Am I a feminist? To answer this question for myself I needed to understand what feminist means because feminism and feminist are misunderstood and, for some people, scary words that are avoided, as described by Tara Moss in The Fictional Woman1:
‘… there are a number of people who still recoil at the word, including a generation of young women … “I believe in equality, obviously, but I’m not a feminist.”’
Is the media’s description of feminist accurate? Does feminist mean a loud, angry, protesting, bra-burning woman? Does a feminist just believe in gender equality? Is a feminist a member of some kind of all female intellectual group concerned with women’s rights? Can a man be a feminist? Does humanist and feminist mean the same thing? What is a feminist anyway?
From its roots in the nineteenth century, feminism refers to organised principles and procedures that relate to women, or a female social order. The origins of the word lie in the French féminisme2, being a conjunction of feminine (from the old French femenin) meaning female and the suffix –ism, connoting a system or practice. The current dictionary definition of feminism is3:
‘The belief that women should be allowed the same rights, powers and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way, or the set of activities intended to achieve this state.’
Or as bell hooks says, ‘Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism.’4
Some people prefer to use the word humanism to describe their belief that women and men are accorded equal rights. Moss points out that the words humanism and feminism have different meanings and diverse derivations historically5. Humanism does not deal with gender inequity; rather it is a movement that upholds the right to human agency. Moss goes on to quote various acknowledgements by humanists that the movement was established by men and women were not prominent in its inception, though they are valuable members of that community. The humanist movement has many peace-promoting ideals, but gender equality is not specifically one of them.
Moss suggests that it is action that is more important than words4. It is undeniable that any person who takes action to enable greater gender equality in any aspect of life is serving the community and it does not matter what they call themselves. But, words are ultimately important; they enable clarity of communication and purpose. The fact that feminism, an uplifting and useful term, has been so tainted is testament to its importance. It is a powerful word – it challenges existing power structures and those who hold power. And it is this challenge that has caused the word to fall into disrepute, being the subject of backlash that ensues from people who feel threatened by shifting the status quo.
Feminism and feminist are strong female words; but they do not only name people who identify as female. The word is not defined according to the gender identity of the person; it is a set of beliefs held and actions performed by any person, of any gender. As bell hooks states:
‘… all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult.’4
By understanding what feminism and feminist truly mean I was able to put aside faulty perceptions and embrace the terms. My hope is that by more people educating themselves about what feminism really is, we can reclaim this word and continue to make choices and act in ways that make gender* equality a reality for more women. So are you a feminist?