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Why Feminism Still Needs To Be Called Feminism

This post originally appeared on Bustle.

By JR Thorpe

Leaving aside the maniacs of the Men’s Rights Movement for a minute, even people committed to women’s rights have raised the sacrilegious idea in recent years that the f-word is old-fashioned and needs to be retired for something newer, snappier, and more inclusive. Quick, somebody hire a marketing department. Can we sum up an entire equality movement in an emoji? But all joking aside, should the word “feminism” be replaced?

I say no way — and understanding where the word “feminism” came from is a necessary ingredient to understanding why other words just can’t quite compete. Humanism, equalism, and other ideas have been suggested as replacements, by people as prominent as Meryl Streep, but if they really want a word that’s all about fighting for the rights of women in the world, “feminism” is the best we’ve got, and there are good historical reasons as to why.

So here’s why you shouldn’t throw away your “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt or alter it to another word. The history of “feminism” as a word is a slightly twisted one, and it has some unexpected moments — just like the waves of feminism itself. Words are strangely powerful things. Let’s take a look at how the term feminism came to be — and why it needs to stay.

Where The Word Feminism Came From


In a case of quite peculiar irony, the word “feminism,” used by generations of women to explain their struggle for equal rights and opportunities, was coined by a dude. Charles Fourier was a French socialist philosopher of radical principles in the 19th century, and his term “feminisme” is the basis for today’s term in English. And Fourier’s own peculiarities have led to some people wondering if it’s the right word at all.

Fourier didn’t advocate for complete gender equality because, in his world, the sexes were too seriously biologically different to be treated the same. He was also a utopian thinker, and his conception of “ideal” human life was something like a Grand Budapest Hotel-like commune where workers changed their occupation up to eight times a day to avoid monotony. (Look, if we had to get rid of all the words in English that were coined by strange white dudes, we’d likely not have much to talk about.)

Luckily, his “feminisme” was quickly co-opted by activists, and started to show up in English. Hilariously, its first appearance was in The UK Daily News in the 1890s, “what our Paris Correspondent describes as a ‘Feminist’ group… in the French Chamber of Deputies,” as a warning that the ideology could be extremely dangerous. And it came to the U.S. a decade or so later in an article by the French suffragist Madeline Pelletier (who, by the way, dressed fabulously in men’s suits and bowler hats, and was the first female French psychiatrist).

Another interesting thing about the history of the word “feminism” is that, while huge swaths of women in history worked for feminist goals like women’s voting rights and access to education, self-identification as a “feminist” was relatively rare until midway through the 20th century. People like Elizabeth Cady Stanton didn’t use the word. The real boom for the word “feminist” in English came with feminism’s “second wave,” in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s far newer in the mouths of English-speakers than you might think: only 50 or so years old.

The Current Controversy Over The F-Word


The word “feminism” has encountered a lot of chatter recently about whether it’s “outmoded” or needs to be “upgraded” — or, indeed, phased out. The arguments range from the utterly ridiculous (“sexism has been solved, we’ve got the vote, what’s everybody complaining about”) to the more serious.

Feminism is accused as a term of being old-fashioned, aggressive, insufficiently inclusive, not doing enough to solve sexism, and carrying too much baggage. People have suggested alternatives, like “humanism” or “equalism” — but I think we need to hang onto feminism as a word, problematic as it is. Here’s why.

Why “Humanism” Isn’t A Good Replacement


“Humanism” has been tossed around as a possible replacement for “feminist,” on the grounds that it sounds the same but seems more inclusive of humanity as a whole. Sarah Jessica Parker has said, for instance, that “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist.” So has Meryl Streep. The problem? Being a humanist isn’t just a declaration that you’re in favor of all people everywhere having the same rights. It’s its own philosophical category, and using it willy-nilly without understanding its meaning is problematic.

Humanism is, essentially, the belief that the source of human values isn’t God, but humanity itself — particularly our capacity to be rational. It’s also a celebration of human life and the individual, and it’s existed as a philosophical tradition since the Enlightenment in Europe. According to the New World Encyclopedia,

Humanism refers to any perspective which is committed to the centrality and interests of human beings. It also refers to a belief that reason and autonomy are the basic aspects of human existence, and that the foundation for ethics and society is autonomy and moral equality.

It’s a great perspective — humanist wedding ceremonies are understandably popular — but it doesn’t mean that you’re focusing on the rights of every human. As Jarrah Hodge over at Gender Focus explains, humanism “includes a commitment to the rational and scientific and a rejection of the idea of divine and supernatural powers.” It’s not about rights or equal opportunities, or at least not centrally, and using it in that context seriously misuses the term. Humanists Against Feminism is a genuine thing that exists.

I do get that it’s more a fun turn of phrase than an actual position, but if there’s one thing you know if you’re a committed feminist, it’s that words matter. (It’s not that Sarah Jessica Parker isn’t a philosophical humanist, either. Maybe she is!)

Why “Equalist” Isn’t As Useful Either

The whole essence of feminism is that it focuses on the disadvantages and inequality of one particular group: women. Which is why saying “But I believe in the equality of everybody!” is kind of missing the point.

Just because you believe everybody should have the same rights doesn’t mean they do. This is the key bit: feminism is about tackling the world as it actually is, where one particular gender group is being discriminated against. While the end result, hopefully, is equality for all, what’s happening right now is an environment of wide-ranging discrimination against women, and that needs to be addressed for equality to be created. Saying you’re an “equalist” is like saying you believe in a world of well-built houses when half the materials used to make houses are burnt or rotten. The house can’t be built unless those materials are fixed.

To Be More Inclusive, We Need To Change Feminism Itself, Not The Word Feminism


Using the word “feminism” shouldn’t prevent people from seeing other aspects of inequality within the movement. The whole concept of “intersectional feminism” was founded to try and broaden our understanding of discrimination against women, and make it clear that sexism is inextricably linked to race, class, and other factors.

The famous idea of “womanism,” as coined by author Alice Walker, is an attempt to answer one bit of this exclusionary issue — how can women of color feel comfortable and heard in a movement hugely dominated, throughout history, by white women? It’s an ongoing conversation, and it’s important for everybody to have a space where they feel their struggle is the focus. But replacing feminism with something that doesn’t acknowledge anybody’s struggle? In my opinion, that is taking it too far.

The Bottom Line

Part of the word feminism’s value is in its history. It’s a word that acknowledges the past struggles of people who’ve fought, sometimes against truly horrendous opposition, for the same values, even if they didn’t use the same term. From proto-feminists through to the suffragettes, the Gloria Steinems and the people protecting Planned Parenthoods, it’s a word that wears its history prominently — and a great deal of that history needs to be celebrated, even if it’s complicated (which it often is). Remembering doesn’t mean that you agree with all of it, just that you know it’s there.

It’s also, frankly, the best word we’ve got. It is, in its purest form, about improving the status of women as a group in the world — and there is no way in which that struggle is even close to over. The UN estimates that increasing women’s participation in the workforce and giving them equal pay worldwide would raise the world economy’s value by $ 17 trillion. Yep. That’s trillions.

It may be seen by some as an “aggressive” term, but when you’re faced with situations like constant everyday misogynist bullying, a rape rate increase of 29 percent in the U.K. in the past year, 15 million girls worldwide being forced into marriage as children every year, and countless other bits of evidence that women are still second-class citizens, it’s necessary to be aggressive.

Feminism needs to acknowledge and give status to people who aren’t just white, middle-class, cis, and able-bodied, but at least we’re beginning to have that conversation openly. And, frankly, there’s no other word in the world that does what it does and encapsulates what it means — at least not yet. Long live the f-word.

Images: CarnivalGoldfish, airspin, SillyTees, MisandryOverMisogyny/Etsy; Charles Chusseau-Flaviens, Schlesinger Library at Harvard/Wikimedia Commons, American Humanist Association

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The Word “Flattering” Is the #1 Enemy of Feminism Today

The worst compliment, in my eyes, isn’t “bubbly.” It isn’t even the auspicious “such a character.” The most backhanded, undermining and secretly mean thing you can say to somebody is to describe their sartorial choices as “flattering.” Not only is this a boring waste of words, but it also very much subtly implies that something about the person you’re offering probably unsolicited comment on needs said flattery; that without flattery this person is rendered in some way unacceptable.

And, not to turn this into a feminist issue (just kidding), you never, ever hear the word flattering in relation to a boy. Never are they applauded for covering up a balding head or concealing a could-be-pregnancy belly. So why are we so very used to hearing it in terms of the girls and their constantly perceived and pointed-out flaws? It’s annoying, unfair and turns clothes and makeup into a stressful, never-ending game of fixing – and it needs to stop.

To waste ones aesthetic choices entirely on trying to make oneself look better (read: more acceptable) is a borderline tragedy. If everyone is trying to “flatter” themselves into the same standardized image of attractiveness, everyone is molding themselves into the same bland abstraction of femaleness. And worse, no one is trying out things for fun, or to be different, or just to see what it looks like. A culture of fear-of-mistakes settles around how people dress or do their makeup, and that’s a sad thing.

Because, let’s be honest, a lot of what I do to myself isn’t what other people would think of as a “flattering” choice. I’ve been cultivating a uni-brow for the past year, and just recently taken to clipping my fringe into a center parting like a caricature of a nerd. I’m not interested in “flattering” my apparently problematic face and body, I don’t want to fix my imperfections and distract from my flaws. There is and should be an element of subjectivity here. One man’s “flattering” is another man’s “good God, what on earth is that?” That’s a good thing. And I’d rather elicit the “good God” response than the pernicious “flattering” any day.

So next time you sense some anxiety seeping into your getting-ready routine, take a moment. You pretty much look how you look, and there’s no point fearing that you’ve not adequately disguised your “problems”. Your problems aren’t problematic, they just exist. Instead of thinking about them, think about that exciting new metallic lipstick or those gloriously ugly shoes. By wearing something deliberately a bit off-key, the rest of you will look much more aesthetically pleasing in comparison. Now that’s the kind of flattering I can get on board with.

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These Comics Absolutely Nail Why We Still Need Feminism

Cartoons and humor make a good pair. Add a side of feminism and you get Rebecca Cohen’s spot-on illustrations.

The cartoonist, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., spreads a feminist message on her Tumblr with illustrations that are both comedic and relatable.

rebecca cohen feminist comic

Cohen explained that her blend of cartoons, comedy and feminism grabs people’s attention and helps break down the stereotypes she’s encountered.

“Feminists get a bad rap as having no sense of humor, and I want to counter that image,” she said in an email to The Huffington Post.

Cohen is also the mind behind Gyno-Star, a female superhero she invented in high school who fights “the forces of evil and male chauvinism.”

Though the cartoons have an obvious layer of humor, Cohen’s work takes on serious issues women face, such as sexual assault. She also uses her work to highlight women making a difference. One of her recent cartoons, for instance, features Bree Newsome, the woman who took down the Confederate flag in South Carolina.

rebecca cohen illustration

rebecca cohen illustration

As for her feminist influences, Cohen looks to activists. She also finds inspiration in the “amazing network of feminists online.”

“Hearing from trans women and women of color and women with disabilities and women who live their lives at all these different intersections of oppression — that has hugely influenced and expanded the way I think about feminism,” she said.

Aside from this supportive community, Cohen said she’s gotten her share of hate for her work. “Just read my Twitter mentions,” she said. But no comment, tweet or message will stand in her way.

“If someone wants to look me in the eye and tell me that all people have the same rights and opportunities and nobody in this country is facing discrimination, they’re welcome to try.”

See below for more of Cohen’s illustrations and support her work through Patreon.

rebecca cohen illustration

rebecca cohen illustration

rebecca cohen illustration

rebecca cohen illustration

rebecca cohen illustration

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How My Engagement Embodies Feminism


Feminism is simply equality for women and for men. For me, as a feminist, my romantic relationship is one place where I never have to worry about fighting for equality and respect. My fiancé and I talked a lot about feminism after we became engaged, as these conversations have and will keep paving the way for continued equality in our marriage. Ever since we started dating, Jacob and I have prioritized equality and have learned more about feminism together. Based on the results of our experiences, these are some ways we respect each other and maintain equality during our engagement:

We make it a priority to invest in each other. Sometimes life can be rough and if I am going through a hard time and he experiences that with me, I make sure to build him back up if the hardship wears him down. On the other hand, one of the things I love the most about Jacob is that he will randomly bring me home a biography of a powerful woman that he thinks I can relate to, as his way of showing me that he believes in me. We build each other up, not tear each other down. This also means we fight fair and quickly forgive.

Living together for us is like having a sleepover with your best friend every night but in a much more comfortable and trusting environment. It is a lot of fun and we make sure we don’t take ourselves to seriously. We purposefully do not get in a stereotypical pre-marriage routine of the nagging wife and the uninterested husband. We keep the atmosphere fun by joking around and having honest conversations whenever we hit a snag. Even more importantly, we split chores 50-50. We always say that we both do half the chores because both of us live here. It’s as simple as that.

We just moved across the country together, which has been a huge part of our engagement and the most sink-or-swim experience. We love exploring New York City together and since we have each other, we were able to avoid being lonely from not knowing anyone here. In fact, we have been making friends together! During this transition phase, I helped Jacob prep for interviews and now I cheer him on with his new job. In the same way, he always verbally and emotionally supports my writing projects.

We want the same things out of life and we compliment each other’s differences. Before we met, we both knew we wanted to adopt and continue with higher education, for example. And while Jacob loves economics, statistics and math, I love international law and policy. He is also extraverted while I’m introverted, so he gets me out of the apartment and I help him get some R&R. We balance each other out.

We have our priorities in order, especially with finances and wedding planning. We think before we act. To us, it seems crazy to put all of our money into the big day so we came up with a wedding budget and a plan to see it through. I made a “Budget Binder” and he digitalized it on Excel. We use these tools in twice- monthly financial meetings held on our couch with lots of snacks (and alcohol) where we make all financial decisions together.

Jacob and I plan our wedding together. It is not my job or his job to wedding plan. It is our big day and we treat it as such. We started out by making individual lists ranking things we want and things we don’t want in a wedding. After that, we compared lists and compromised. Then we divvied up the tasks and went to work! Now if only we can figure out where to go on our honeymoon…

Finally, we are building a life together from scratch and we are really proud of that. We are building our careers, our home, and our minds together. It is fantastic! We are serious about our relationship so we are focused on keeping us in a happy, healthy place both as individuals and as a couple.

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When It Comes To Feminism And Reproductive Rights, Survey Says Labels Don’t Work

New research from Vox revealed that while a very small percentage of Americans identify as feminists, the majority still believe in gender equality.

The survey included 1,067 participants from across the U.S. and covered topics including gender equality, LGBT issues and abortion. Twenty-one percent of participants were between 18 and 29 years old, 25 percent were between 30 and 44 years old, 27 percent were between 45 and 59 years old and 27 percent were over 60 years old. About half the participants identified as female and half as male.

Vox found that only 18 percent of Americans consider themselves feminists. Fifty-two percent of survey participants said that they didn’t consider themselves feminists, 26 percent were “unsure” and 4 percent refused to answer the question.

With so few people identifying as feminists, you’d think most Americans wouldn’t support gender equality. Wrong. Vox found that a whopping 85 percent of participants responded that they do “believe in equality for women.” And 76 percent of participants believe there is still work to be done when it comes to “equality for women in work, life and politics.”

While the majority of Americans don’t choose to identify as feminists, they support the ideals of feminism. In the great words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “Feminism is the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” It’s really that simple.

The survey found that Americans are equally as confused about where they stand on abortion as feminism. When asked about abortion, only 28 percent of participants agreed with the statement: “Abortion should be legal in almost all cases.”

However, when the survey question incorporated women, the results changed. When people were asked if “women should have a legal right to safe and accessible abortion in almost all cases,” 37 percent said yes.

“That’s a jump of nine percentage points in who thinks abortion ought to be generally legal, just by highlighting the fact that a woman is involved in the situation,” Vox’s Sarah Kliff wrote.

These results indicate just how complicated Americans’ feelings about reproductive rights are. “The public has diverse views on abortion. But it’s rarely a split between ‘abortion is right’ and ‘abortion is wrong,'” Kliff wrote. “Instead, there is a nuance that the public conversation typically misses: a factoring in of personal circumstances and beliefs that manifest themselves in deeply held individual views.”

While many people shy away from labels when it comes to women’s issues, it seems that most agree with the idea behind them: Women should have the same social, political and economic rights as men.

Head over to Vox to read the rest of the research.

— This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website.

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“Am I That Name?” Feminism and the Category of “Women” in History

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