One of the most frequent complaints of vocal feminists is that many people have the wrong idea about what feminism really is. In college, we all took the gender classes that reiterated the same thing: Feminists are not anti-male, sexist man-haters who believe in female superiority and dominance over men. Or rather, feminist ideology does not dictate that this is so. It’s all about equality — equal opportunity and equal respect. While common knowledge now, I remember that this news was a surprise to me. I’d always been a strong individual, a strong young person who never paid any heed to external limitations on my selfhood because of my femaleness. So why had I not known the truth about feminism? My mother was (and still is) a freight train of a woman, who, in retrospect, never treated me like a girl; in fact, I realize now that I was raised with very little gender-focus at all. She never indicated that I was any more or any less or different than each boy and girl I went to school with, and I can’t think of a single decision my mother made because of my sex. Equality was evidently a value my mother raised me with — consciously or not. Yet she had never mentioned feminism to me, and I was left to know feminism like a good portion of the country sees it still: falsely, negatively, and as an ideology less associated with equality than with womanhood.
So this is a problem. Feminists want to truly be known for what they stand for, and struggle every day to change (or rather, clarify) the perception of their community. The root of their problem is simple: the commonly-accepted meaning of feminism is something other than what it, by definition, is. Somewhere in the course of the word’s cultural history, it was robbed of its original purpose. The falsity may have been a result of sexist backlash to the movement, or of the media only presenting the most extreme individuals — the “man haters” we’ve come to characterize who claimed feminism as their own. Or it might have been derived from simple ignorance. But what matters is that it happened, and this must be acknowledged.
Words evolve for the better or worse. They are born and then they live in our mouths and then, often, they die. Resisting these life cycles is as futile as resisting our own. Tell as many people as you want that “impactful” isn’t a word; you can’t stop it from flooding our vernacular and becoming, in its recognition, exactly that: a word.
Feminism, it can be argued then, has developed another meaning. If I had gone through life without taking a feminism class and without reading several feminist publications on a daily basis, I would still be part of a large number who define it differently. You could counter my argument by saying that if I use a word incorrectly and never looked it up in a dictionary that I’d still be using it erroneously. But that’s only partially correct. Because if a large enough group uses that word incorrectly… give it a few years. You’ll see my “incorrect” definition underneath (or in place of) the original faster than you’d believe. In other words, meaning is influenced by usage, not just origin.
You could also argue that while words evolve, ideologies don’t. “Sexism means the same thing it’s always meant. So does capitalism.” Yes and no. “Republican,” for example, means something very different than it did twenty years ago — both from internal change and external opinion. We characterize things with terminology the best we can for the best we know at the time. “Negro” was once a commonplace, even neutral term that is now painfully, and offensively, outdated. “FtM” and “MtF” were used in the trans* community for years before our thoughts on gender expression became more evolved, and now these are terms largely considered incorrect within the community. I often come across feminists who write, “Feminism shouldn’t be a dirty word!” Well, why not? It was absolutely appropriate for its day and age, for the movement that needed to happen and for the women who made it happen. But now it’s outdated. And I’m not sure why we’re struggling so hard to keep it alive.
Why are we holding onto this one? The thing I love most about the incredible “feminist” women I read, listen to, and idolize is their constant need for progress, and their uncanny ability to influence it. The worst type of “feminism,” the kind that mostly exists on the internet, is the type that is constantly correcting, backtracking, and dwelling on has-beens and problems instead of discussing solutions, and ways to move forward. It’s as if this type of feminism is blind to the time we’re living in, the great equalizer that is our current technology, and the potential we hold in our hands to redefine women as individuals. Not just women. Not just “feminists.” But equal, unique members of society.
If you can’t tell, I love words. I love them like air. But I don’t love the word “feminist,” and I think it’s for the same reason others might be turned off by it. If you’re a sexist, you’re in favor of one sex over another. If you’re a Marxist, you’re in favor of Marxist ideology over other ideologies. If you’re a feminist, following this etymological trend, you’re in favor of the feminine over… the masculine? That’s the implication. “Masculism” is a bizarre, anti-feminist movement that I’ve only read about in the depths of Wikipedia, but pretend for a moment that it had the exact same tenets of feminism: Equality between the sexes. Would you call yourself a masculist? I’m not sure I would. Not because I don’t like men, not because I wouldn’t want to be associated with masculinity, but because it just feels so damn exclusive — even if it, at its core, was not. Words hold power, breed associations and stir sentiments, and we can’t ignore their effects on how we think about their meanings.
It’s a matter of branding. It saddens me to admit that branding matters at all; I’m a firm believer that content should always outweigh the presentation of content, and would like to subsequently say that the tenets of a movement carry more weight than how society perceives it. But I can’t tell you that branding isn’t important, because it really, really is. If you want more people to join you, to adopt your ideology, it starts with the image, and the nomenclature. There’s no denying that “feminism” was once an effective, powerful word. It brought women together like never before, creating a type of solidarity that would go on to achieve suffrage, lead to Roe v. Wade, and make our voices heard. We should both cherish this and admit that, as a brand, “feminism” is no longer a rallying-point, but an echo of a previous era we’ve evolved from.
We do not have equality in our society between the sexes. I don’t need to list the disparities — most of you know them, have experienced them, or have witnessed them. “A long way to go” is an understatement of a cliché, especially in a political climate that has taken a baseball bat to the knees of women’s healthcare. What we need to do now is rally again, like the extraordinary women before us. And this time, we need to unite under the notion of individuality. Because the greatest thing about women today is our differences — that we’re becoming less frequently lumped together as “the women.” Men have long held the privilege of singularity, and we can work toward equality by claiming our own individual voices. And the first step is to trade “feminism” in for something more era-appropriate, and inclusive.
I personally suggest, like many have before me, “equalism.” It’s a word that’s been discussed, defined, but never full-heartedly claimed. Some individuals who might be “feminists” by its original definition have embraced the term. Some sexist, anti-feminist groups have also staked claim. Another definition centers on equality regardless of any difference — race, sex, gender, or otherwise. It’s a word in flux — on the verge of evolving into something greater than what it currently is. I say we grab it. I say we make it our own, and admit that progress often occurs by focusing on the things we can control, and forfeiting those we can’t. We can’t force people to like the term “feminism,” implant in their brains the “true,” “untainted” definition. We can, however, put our notions of equality front-and-center under a more inclusive, evolved “brand.” And most importantly, we can be adaptable in the presentation of our ideals, because they’re worth more than anything else — and certainly worth dropping a name that is inhibiting our progress.