Is feminism a dirty word?

Doireann Conghaile


Feminism is, almost inevitably, a loaded word. As a historical movement now in its fourth wave, the term itself has many connotations spanning over a hundred years – from the Suffragettes to Simone de Beauvoir, to Caitlin Moran and the Bechdel Test, it can have different meanings for different people. Say it to a student of literary theory, and they will think of Helene Cixous and Luce Irigary. A different generation might think of Germaine Greer or Virginia Woolf. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, it will bring to mind images of bra-burning, man-hating “feminazis” who, for some reason, nobody wants to be friends with. All this, from one little word? Few other movements are quite as diverse and far-reaching, and that, in many ways, is what leads to its misinterpretation.

As such a provocative word, it is rarely used lightly any more. When the movement underwent a resurgence a few years ago, it became cool for a while to identify as a feminist. Now, instead of being a term of empowerment, it’s more often than not used as an insult. Few people, no matter how liberal, can refer to themselves as feminists in public without being subjected to ridicule – and nothing will put an end to an argument quicker than calling someone the “F” word. There are still people and publications who continue to use the word defiantly (such as the hilarious Vagenda website) but this has also resulted in the rise of the term “anti-feminism”, which is plastered across articles all around the internet. Sure, you think, it’s great that they now have a way to point out when people are opposed to equality for women – but the thing is, we already have words for that. Think sexism or misogyny, or even chauvinism. So “anti-feminist” implies, not so much that someone/thing is sexist, but that there’s a specific way of being feminist, and they’re doing it wrong. Even worse, by separating the ideas of sexism and feminism, it promotes the misconception that feminism is something other than an opposition to misogyny and a desire for equality – which is all it is at the end of the day.

“But why don’t they refer to themselves as equalists, or humanists or something?” I pretend to hear you ask. “Isn’t confining the fight for equal rights to just women selfish?” The simple answer is that no, of course it isn’t. While feminists (and hopefully everyone else) want a society that treats people of all religions, ethnicities and sexual orientations equally, all-encompassing terms such as “equalist” suggest that there aren’t problems of discrimination specific to women – or to gay people or people of colour, for that matter. It would be an insult to any anti-discrimination movement to lump it in with all the rest, depriving it of recognition of its own specific issues, history and goals. In fact, feminism itself is often too broad a term, as the problems faced by, say, a Muslim woman in danger of being stoned to death, or an Indian woman being threatened with gang-rape, are not really on a par with those faced by a white woman in a first-world country who’s earning less than her male colleagues.

The problem, then, is not so much that we have too many terms for discrimination, but that we don’t have enough. While “feminism” is still necessary as an over-arching term encompassing the global scale of sexism and misogyny, I think we need some new words – ones to describe a more modern feminism, less loaded with political and historical connotations. Feminism as a concept is still needed as long as sexism still exists (and don’t try to tell me that it doesn’t, or so help me) but the word itself has so many associations, both positive and negative, that it has become almost too powerful, to the point where it can no longer be used in everyday conversation. Like Godwin’s Law, discussion of anything from politics to film will inevitably come back to feminism, and once it’s been brought up, all reasonable debate is out the window. Everyone has a strong opinion on feminism, but bringing it up will either provoke intense debate (which never actually seems to lead anywhere), or result in the person who mentioned it being labelled a killjoy and ruining an otherwise civilised argument.

Now, obviously there is nothing wrong with a word – especially one related to a historical and political movement – being so charged. The problem is that if we persist in using it in everyday circumstances, it will eventually lose its power, and then what do we use when confronted with hardcore sexism and discrimination? Feminism of the more extreme variety is still needed in many places in the world, for serious instances of misogyny that we don’t often see in western countries. Women being subjected to female genital mutilation and being denied basic rights need Feminism with a capital F, and hopefully, if we keep it associated with those women rather than letting it become a first world problem, it will continue to have a real impact. However, we also need a word to combat less brutal sexism, one which would encompass not a historical and political movement, but more simply, a desire. Now, I’m no linguist, so I’ll leave its invention up to the professionals, but its sentiment would be a fairly simple one. No man-bashing, no judgement, no stereotypes, just a desire to be treated equally. It was best summed up, surprisingly, in TV show ‘Rules of Engagement’, in one of the show’s few worthwhile moments: When confronted with some good old fashioned sexism, Jeff decides that women should be treated exactly like men, as they are just “men with boobs.”

Honestly, I have no idea if this would make a real difference, but the fact that feminism – a movement fighting for equality for half of the population of the world – is so negatively perceived nowadays shows that we need to start approaching it differently, and the basic level of language seems like a good place to start. Even if it doesn’t help, it’s worth a shot, right?