault-in-our-stars/; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/22/fashion/who-is-a-feminist-now.html?_r=0

[4] http://www.un.org/esa/gopher-data/conf/fwcw/conf/gov/950905175653.txt

[5] http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/jul/03/ellen-page-interview-the-east

3 thoughts on “A Bad Word

  1. frisc says:

    Well written and i don’t doubt your intentions but here is why it is seen badly: most of the time when those feminists open their mouth it’s to moan and whine about how they are not getting something because of men. It’s never their fault. They can never do Introspection etc. And yes fighting Against rape and for education is very legit. But these feminists go over the edge when they try to emasculate men. Ex: in Sweden they wanted to vote a law for boys to sit down when peeing. They make videos on buzzfeed or such sites where men are stupid creatures who don’t know how to interact while women are these blameless victims all the time. Feminists are not well seen too because they feel like they can say whatever they want but when a man make fun or criticize a woman he is a mysogynist or some woman hater. The list goes on. And if feminists wanted equality why they don’t oppose the general unwritten rules that protect women in case of danger. Why there is no feminist on a sinking boat? A hostage situation? Where were the feminists when the Titanic started to sink when those men said “women first”? Why did not of them say it was sexist? I could go on for days. Understand this: we love and respect women but feminists instead of focusing on women improvement are about attacking men and acting like “patriarchy don’t benefit them at all…

  2. Morgan Wills says:

    Frisc, I really appreciate your honesty. Ironically, it seems like your comments highlight the exact association of feminism with such negative connotations as SJ described. There are many brands of feminism, and I, with you and SJ, stand to fight for giving women the opportunities from which they have historically been denied. It does not, however, mean that I think men and women should be considered exactly the same, and treated as such, when they are not.
    And I’m a feminist.

    Not as many women find themselves in a hostage situation, but not as many men find themselves gambling against rape upon joining the military. When someone, out of chivalry, invites me to eat first or opens my door, I gratefully receive their kindness not because that is the way “things should be” but because they are giving me respect. There are ways, as a woman, I can return that respect.
    And I’m a feminist.

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