Indulge me, for a moment or two? I’m going to be the cantankerous language nerd here for a bit.

This post has been written many times before by people smarter than me.

But I still hear [straight, white] people telling me that they like the stuff I write and talk about, but they’re not feminists because they don’t like that the word suggests a women-centered focus. What about the men, if it’s about equal rights?

This is a really frustrating conversation for me, because it’s based on an assumption which is an exception to their normal approach to words.

We don’t pick the way words originate, usually. They come into use. And they mean things and have certain connotations, and we develop a cultural awareness of what those words mean to us, to our parents, to our peers, to church people, to “secular” people, to our kids and younger siblings.

And they change, shifting, slipping, taking on new meanings of less or greater potency as time passes.

I wish everyone would bother to read Derrida and not be afraid of him. Words mean things! Yes. But words also shift and undermine themselves as new meanings unravel the old ones as time passes.

Most people hate the word moist, but it is a Useful Word That Means Something Specific, even if we don’t like how it sounds.

My mom used to get twitchy and a little upset because I’d say things like I’m screwed, or I screwed that up in a lighthearted, oops! sort of way. She didn’t like that because when she was growing up, it had the same connotations as fuck does for my generation. My generation knows that screwed had that meaning, but it’s not used in THAT way anymore, unless you’re a little out of date and happy with that.

This is elementary cultural language awareness, folks. We adapt to new meanings of words. We adopt language as it morphs. We can be a little cantankerous about “LOL” getting into the OED, but we also know that it serves a purpose and it’s relevant, and accept it on its own terms. Oh well, lowbrow language. But it works, so, in it goes.

So why are all these people (mostly, but not all, men) afraid of using the word “feminist”?

I’d argue that pretty much everyone I know, aside from some true, die-hard reconstructionist patriarchs, is a feminist.

I have to admit, the weird insecurity I see about a word that appears, root-wise, to be focused on women is fascinating. Do these men have any idea how we women felt growing up with regard to words like “mankind” and “men” being the gender neutral dominant terms for people? If I can accept the use of these “male” words as being gender neutral terms for all people, why can’t they deal with “feminist” as a way to identify themselves as someone who

Advocates for the social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men. [Dictionary.com]

or

 Believes in the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. [Merriam-Webster]

Do you think that men and women should be treated equally to men in society, by the law, in the workplace? [Notice how religion and the church isn’t mentioned! Complementarians, you’re not off the hook!]

Then you’re a feminist.

And please stop fussing about how the word seems gendered or how it suggests men-hating second-wave feminists. We don’t like the privilege and insensitivity of that phase of feminist rhetoric, either. But the word is still relevant and the meaning has changed. It’s not all about women, and your complaint that it is sounds just as ridiculous as a woman complaining that the word history is male-centric. Please. It means more than that now.

Words shift. Deal with it.


  • Caleigh Royer

    yep, I am a feminist, and proud to call myself one.

  • Camden Cantwell

    Maybe it’s like how there a number of people who believe Jesus is God and the savior of mankind and all that (they are literally Christians), but they don’t like being associated with the organized church. I think you’re right that most people you know are quite literally feminists, but perhaps some of them feel that it suggests being part of an organized political movement? Just pondering.

    • Ah, but the term applies to non-activists, though. It has historically been activist-driven, but someone can be “conservative” without being Republican, and I can be a feminist without being politically active as such.

    • Justauser

      I get what you’re saying, on both points. I almost feel guilty if I describe myself as “a feminist” being I’m not really engaged in any real activism; I try to describe myself usually something like “I’m into feminism” or “I support feminism” but don’t generally call myself “a feminist.” I get that I’m technically a feminist and I’m perfectly happy with that, but I’m more comfortable keeping a little bit of distance between feminism and my sense of self for now, because I haven’t studied enough yet to determine what “kind” of feminist I am and I haven’t really fully integrated feminism into how I live yet; I have these definite feminist moments, and I get very excited about them, but it’s like I’ve still got my feminism training wheels on.
      I think the important part is really just recognizing that “feminist” is not a dirty word and to not find being called a feminist insulting.

  • I agree with you mostly. BUT, it’s also not your place or anyone’s to assign feminism on someone else b/c they believe a certain way. Of course I answer you question, “Do you think that men and women should be treated equally to men in society, by the law, in the workplace?” Yes, yes, resounding yes. But I am not a Feminist. And I have a whole host of complicated reasons why but they are mostly surrounding racial and cultural issues not language. As much as I love and respect my Feminist sisters and value it, I’m just not down. I think it’s okay for those in my camp who have been either very hurt by or very turned off by Feminism to say, “hey, what your doing is awesome but I’m pretty damn fine not identifying this way.” I tend to agree with Camden’s pondering a few comments below…I just CANNOT be a part of this movement b/c some of the implications of the movement. I just can’t. The world is too fucked up for me to join another completely fucked up group. I’m all ready a Christian & an American, (both as screwed AND fucked as ever)… that HAS to be enough.

    • Yeah, I hear you. And we’ve talked about this before–95% of your concerns with the term are associated with second-wavers, which were HUGELY problematic, and not what I identify with, either. But I want to actively bring awareness to the fact that it’s changed and means new and better things.

  • Angi Dudas

    Bravo!

  • This reminds me of what I hear from my students, who are freshmen at a Christian university. I ended up designing a whole course activity based on helping them to recognize that feminism is not a dirty word, and that many of them are, in fact, feminists. (The description of the activity is lengthy, so here’s a link to it: http://lizboltzranfeld.wordpress.com/2013/01/25/defining-feminism-a-composition-classroom-activity/)

    It took a college professor doing something similar when I was a freshmen for me to start understanding feminism as a concept I could support, and so I try to do the same for my students.

  • Call me Ishmael

    I think the problem is that mainstream culture thinks the ideals of the original feminism movement have been achieved. It is similar to racism in our culture, most people believe that they are not biased in any direction simply because they live in a “more” tolerant culture. Because of this, people who continue to call themselves feminists and who fight for those causes are seen as unnecessarily radical. Thus the term begins to take on a more extremist meaning. Anyway enough philosophizing.

    On a more practical note, as a marketing major, one of the ways to fix a brand with negative connotations is to change the brand name. Social movements will do this as well, look at the gay rights campaign. The primary advocacy group called them selves the “Human Rights Campaign.” This refocuses the issue, and besides who wants to be against human rights?

    Perhaps feminism could benefit from a new term that does not conjure up the radical elementsof the movement, yet still reflects the issues at hand.

  • Christine

    Part of the problem is that the only people who are still comfortable claiming the word are often ones that a lot of people don’t want to be associated with. The language creep comes in to play here too. If the only people who call themselves feminist are much more involved with and concerned about these issues than the average person is, of course the average person is going to say they aren’t a feminist.

    • Justauser

      Which is exactly why it’s important to call yourself a feminist anyway. The average person IS a feminist and just doesn’t know it, but the avoidance of the word “feminism” keeps them away from the literature and history that is so important to feminism and women’s rights, and if people keep avoiding that literature and history it will fade away into obscurity, and that would be tragic at this point in time. We don’t live in a post-feminism world yet; we can’t afford to let the “bad” feminists ruin it all for all of us.

  • Benjamin D’Anjou

    My take on it.

    I don’t call myself a feminist because the baggage that goes with it is
    too diverse. Of course I agree with the general idea of forwarding
    women’s rights. But when you start dealing with specific issues, being a
    feminist can mean diametrically opposed things.

    For example, is a feminist for or against the legality of prostitution? Is a
    feminist for or against the legality of pornography? Does a feminist
    think that chivalry should be encouraged or discouraged? Should there be
    affirmative action for women in the workplace or not? Etc. On all these
    issues I have met many feminists with diametrically opposed views.

    Of course, I agree with the general idea of gender equality and of
    forwarding women’s right. But because the variations in the beliefs of
    feminists are so divergent, if I use the term people will necessarily
    assume that I hold beliefs that I don’t. In short, I don’t think that
    feminist is a very useful descriptive for one’s political opinions.

    By claiming that everyone who is not a reconstructionist
    patriarch is a feminist, one makes the word feminist meaningless, as it
    applies to nearly everyone.

    Therefore, as long as the meaning of the word stays so vague, I will not call
    myself a feminist, and I will support you in the causes that I find
    righteous.

  • Alix

    This is pretty late – I just found your blog, so I’m catching up – but there’s one major reason I won’t ID as feminist: I’m genderqueer and asexual, and over and over again I’ve been told by feminists that I’m not welcome in their community and/or that I don’t really exist, usually in pretty insulting language.

    Honestly, I get the point you and others are making, but this kind of insistence that everyone believing in equal rights for women must be feminist is … kind of hurtful, in a way I am horrible at expressing. It’s like y’all are telling me that in order to be a moral person I have to force myself to be part of a group that expressly hates me.

    I know that’s not the intent, here. And I also know that not all (perhaps not even most?) feminists are as I describe above – most of the people who get what I mean when I talk about my gender and sexuality are feminists, too. So this is probably a case of “once burned, twice shy” and me being really oversensitive … except every time I try to give bigger feminist blogs and groups a shot again, I stumble across the same damn thing. And I guess I’m kind of sick of people placing the blame for any disharmony or weakening of the feminist brand, implicitly or explicitly, on my shoulders.

    :/ This was probably not the best way to start commenting on your blog, sorry. I just … I’m kind of sick of the assumption that people who don’t ID as feminist don’t have good reasons for doing so. (Now back to my regularly-scheduled lurking…)

    I think your blog is powerful and awesome, by the way.

  • aroomofkianasown

    LOVEEEE thisss!!! I have literally had this discussion with so many people in the past couple of months. It’s always weird to me how hesitant people are to claim the word feminist… even well-educated people!