Words are powerful tools; they paint pictures, articulate emotions, inspire movements. They can also carry baggage. The word feminism signifies different things to many. To the 90 year old white woman who grew up among the suffrage movement it may mean voting and property rights. To the 60 year old African American woman it may mean the fight for sexual and reproductive rights. To a large portion of the millennial generation feminism has become a curse word.
Lost in translation?
The word “feminism” has been defined in different ways over the course of history.
1880s – French origins, it comes from two words Femme, which means woman and “ism” which is a political identity
1890s – First used in English in association with the suffrage movement.
1960s–1980s – Second wave movement seeking to address the overall issue of gender roles
1979 –“Womanism” was coined by African American woman, Alice Walker, who felt black women couldn’t identify with traditional feminism because it only represented “upper class, white woman”.
1990s to present – Third wave feminism seeking to address flaws in previous movements and non-inclusion of women from different cultures and sexual identities
2004 – Rush Limbaugh coins the term femi-nazi
In fact, a survey done by HuffPost/Yougov found that only 20% of Americans identify themselves as feminists. The same poll found that 87% of respondents believe that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals” which tends to be the agreed upon definition of feminism. So how did this word, once synonymous with equality, transition to one with which people can’t identify? Dr. Feitz, a professor for gender and women studies at the University of Denver (DU), feels this may be because millennials don’t fully understand the work that went into past feminist movements.
“There’s some taken advantage of privileges,” she says. “There’s some real misunderstandings about what women have done before you [millennials] in order to pave the way for you to be here, for me to be here, and so that to me is an important social movement that we don’t study and teach in schools the same way we do in other movements.”
Sable Shultz, a master’s candidate and co-chair for the annual DU women’s conference, also thinks knowing the movement’s history plays a big role in the understanding of feminism. “There was an active attempt that started up through the 80s to disparage feminism and feminists…It was mocked in media. The idea that feminists are men-hating women comes from the late 70s and early 80s,” she says. “I can’t blame millennials for taking this certain attitude because there was a concerted effort to make feminism go away or make it seem irrelevant….And guess what? It was successful.”
Thomas Walker, Director of Educational Programs and LQBTQI services, expands on this historical context. “…because early reaction to male domination had to be so disruptive. Had to be so loud and in your face to be heard…there’s some of that baggage in just the term itself in our usage. People from whatever identity are a little afraid to take on that political label….’can’t we all just get a long’ is a draw and feminism is seen as kind of rocking the boat even if they would agree with the idea”
You can see these sentiments echoed more and more on social media. Many question what feminists actually have to fight for currently and that the movement is no longer relevant because women have reached equal standards. There are others who believe the movement doesn’t represent their ideals as well. This backlash has gained popularity from men in the form of what’s called the meninist movement, ironically a term originally coined to describe male feminists. Anti-feminist opinions have also gained popularity amongst women on websites such as Tumblr and Facebook. Anti-feminist messaging is seen frequently in mainstream news outlets.
Shultz believes this messaging has been around for a while and tends to take the front stage. “…the messaging that dominates the conversation that either comes from or is echoed from that portion who wants to discount or dismiss feminism. The loudest voices are the voices that say, ‘you already get to vote right? Oh if you just worked harder. If you just leaned in, if you just networked more.’…the dialogue that has dominated media and culture for so long says we are done with feminism and moved on. When in fact we haven’t.”
Walker echoes Shultz’s point by pointing out sexism, like many other “isms”, has gone from blatant acts to insidious and sometimes mindlessly placed norms within our systems. He reflects candidly on what he would consider his male privilege. “I always give people the example I will work late and not give a second thought to walking across campus to my car. Cause I as a man am taught to have very little reason to fear for my physical sexual safety”.
“I think there is a difficulty with accepting the system,” Walker says. “[Men say] ‘Well I don’t beat women up’…So it’s like saying “I’m not racist because I don’t join the KKK and burn crosses’…whether that be sexual assault or wage inequality or the more unconscious bias, you don’t have to be an explicit “ist”, to fall prey to that mindset. Immense amounts of research has found that because we are raised in the system, whether we agree with it or realize it, we are still active in that”.
He goes on to describe the how we see this insidious bias play out in microcosms such as University campuses. “…social work and education are predominately women because that’s what people still think women should be doing. And the guys in those programs get negative messages. I had a College of ED student who wants to work with preschoolers and someone told him that ‘was kind of creepy that a man would want to work with kids’. On the flip side in S.T.E.M (Science, technology, engineering, manufacturing) very few women comparatively, so those messages are obviously still out there.”
Beyond all this, the sentiment that feminism is a women’s issue that only impacts women tends to be a contested view among feminists and non-feminists alike. This would have some like Feitz concerned by the movements overall need for men or “male feminists”.
As DU student, Adrian Cabral, would say “…being a male feminist means I stand in solidarity with feminists in that I make sure that my male privilege is not taking precedence over whatever movement or action they are taking. I take a backseat in making sure I’m there in solidarity but not taking over the conversation.”
Famous male feminists include actors Joseph Gordon Levitt and Ryan Gosling who have taken a very public stance on the issue of feminism. Included in that list is popular comedian, Louis CK, who playfully jokes about serious topics regarding women’s experience:
“How do women still go out with guys, when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. You know what our [men] number one threat is? Heart disease.”
“There’s a perception of women feeling superior to men or wanting to get rid of men women seeing men as irrelevant. All of these are absolutely wrong, it has nothing to do in many ways with being dominant over men…Men are really key to educating and calling out their peers either for sexist comments or normalizing the objectification of women. I have great faith in men.”
Feitz noted the importance of studying masculinity at the same time as femininity and Shultz emphasized why.
“Much of feminism for a long time was dominated by telling women they need to act more like men…Hilary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, wonderful women and very powerful women. But if you look at how they present themselves…as like one of the guys in a lot of ways. We’ve never taken on the celebration of womanhood and upheld that as a value of feminism.”
She also touches on how patriarchal attitudes oppress men and contributes her thoughts to the increasing conversation of why men could in fact benefit from feminism as a whole.
“If you look at masculinity now…it’s toxic. If women are one thing then men have to be the opposite of that….masculinity and manhood is what women are not. So anything that gets assigned to the women bucket, gets taken out of the man bucket. Leaving fewer and fewer options for the man bucket. You can see this and how it impacts [male] career choice…That’s one reason why men need feminism, is so they can start pulling apart and dismantling these constructs which keep them defined to an incredibly narrowing role of possibilities and telling them they have to be certain ways in order to be viewed as men.”
Of course, these limitations on male identity and female identity are all socially constructed in the first place, perpetuated by the notion of “opposite genders”. Walker has some interesting thoughts on how this mindset inevitably propagates itself.
“Having privilege doesn’t mean you don’t have problems….they [anti-feminists] may not buy into the system. They may believe they have their own problems so they don’t have time to fight others. If we can get past all that there’s still this fundamental inclination for people to think, ‘for you to gain, I have to lose.’ If I acknowledge that there is inequity then the easiest way to equalize is to take away. ‘If you get more pie then I by definition get less pie’ instead of presume that there’s other things to eat…there are these paradoxes in the system that are intentionally fixed to protect itself. The idea of “for you to gain, I have to lose” keeps the system in place”.
Among all this re-branding of feminism has come the disagreement over what simply the term even means. This has people like Walker concerned about how much time we should spend on the word itself.
“Feminism is one approach or one label and if we get too caught up on that’s the box we have to check for everybody, well now we are arguing over labels rather than the struggle itself. The system didn’t get made over night it’s not designed to be simple or to undo with a flip of a switch. The trick is how much time do we want to spend on the categories or labels instead of challenging the system?…If you really believe in it then it doesn’t matter what you get called. In fact you will probably get called names”.
With the ever-changing face of what feminism can look like, the word’s definition has become harder to pin down. One thing is for certain, there are still stereotypes and gender issues prevalent in our society. Is arguing the mere definition of the preferred terminology taking away from the overall issue?
Shultz believes there can be multiple definitions for something we all have a stake in. “What being a women is to a white women is different than being a woman of color. Just because they are women doesn’t mean they know all women experiences…it’s about being an active participant in movements that may not be always about you”.
Feitz believes this is not only key to good thought but to good activism. “I like to think it’s important for people to realize that not all feminists and women have the same issues…I think people before they start talking about ‘all men’ or ‘all women’ need to step back and look at the bigger picture.
Walker also believes there needs to be a shift in mindset around the way we view conflict. “This focus on ‘can’t we all just get along’ is a really watered down reading of it. It masks the system and makes it hard to get to it, whatever it is, racism, sexism”.
It would seem that feminism is not about everyone “getting along”. It’s about recognizing everyone has something at stake here. As history has proven, there will continue to be a fight for equality among all identities. Unconsciously or consciously, however they identify or define the F word, it might be time for millennials to realize they are a part of that fight too.