'Feminist' Is Not a Bad Word: Untangling What the Term Really Means

In our modern political and media landscape, the term “feminist” has been clouded and cluttered. It’s impossible to ignore the contradicting opinions on what feminism means and what it stands for. I know that as an individual who identifies as a feminist, I struggled to determine what the pillars of feminism consisted of and where I fit into the definition. I often felt confused when I watched or read negative coverage of feminist efforts, especially in this political climate that resembles a battle for the last word.

I am now minoring in women’s studies where I learn the ins and outs of feminism history and theory. It’s hard to ignore the mass headlines categorizing feminists in a negative and aggressive light. Don’t get me wrong — there are always individuals who mean harm or justify their harmful actions by dragging a name or group through the mud. The original motive behind the way of thinking has been lost in the clutter of media and politics. It’s time to dig deep and dust off the layers coating what it means to be a feminist.

It should be noted that there is no one way to define feminism. Because of this, there are several theories of feminism, but the foundation is the same for all: The structured inequalities between women and men are to be eradicated and replaced with equality for all. This may surprise some individuals who believe feminists only focus on the advancement of women. Being a feminist means to stand for the advancement and equality of all beings. Feminists are empowered through their desire to challenge the system in which many individuals feel oppressed and shackled.

A little history of feminism

According to the New World Encyclopedia, the word “feminism” first came on the scene around the 1890s from utopian socialist Charles Fourier’s use of the French term “feminisme.” In the 1890s, “feminism” referred to a movement to promote political and legal rights for women. Historians have agreed upon a three-wave division of feminist history, but some individuals assert that we are currently in a fourth wave.

The first wave swept through society in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This wave “focused primarily on gaining legal rights, political power and suffrage for women.” During this time, many individuals were confused and could not easily define feminism. Several publications tackled the fresh phrase and struggled to pinpoint an exact definition of feminism.

From 1950 to 1990, second-wave feminism rose to the surface. Although The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan is better known for kick-starting this wave, Simone de Beauvoir’s text titled The Second Sex came along before that and became “one of the first inspirations to the activists of the Women's Liberation Movement.” (Ironically, she did not call herself a feminist until years later.) This second wave of feminism targeted sexuality and reproductive rights.

Beginning in the late 1990s, we have arrived at the current (debated) wave of feminism, which is the third. This wave came about from the failures of the second wave. According to an article from Bustle, this wave is “focused on challenging the gender binary and making room for the LGBT community and other diverse perspectives within feminism.” This wave has seen a strong backlash from individuals who suggest the movement has been trivialized. The scope of feminism has expanded greatly due to the introduction of social media, celebrities calling themselves feminists and the overall widespread discussion of feminism.

Why “feminist” has evolved into a bad word

There are plenty of individuals who may align with the values of feminism but refuse to associate their name with the term. Why is that? It really comes down to how the term feminist is regarded in media and day to day life. In a HuffPost article titled “The Misconception About Feminism,” Brianna Deleon said, “I have seen countless times women expressing that they do not ‘need’ feminism because they are not ‘man-haters’ or not a ‘lesbian.’”

Individuals find themselves torn between standing up for the morals they believe in and avoiding possible society shame. I’ve been there. I used to be afraid to even say the word lest someone hear me and judge me. There is this misconception that feminists are man-haters, but as we talked about before, feminism is about equality for all. In her article, Deleon said it best: “Feminism is not a dirty word. We need feminism.”

It’s simple really: I believe in equal rights for all. Through my women’s studies education, I have learned that feminism is bigger than I ever imagined. It is not just a political movement; Being a feminist is a way of life. I do not believe in theories of feminism that cast out individuals and practice exclusivity. No, I believe in an intersectional feminism that encompasses all individuals. [It is important to note that intersectional feminism is a theory of feminism that includes everyone when thinking of establishing equality for all. In this Bustle article, the importance of intersectional theory is described as “understanding the ways race, gender, and other factors (such as disability, class or sexuality) intersect is crucial to making our feminism more effective and impactful.” ]

In this day and age, it is important to do your own research instead of believing everything you hear around you. Take the time to clear past the cluttered world in which we live, and take charge of what you believe in, whatever that may be.