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Is “Feminist” A Dirty Word? No — and Here’s Why

It’s 2020. Chances are, we’ve all heard the term “feminist” thrown around every once in a while. People use it as a title they adopt to declare their values and combat the sexist society we live in today, but it’s not always used as a compliment or with positive intent. Some people, be it men, women, or anyone who doesn’t define themselves in these two categories, believe a “feminist” is a word that should be used to describe the angry, mean-spirited, man-hating woman of the modern world. But, where did this negative perception of feminism come from? Is it something that we can fight against today? 


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The term “feminist” was coined in 1837 by a French philosopher named Charles Fourier, but the term technically didn’t reach the U.S. until 1910. Today, we classify the feminism movement into three “waves”, the first of which spanned through the 19th and 20th centuries. This wave focused on the fight for women’s suffrage and other law-based inequalities. The second wave, which spanned from the ’60s to the ’80s, broadened its topics to a more cultural focus and asked us to reconsider a woman’s role in society. Gender norms, cultural inequalities, and women in the workplace were just some of the main focuses of the second wave. 

Thanks to these first two waves of feminism, women in our world today have the right to vote, work, and be their own independent selves. This all sounds great, right? Why would any of this make people think that feminists are “bad”?

Well, within the second wave, a new subsection of feminism was born. That subsection was radical feminism. This perspective, which founds its beginnings in the 1960s, is what people today stereotype as “bad” feminism — its roots are in the idea of a radical revolution and reorganization of our inherently patriarchal society that would remove men from all positions of power. It’s all too easy for people to use this idea and jump to the conclusion that all radical feminists hate men, are evil, or want to burn everyone that isn’t a woman to the ground. In fact, this is a dangerous ideal that not only puts radical feminists in a bad light but also devalues and demonizes the entire feminist movement.


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Well, before we get ahead of ourselves, we have a third wave to talk about. This wave saw the idea of intersectionality flourish. Intersectionality, in terms of feminism, is the idea that women experience layers of discrimination based on factors like class, race, gender identity, and many others. The aim of the third wave was to again broaden the spectrum of feminism to people that weren’t just cis-gendered, white women.

With this wave arose a new type of feminist: the TERF, or trans-exclusionary radical feminist.  In 2008, this sub-section of feminism was the one that claimed that feminism did not extend to transgendered women or any women that weren’t cis-gendered. This concept created a huge divide among feminists all over the world and created yet another dangerous stereotype about feminism. Not every feminist is a TERF, and many have fought for the rights of trans and non-binary folks as well as the rights of women. 

The bottom line is that there are a lot of different ways to define feminism because feminism is whatever each of us defines it as for ourselves. It’s situational and subjective, and no two feminists are the same. We all have different values, beliefs, and opinions that shape our own personal feminist perspectives. Therefore, the term “feminist” is not a dirty word. It’s a word that can mean whatever the feminist in question defines it as, and for that reason, it’s a pretty amazing word. Are there problems with subsections of feminism that infringe upon the rights and lives of others? Absolutely. But those people do not get to define the feminist movement. What does define feminism is the idea of equality for all people and the right to their own ideals. 


Original Illustration by Gina Escandon for Her Campus Media

Madison Sinsel

CU Boulder '21

Madison is currently a sophomore at CU Boulder, working towards a major in the CMCI school in Strategic Communications on the media design track as well as a minor in fine art. She's been a HerCampus writer since her freshman year, and this year she is also lucky to be an Aerie Ambassador for CU's campus and a Barre3 ambassador for the Boulder studio. At CU Boulder, Madi is focusing on learning graphic design and illustration and has plans to one day become an artistic director and tattoo artist. She's had a love for writing since she was three years old, and is thrilled to be a part of the HerCampus community. Her passions include theatre, matcha lattes, and reading people's tarot cards at parties.
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