Merriam-Webster's Word Of The Year Is 'Feminism' & That Says A Lot About 2017

2017 began with a Women’s March that was the largest single-day protest in United States history, and ended with the “Silence Breakers” who spoke out against sexual assault being named TIME’s Person of the Year. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year is "feminism."

“No one word can ever encapsulate all the news, events, or stories of a given year,” explained Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large for Merriam-Webster, in a press release. “But when we look back at the past twelve months and combine an analysis of words that have been looked up much more frequently than during the previous year along with instances of intense spikes of interest because of news events, we see that one word stands out in both categories.”

Feminism is defined on Merriam-Webster as both “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.” According to Washington Post, “lookups for the definition of feminism increased by 70 percent over last year” and “there were also several major spikes that coincide with major news events.”

The first of these news events occurred in January, when thousands of women attended the Women’s March following Donald Trump’s inauguration. During this march, women wore pink “pussy hats” in response to a leaked tape which caught Trump claiming to grab a woman by her private parts when he finds her attractive. Many also held signs that said “nasty woman,” as an ode to Trump’s referring to Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman” during his campaign.

The 2017 definition of feminism is also huge on the concept of "intersectionality" — a term coined by black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the ways different kinds of oppression (like racial, class, gender, religion and sexuality) further marginalize vulnerable groups on systemic levels. On its website, the Women’s March stated that it “is committed to dismantling systems of oppression through nonviolent resistance and building inclusive structures guided by self-determination, dignity and respect.”

Another spike in searches for “feminism” occurred when Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, claimed that she didn’t consider herself a feminist in “the classic sense.” She stated during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, “It’s difficult for me to call myself a feminist in the classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly is very pro-abortion, and I’m neither anti-male or pro-abortion. So, there’s an individual feminism, if you will, that you make your own choices…. I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances.”

Such a statement led many people to wonder what exactly a feminist is and whether it really is “anti-male” and “pro-abortion.” Campaigns like UN Women’s He for She claim that feminism is intended to benefit men just as much as it benefits women, as it gives men the opportunity to express a full range of emotions because emotion is no longer associated with “femininity” and therefore “weakness”. In his TED Talk at TEDWomen 2017, Justin Baldoni challenged his listeners to “See if you can use the same qualities that you feel make you a man to go deeper. Your strength, your bravery, your toughness: Are you brave enough to be vulnerable? Are you strong enough to be sensitive? Are you confident enough to listen to the women in your life?"

As far as the Merriam-Webster definition of “feminism” goes, there is no mention of abortion, although it is undeniable that the vast majority of feminist organizations consider themselves to be strong proponents of women’s reproductive rights and the ability to access safe and legal medical procedures. 

In a press release, Merriam-Webster stated, “More recently, lookups of feminism have increased in conjunction with the many accounts of sexual assault and harassment in the news, the willingness of women to share similar stories using the #MeToo hashtag, and the breaking news regarding the resignations or terminations of the men charged or accused.” During the #MeToo movement, countless women shared that they, also, had been victims of sexual harassment or misconduct. This movement occurred in response to a news cycle that seemed to discover each day that another powerful man was, in fact, a sexual harasser. These men included feminists like Matt Lauer, democrats like Al Franken, republicans like Roy Moore, and all kinds of celebrities, like Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and, of course, Harvey Weinstein. It became evident that our culture somehow makes it accepted for men to assault women, and feminism was presented as the solution for this problem.

The culmination of this feminist movement occurred when TIME announced that its 2017 Person of the Year is the Silence Breakers, or those who have spoken out against sexual assault. Far from coincidentally, the vast majority of these Silence Breakers are women. As TIME stated in its Person of the Year article, “This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight. But it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries...These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal, gathering strength by the day, and in the past two months alone, their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results.”

Although 2017 was far from perfect, it is pretty cool to think of how far we came in terms of women’s rights in just one year. We still have a long way to go, and hopefully one day “feminism” will drastically decline in searches, because gender equality has been attained and we no longer need a word for it. However, until that day, it’s important that people continue to educate themselves on what a feminist is — so shout-out to Merriam-Webster for keeping the conversation going.