The Decline of the Word ‘Feminism’ and What to do About It

7/11/2021

It is not abnormal in general rhetoric for feminists to be perceived as a group of angry women, extremists, men-hating matriarchal beings. If you call yourself a feminist you are in the minority, and this is in terms of women (!). Only 34% of women in the UK said "yes" when asked whether they were a feminist in a 2018 YouGov poll. However, in the same poll, eight out of 10 people said men and women should be treated equally in every way, with many agreeing sexism is still an issue. So there you have it. It isn’t the aim of feminism that isn’t supported, it’s the word. 

Too many times I have called myself a feminist and the reaction has been somethings along the lines of “oh god” or “FemiNazi”, or even just laughter. Sometimes I’m even reluctant to call this website feminist to certain people in fear it might put them off checking it out. So, lets go back to basics. I’m going to discuss in this article the wonderful things the feminist movement has achieved (mostly through a British lens) and seeks to achieve. I’m then going to analyse exactly why and how the word feminist has ended up having such negative connotations for vast amounts of the population. Then, I’m going to discuss what we should do about it. 

This is a feminist website. I am a feminist. And I shouldn’t be wary about saying it sometimes due to the potential reaction.

What Feminism Is

Feminism is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes and the organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests. Yet one woman told a study backed by the Equal Opportunities Commission that ‘every time I think of feminism, I get this really awful feeling. In their quest for women's rights, they really do oppress men, in which case, in my eyes, they are no better than men.’ The fact is, that feminism literally means fighting for gender equality. The problem is, is that some people don’t see it that way. And I posit that it’s mostly due to a lack of understanding.

The idea of feminism can first be seen in Plato’s Republic, written around 375BC. Plato’s ideal civilisation involved collective day care for children so that women can fully contribute in society.  Christine de Pizan wrote The City of Ladies in 1405, considered one of the first feminist texts which was written in response to the harsh and extreme portrayal of the immoral and inconstant nature of women in other literature. Modern feminism is what we are familiar with today and is separated by defining ‘waves’. 

The first wave in the late 19th and early 20th century was concerned with women’s civil rights, mostly getting women the vote. In 1913, Emily Davison threw herself under the King’s horse and died in her fight for women’s rights to suffrage and became the first woman to sacrifice herself for female emancipation. After continued activism from the suffragette movement, women above the age of 30 got the right to vote in 1918. But really, it was only in 1928 that women over the age of 21 were able to vote, finally being equal with men. 

The second wave of feminism was in the 1960-70s and is also known as the Women’s Liberation Movement. This global movement expanded feminist discussions to equality in marriage and the workplace; sex and sexuality; and violence against women. There was a move towards sexual equality with the introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1961, which gave women the sexual freedom that men had always enjoyed: the ability to have sex and not end up pregnant. The Abortion Act 1967 made abortion legal for women under specific circumstances, and the time limits for abortion were further liberalised in 1990 by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. Since 1967, many attempts have been made to limit access to abortion or ban it altogether in the UK, but feminist organisations have fought hard to ensure that women maintain abortion rights. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 protected men and women from discrimination based on their sex and marital status. This applied to employment, education, harassment and many more. In theory, this was a big step for the equality of men and women. In practice, we still see discrimination, but the legal basis is there to challenge – we need the feminist movement today to continue the fight for gender discrimination to end in practice. Discrimination at the hiring stage of job applications against women of a certain age due to them being a ‘maternity risk’, for example.

The third wave of feminism which began in the 1990s considered diversity. Rejecting the classic feminism that was ran by majority white, middle class women, third wave feminism argued that feminism should be a movement that considered intersectionality and how diverse and complex women’s experiences are. It was a fresh outlook on feminism in comparison to the second wave, where ‘girl power’ became big (thanks to the Spice Girls) and championed the idea that femininity and intelligence were not mutually exclusive. It was during the third wave of feminism that rape in marriage was finally criminalised for the first time in the case of R v R in 1991 (yes, it really was this recent).

It is said that we are now in the fourth wave of feminism, one fuelled by the internet and social media, where everyone can get involved in voicing feminist opinions and tackling sexism. The Egalitarian clearly fits into this wave. It is the most liberal and inclusive wave yet, enjoying the most traction purely through the sheer amount of people that can get involved or at the least be reached, focussing on intersectionality, sexual harassment and casual sexism. The Everyday Sexism Project, He for She, Time’s Up, Me Too, Sisters Uncut are to name a few. 

So, even though there is still work to be done, feminism has made the world a much better place. There aren’t many people who would sit and express the opinion that they do not think women should get the vote, or that rape in marriage should be legal. I hope not anyway. Yet, despite all the amazing things that feminism has achieved and aims to achieve in the future, the word feminism seems to have developed into, for many, not representing what it really stands for. 

What has happened to the meaning of the word Feminism

There is a nasty stigma regarding the word feminism, and I posit this is down to two main reasons. First, as with every movement, there are extreme views that do not represent the group’s goals as a whole. Second, the rhetoric around the feminist movement by opposition and in the media is toxic. I note that I believe that the importance of the first reason is underpinned by the second reason – anomalies in the movement being broadcasted and shared disproportionately in an effort to imply that the entire feminist movement stands for these views. 

  1. Extreme Views

The feminist movement can be separated into different branches offering differing perspectives on what equality of the genders mean, how this can be achieved and who is involved. There are around six main types (although this is not academically agreed, some recognise more and some recognise less): liberal, radical, cultural, socialist, Marxist, eco-feminist (check out The Egalitarian feminist flowchart to see which branch fits best with your values). However, as with every movement, there are people with extreme views that do not comply with the definition of feminism that means fighting for gender equality.

Misandry is the hatred of men. Lena Dunham called for the extinction of straight white men in a tweet in 2016, which quite frankly I find embarrassing for her, but totally detrimental to the feminist movement. Marilyn French described men as ‘the enemy’, creating an image that women are at war with men rather than working with them. Rosalind Miles described men as "the death sex." Controversial statements like these get the most traction on social media, and paint a bad picture of feminism and feminists that taints the movement, despite these ideas not being aligned with feminism at all.

Even Betty Friedan, a well-respected feminist from the 1960s who is credited with beginning the second wave of feminism, went a little far in her 1963 feminist classic, The Feminine Mystique. She claimed that ‘the women who 'adjust' as housewives, who grow up wanting to be 'just a housewife,' are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps.’ She referred to suburban homes as ‘comfortable concentration camps’. With much respect to Friedan, this analogy is wholly insensitive to the Holocaust. I am an advocate for the idea of the nuclear family being repressive to women globally, but to go so far in this description is offensive. Friedan later apologised for using this reference, albeit damage had been done. 

The rise of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), a term coined in 2008, as a small and conservative fringe within the feminist movement is a hot topic. This fringe is not as simple as one person misrepresenting feminism – it has a number of feminists that have demonstrated the opinion. This perspective on feminism seeks to push an anti-trans agenda from within the movement, disregarding the struggle of the transgender community and not accepting the intersectionality of the modern day feminist movement, that accepts and understands the different struggles that women and men suffer from different backgrounds, considering race, sexuality, class etc. This perspective on feminism grew out of 1970s radical feminist circles after it became apparent that there ‘needed to be’ a term to separate radical feminists who support trans women and those who don’t. Recently J. K. Rowling, who was one of my favourite authors, tweeted something that makes clear she supports those who argue against including trans women in the very idea of ‘female’.

Here are just a few examples of how the feminist movement has been and is being tainted by members who identify as feminists but have more radical or niche opinions towards what feminism means for them. Individuals hide behind the concept of feminism to gain support for their cause despite their cause not really being connected to feminism at all. I do believe that these individuals or groups are a minority of the movement. I therefore think that, alone, the impacts these would have on the image of feminism would not be so great. I consider that the reactions to these opinions, mostly by the media and high profile figures, boost the effect. If no one spoke about them, then they may remain as what they are – unrepresentative minorities.

2. Toxic Rhetoric

The narrative surrounding feminism in the mainstream media is highly negative and misleading. It has created an image entirely inaccurate of the movement, yet has been successful in persuading people that feminism is men hating, bad for women, unhelpful or all of the above. 

To take my favourite newspaper for example, the Daily Mail (note the sarcasm). A headline by Piers Morgan in 2019 reads ‘Don’t you feminist snowflakes dare turn James Bond into a woman - he’s the last real man left in Hollywood’. Using his favourite noun ‘snowflake’ to describe feminism seeks to completely undermine a very valid discussion about the underrepresentation of women in film (women accounted for only 8% of directors working on the top 250 films in 2018).

Even better can be seen in The Sun, my second favourite newspaper (sarcasm). The introductory sentences of an article about walk-on girls in darts competitions makes an entirely fictitious and outright outrageous claim about what modern day feminism fights for: ‘Not that long ago, feminists campaigned for women’s rights.They wanted women to be free to work, earn money and enjoy themselves - just like men. Today we have a new type of feminism that doesn’t fight for sexual liberation but instead calls for women to lose their jobs.’ This horrendous simplification of a debate within feminism over the role of walk-on girls in darts matches is completely triggering to the reader, and clearly has one sole purpose: to put people off feminism. To me, it’s laughable (angry laughter). But people read this and are influenced by it.

Dominic Raab described feminists as being ‘amongst the most obnoxious bigots’ in 2011 (and said he would not describe himself as a feminist in 2019). His whole statement regarding feminism was not only wrong but laughably ironic – his argument against being a feminist is because he believes that men should have access to paternity leave. This man is our Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, yet does not understand that equal paternity leave for all genders is a goal of the feminist movement.

All these are very clear examples of the toxic dialogue surrounding the word feminism in the mainstream public eye. They are the tip of the iceberg. A very damaging and nasty iceberg too. On mass, the consequences can be huge, indoctrinating readers into thinking feminism is something that it is not. In turn, it puts people off wanting to learn what modern feminism is really fighting for. After all, with all the men in positions of power (five billionaires own 80% of the UK media – all these billionaires are men) female empowerment can only threaten the status quo. 

What do we do about it

I watched a TED Talk by Betsy Cairo on why she does not identify as a feminist and it really angered me. Cairo figured it to be better that we identify as ‘Equalists’, given that this is a non-binary term showing we are fighting for equality. Apparently, the word feminist excludes men and doesn’t fight for the equality of all genders. Madonna and Susan Sarandon expressed a preference towards use of the term ‘humanist’.  Not only is ‘humanism’ an entirely separate cause (a belief system based on the principle that people's spiritual and emotional needs can be satisfied without following a god or religion), this takes away the gendered focus of feminism. I am an egalitarian, and this website is The Egalitarian for a reason. We hope for the equality of all genders and all groups in society. But I don’t think it’s correct to take away the word ‘feminism’. Feminism is specifically defined as fighting for gender equality. I believe that the media has a lot of responsibility for the loss of meaning to the word and we should hold it accountable for this (by, for example, contributing to this site we’ve made for exactly that reason). The fact this word has been appropriated and tried to be undermined should not stop the fight.  We must educate. The word feminism got women into work, voting in elections and stopped us getting raped by our husbands. I don’t want to move on to a different path, I want to continue the path of a movement that began in the late 19th century (the modern feminist movement anyway) and has achieved amazing progress so far. 

Men need to get involved

Men aren’t getting involved enough and they should be. Some men seem to think it is emasculating to identify as feminist or are at the least hesitant. The idea of masculinity is in itself a patriarchal construct, something which feminism seeks to quash. Men should not be expected to behave in a certain way in order to appear ‘male’ and this construct is in itself damaging for men’s mental and physical health and wellbeing. Feminism is not a movement that automatically excludes half of the world’s population and it should not be viewed that way. Feminists worldwide need to actively welcome and involve men in the fight. If it was appreciated and understood what the true meaning of feminism is, then the patriarchy would be much easier to tear down. I believe that a lot of men are empathetic to the problems that women face and would advocate for change. There can be no movement more powerful than one that is supported and fought for by everyone.

Conclusion 

The word feminism has been appropriated by some and skewed by others who don’t understand the movement or are actively against it. The idea that a feminist has to be a ‘FemiNazi’ or anti-men is completely wrong and wholly toxic for progression to gender equality. We must actively fight against this rhetoric that defines feminism as something bad. We should be shouting that we are feminists from the rooftops, and questioning people who claim they are not one. After all, if you don’t believe in gender equality, you should be the minority.

It is a hard fight, given the previous examples of the slandering narrative in the common domain about feminism, but education and discussion is key. We must challenge inaccurate and ill-advised perspectives of feminism, but we must do this in a helpful manner. Feminism is a movement that works for equality and inclusivity, but the movement itself must do everything in its power to make sure we are as inclusive ourselves as possible. It is our duty as feminists to do so.

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