Should we move away from the word feminist?

This question was posed by Henry in response to my last post, which got me thinking about the word feminist.  There are so many people that will say “I’m not a feminist but…”, and seek to distance themselves from the movement.   But I question how many people are really not feminists. Of course there are some people who do in all honesty believe that a woman’s place is in the home, but they are in a minority. So why are so few people happy to come out and declare themselves to be feminist? And maybe changing our name could help the movement gain additional supporters and make new advances.

And there are some negative connotations to the word feminist.  It seems to have become tied up with misandry and the extreme views of some feminists.  Somehow, by saying you’re a feminist people seem to assume that you’re hairy, with no sense of humour and have probably been dumped by men once too often.

But there’s also a lot of history behind the feminist movement, and figures that I’m proud to be associated with.  I’m proud of figures such as Mary Wollstonecraft, who argued in the 18th Century that women were capable of and would benefit from education.  From the work of feminists during the anti-slavery debates pointing out that the men arguing in parliament against keeping black men in slavery would happily prevent their wives’ from owning property or having a legal identity.  I identify with suffragists and with the women who brought about the equal pay act.  And I don’t see why I should give this up as some women in the feminist movement have made some arguments I disagree with.

When people today say that they aren’t feminists, and don’t agree with feminism, what do they really mean?  Are they wishing for a time when women didn’t get paid the same as men (we don’t).  Are they wishing for a time when women couldn’t work after marriage (look at women’s representation on boards of companies, or the even greater pay disparity that women with children suffer).  Are they wishing for a time when women didn’t have the vote (we make up a disproportionately small number of MPs and a shockingly small number of Ministers).   Are they wishing for a time when domestic violence was treated as a man appropriately governing his household (look up any VAW statistics to see that women still make up the overwhelming majority of victims of violence in the home, and that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence).

What are people really saying when they argue that feminism has achieved too much?  That some women are getting uppity and saying too much?  That some extremes from the movement are unhelpful?  That there are now a few women getting away with saying things that are anti-men?  Compare for a moment whichever of these criticisms you’d like to make against what women see every day.  Compare the number of women comics making misandrist jokes to the number of sexist jokes that are still said – on TV, or in everyday situations “I know we shouldn’t say things like this anymore, but this is really funny…”.    Compare the number of feminists making extreme comments to the articles we see every week in the Daily Mail (and on other mainstream sources) arguing that really women would be better off if they all stayed home, or trying to whip up sympathy for some poor men who were once misguided enough to rape someone.

As feminists, our aims are the same as they have been for hundreds of years – equality.  We have made some great advances, and I’m proud and grateful for the work that feminists have done.  But there is still a long way to go.  We still need to call ourselves feminists while we fight for equality.  And we should take pride in this label.

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17 Comments on “Should we move away from the word feminist?”

  1. ghaweyriao says:

    I get frustrated too when people refuse to call themselves feminist based on caricatures of what feminists believe, and say things like ‘I’m not really a feminist because I don’t hate men,’ etc. On the other hand, I know a lot of women from more marginalized populations (women of color, working-class women, etc.) don’t like to call themselves feminist because they feel alienated from a feminist movement that often focuses on white women, straight women, etc. Anyway, I’m happy if people support women’s rights and causes; if they don’t want to call themselves feminist, well, it’s annoying but it’s not the worst thing in the world.

  2. Danny says:

    And maybe changing our name could help the movement gain additional supporters and make new advances.
    I think in the end a name change would only be a temp fix. One reason people don’t associate with feminism is because of some of the people in the movement. Simply changing the name would not suddenly change those people.

    When people today say that they aren’t feminists, and don’t agree with feminism, what do they really mean?
    One other possible answer is to why someone would not call themselves a feminist is because of their interactions with feminists and not wanting to take on that label. (In fact that’s my own answer to that. On the whole I actually agree with a lot of things about feminism but then once I start looking at people who claim the title, and how they practice feminism, the differences start to show and I find myself disagreeing them.)

  3. glassceilingdebate says:

    I think is is time for a new name for feminism. Women agree with the principal but feel it conveys negativity. This continually occurs for many group labels and so they change the name to bring back its positive nature. For example, “indians” are now called natives or aboriginals; “handicapped” are now called physically disabled; “secretaries” are now called administrative assistants. The list goes on and on. They changed the negative label to a positive one. It’s time for feminists to change their label too. So ladies, what should our new name be?

  4. jenniesue says:

    Thank you all for your comments, and I do agree with the issues you’ve raised.

    I hadn’t, as ghaweyriao points out, considered the alienation and marginalisation of many women from the feminist movement. And I certainly do acknowledge the negative associations that you all bring up.

    I suppose the bit that stumps me is the question posed by glassceilingdebate. There really doesn’t seem to be an alternative name that we can all use to sum up what we believe in. Because women’s rights cover so many areas – from politics and employment, to reproductive rights, rape, FGM, domestic violence, to the basic rights to life in countries such as China. I really can’t think of an alternate term to cover all this.

    Any ideas?

  5. Harri says:

    I have conversations with women (and men) regularly about why I associate myself with the term feminism, when surely it’s an outdated term. Why, if feminism is, in its essence, about equal rights, opportunities etc. do we not re-term it ‘egalitarianism’? My response is always that egalitarianism is a nice idea, but it isn’t political, it has no driving force or worth on the political stage.

    I too take great pride in the history of the feminist movement and I think moving away from feminism the word assumes a level of shame. It looks at the history, the causes and the global struggles and declares them obsolete, it makes a statement that feminism worked, for a while, but the time has come to move on.

    This move would not only be drastic but dangerous, because we haven’t come to a point where we can leave old fights behind us and pick up new ones under a new banner. The struggles for equality, safety, health, education, political representation, opportunity etc. are ongoing worldwide.

    The argument for a new word only distracts us, it achieves nothing. Our arguments are still the same.

  6. Tim says:

    What is a feminist exactly ?

    I am asking because, as far as I know, there is not universal definition of what feminist is. I am not even sure if there is a definition at all or if just about everyone makes up a definition of their own.

    Personally, dealing with the term feminist has always had some frustration attached to it for me.

    If I say I am a feminist someones bound to say something like ‘Oh so you believe in , too?’ and if I say I don’t then someone says ‘What ?! You don’t believe in equality?!’.

    And if you are particulary unlucky then you say it in front of someone who doesn’t believe that men can be feminists.

    But enough of the tearjerking.

    I have heard this ‘You believe everything a feminist believes, but you refuse to identify as such and that is annoying’ more often and, truth be told, I think this a problem the side of the annoyed and not the annoyee.

    While feminism has been pretty much the movement with the most involement and success in gender, dsicrimination and equality, that hasn’t earned you the lone right to be agry about those things.

    Feminism holds no copyright or trademark on equality issues and there is no law saying that, if someone cares about these things then you must be a feminist. You can be aligned with feminist on issues without actually being one.

    Does it really matter if someone identifies as feminist or not ? Is that the important thing here ? I mean I don’t care if you call yourself feminist or not if we are on par about what is going wrong out there and that we need to to something about it.

    • jenniesue says:

      Tim, I’d recommend Natalie Dzerin’s post http://fortyshadesofgrey.blogspot.com/2011/03/introduction-to-feminist-jurisprudence.html which summarises the four main strands of feminist jurisprudence.

      I think the reason it’s important to me that people do identify with feminism is that when people say they believe in women’s equality, but don’t agree with feminism, they’re normally deceiving themselves or us. For example, David Willets was on Radio4 this week saying he really supported women’s equality when he said that women entering university was preventing working class men from attending.
      I’m going to write a new post further on this topic, as it’s made me think a lot.
      Thanks for commenting.

  7. TrollKING says:

    So where are the female versions of Lorena Bobbit jokes? I have never in my life seen or heard a joke where the punchline was kicking a woman in the crotch or cutting out her uterus. I see male oriented rape jokes, especially prison rape jokes, all the time and in much greater numbers than any sort of female oriented rape joke.

    Feminism is and always has been about supremacy over men.

    You want to boil it down into women being oppressed by one sphere but you are misrepresenting history and the societal arrangements at the time.

    Men had privileges which they codified into rights and those rights came with responsibilities. Women also had privileges and responsibilities. The truth is that they simply had different sets of rights/privileges and responsibilties from the men. Men always bore the brunt of responsibilties.

    Then the suffragettes wanted male privileges without the responsibilties and wanted to keep their female privileges and displace their remale responsibilties onto men….hence men are supposed to carry the burden of housework and childcare while also carrying the burden of the draft and work but now men have no access to male privileges/rights and no access to female privileges.

    For any confused men on this board or reading this, google the White Feather Campaign and you will see how women of WW1 shamed boys into dying in a war.

    It would be one thing if women relinquished their female privileges over to men and took on the burden of male responsibilties but all that would do is inverse the social order….and if it was oppressive for you women….then why the hell would us men want to do it?

    I find it interesting how feminism is losing ground and now they want to appropriate and colonize the MRM by taking male complaints under their umbrella and changing their names…???

    You feminists have no moral authority to define what the male space or cultural identity should or shouldn’t be. Leave the MRM alone, it is not yours to co opt and colonize. You have no right to define what male rights are or aren’t….they are born into us and are self evident and flow from us men, they aren’t given by wives or judges.

  8. Thomas Jerin says:

    I don’t associate with feminism based solely on the name. I support equal rights, so why would I identify with a group that discriminates against men in their name? Feminism should be anti-sexism, be it misogyny or misandry, and a name change would entice more men if feminism also fought for men’s rights.

    Inb4 “Men already have all their rights and are not discriminated against.”

  9. The Name Game says:

    “I want to see a man beaten to a bloody pulp with a high-heel shoved in his mouth, like an apple in the mouth of a pig.” — Andrea Dworkin, influential feminist

    “If life is to survive on this planet, there must be a decontamination of the Earth. I think this will be accompanied by an evolutionary process that will result in a drastic reduction of the population of males.” –Mary Daly, mother of Feminist Theology, influential feminist

    “Probably the only place where a man can feel really secure is in a maximum security prison, except for the imminent threat of release.”
    — Germaine Greer, influential UK feminist

    Yep, I’m not surprised at all why you’d like to stop calling yourself a feminist. But men will not forget what feminism has wrought.

  10. Porky D says:

    By any other name feminism would smell as foul.

  11. leper says:

    The word you are looking for is egalitarian.

    Egalitarians support equal rights and responsibilities for all human beings what ever their gender/race or sexual preference.

    Some egalitarians oppose feminism due to the misandry and homo/transphobia many feminists display… but all egalitarians support equal rights for women.

  12. Vinter says:

    You want to identify with Mary Woolstonecraft’s movement, but are you so sure she would have liked to identify with yours?

    I understand the desire to be part of something grand and just, but you can’t rest on somebody else’s laurels. If that’s all that keeps you from choosing a better name, then go for it, I say. If it makes it easier for you to see when feminism goes wrong – and I think less personal pride in its achievements will help you with that – then so much the better.

    The best Christians aren’t necessarily Catholic, by way of analogy.

  13. dhall says:

    Bare with me please this post is very long.. TL;DR please change the name for the sake of the goals!

    I have a problem with the word “Feminist”… “Feminism”… “Fem” Its just not gender neutral. Now, Im not a picky person, but to identify with a name that reflects something that I’m not ..is strange. I’m a black man, and it would be similar to me trying to call myself a brownie scout. I believe in equality for all… but feminist just isn’t who i am.

    Men like myself are in a double-bind. You say its important to take on the name because otherwise we’d be in the wrong (“denying some of the problem”). You give one specific example why and then end in saying that the word “feminism” should be the box that all of our thoughts fit in. In short, if we (men) refuse the name then we are doing wrong by you. And if we take it on, we “settle” for an equality movement that reflects only one gender… and its the one thats not ours. It would be pretty easy to bust me for complaining right now, but instead of making fun, just humor me for a second… Im going to assume you really want equality for ALL. If that is the case, then you will want men to join too. If you want men to side with you, wouldn’t it make sense to have a name that is all inclusive?

    I read your last post discussing the importance of the word “feminism and I strongly agree with some of it. I have to give much credit to the movement that has brought women so far and done a lot of good for our culture. I want to argue, though, that even though women have some way to go, things have changed. Now, “the rights of women” have long been known as important issues (1960-2011, 51 years and going strong), but more recently, people are realizing that men’s rights are important too. You agreed that men’s and women’s rights were important when you wrote about anti-men | anti-feminism on march 22nd. My only question is.. if a movement is going to consider both genders now.. wouldn’t it make sense to create an identifier that describes all of its individuals? On top of that, feminism owns a lot of history… Female history. If this is to be THE equality movement, logically, it will have to acquire male history too.

    I want to suggest you think about why you aren’t willing to compromise (in all honesty, I’m not trying to be mean)…. because, as far as I was taught, that is a main component of being fair and equal. All of the men I know are completely for equality. They, as well as I, are completely open to a movement that tries to improve women’s standing in society as well as helps men take on the fatherhood role with more ease than is currently allowed. The only thing keeping them from getting involved is a name that is too stubborn to REALLY let them in.. and let them be equal too.

    The other alternatives are MRMs.. but it would be sad to be seen as “the other team.” Or maybe I could use the tried and true term “egalitarian” …however none of the options seem as impactful as the feminist movement being revised and updated to include everyone… just putting it out there.

    • jenniesue says:

      @dhall Thanks for taking the time to write such a considered response
      I do agree that a more egalitarian name could be useful (as leper also suggests) and be more inclusive – for men, and for women who feel alienated from the feminist movement for many different reasons.

      However, the reason I still prefer the term feminism. It acknowledges that women have been, and are still, discriminated against.
      I don’t want to play down the problems that society as a whole faces, and completely acknowledge the benefits that some men’s rights organisations bring to society (I’m thinking particularly of http://goodmenproject.com/ as one I know that is doing great work).

      But, if we start talking about egalitarianism instead of feminism, isn’t it saying that all people are discriminated against equally? And I just don’t believe that. Yes, you can find women in history, but you have to dig quite deep. Women were excluded from world events for so many years. And look at the cabinet today, or even just the number of women MPs.

      I agree, that in an ideal world everyone would have individual rights and we would have an egalitarian society. But we are still a really long way from that. When women are no longer discriminated against, I might start working towards egalitarian rights for everyone. But I don’t really believe I’m going to see an end to discrimination against women in my lifetime.

      I’m a bit wary of starting this seeing as your username is TrollKing, but just to pick up on a couple of points. Yes, women were involved in the white feather campaign. As were men who weren’t conscienscious objectors. Women were also taking on dangerous and life-threatening work wherever they were allowed to, in hospitals and fire stations at home, and behind enemy lines.
      And I can’t really believe that you haven’t heard jokes threatening women – but how about the old chestnut “How did your wife get two black eyes? / she didn’t listen the first time”. Or Jeremy Clarkson joking on prime time TV about women in Ipswich being murdered?

      • Sean Weeks says:

        The word egalitarianism does not signify that everyone is discriminated against equally, but that everyone is not equal. You’re turning a statement in the negatory (equal treatment does not exist and should) into a statement in the positive (everyone’s experiences are equal right now). You’re conflating a mission to change things with change that has already occurred.

        If you were to inflict this same reasoning on feminism, then you would state that feminism posits a society in which women are treated better than or equal to men already, and that’s patently false.

        In reality, I think it’s a question of priorities intended by the word itself. Feminism appears to prioritize femininity, women, and the female. Patriarchy prioritizes men, masculine, the male.

        Egalitarianism prioritizes equality, balance, and the whole.

        If feminism’s goal has changed into a concern for the whole and we want feminism’s name to be accurate, then its name should be changed. If you don’t want it to be accurate, then that’s fine, but you should acknowledge a certain sentimentality about it and accept the fallout.

        I admit I’m being firmer about this then I probably should, but I’m wearied by the movement’s bellyaching — not your bellyaching — about it. Confusion about the movement’s agenda is reasonable when a term like feminism is its flagship. Ostracization for pointing out the obvious isn’t endearing, and complaints made by a community about the ill will of the ostracized are less endearing still.

        That said, I’m a feminist. I’m a feminist because I care about the movement behind the word more than the word itself.

  14. Kyle says:

    I agree. The name carries a lot of misinterpretation from the few loud voices of man-haters in the feminist group. The majority are great people fighting to bring women up. However, recently I’ve began to question what qualifies as feminism. You could be physically a man, but mentally a woman. Same goes vice versa. You could be gay, lesbian, white, black, hispanic, any and every group is stepped on in some way or another. I feel like we should change the goals of feminism for human rights rather than just for physical women. A name change is probably the best way to start this and get rid of the misinterpretations that some men and women have against feminism. When i look at feminism today, I do not see strong women or strong men. Instead, I see strong PEOPLE fighting as one for what they believe is right. They fight for each other as brothers and sisters and as a movement united.


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