The negative connotation of the word “feminism” explained

Adapted from: “Our favorite “f-word”: The misconceptions of feminism in Uni and mainstream culture” By BETH LARSON and LARA ORLANDIC

When someone mentions the word “feminism,” the first thoughts that come to our minds are about the brave women involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement during the 60s and 70s. These women fought to give the women of our generation many rights that we take for granted.

If our generation is truly grateful for everything that these women have accomplished, why do so few young women wish to identify themselves as feminists?

Over the years, in many instances the word “feminist” was used with negative connotations. How has such an inspirational term transformed into a derogatory insult? The answer lies in the history of the word, and in what it means to be a feminist in America.

The term “feminism” originated from the French word féminisme, first used in 1837 by the French philosopher Charles Fourier. Fourier wanted to improve the status of women in society, but he did not advocate equality between the sexes. The first English definition of “feminism” appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1895: “advocacy of the rights of women (based on the theory of equality of the sexes).”

As the waves of the Women’s Liberation Movement passed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, feminism began to assume the meaning with which it is associated in present-day American society: “the theory of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Some interpret feminism to mean that women should have the right to chose whichever lifestyle they please. Others may interpret it to mean that women and men should be considered equals in all aspects.

As usual with controversial topics, feminism has been widely misinterpreted throughout history.

“The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women,” said Pat Robertson, a television evangelist and former Baptist minister during his GOP convention speech in 1992. “It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.”

Although most misinterpretations of feminism are not so radical, many have degraded feminists or might have discouraged women from joining the feminist movement. In 2004, the conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh popularized the term “feminazi,” arguing that feminists’ views towards abortion are comparable to atrocities committed by the Nazis.

Perhaps these public denouncements of feminism are part of the reason our generation has misinterpreted feminism as a negative term. Many of the student interviewed claimed that men and women are equal in our society, so feminists must be complaining for no reason. In addition, we have heard an increasing number of people argue that feminists wish to elevate women above men in society, a concept foreign to feminism ideology.

Strong evidence shows that this change in people’s views toward feminism was caused by the “conservative backlash” against liberal issues, which emerged after the counterculture movement of the 1970s. Counterculture introduced an influx of liberal ideas and issues, which triggered an adverse reaction by conservatives. Thus people’s viewpoints became increasingly polarized.

I strongly believe we should take back the word feminism and what it truly stands for. We shouldn’t let the definition be bullied into a meaning with which the first feminists would not agree with. It’s a sad day when free thinking, intelligent women choose not to identify themselves as feminists because the word’s meaning has been marred by people who chose to not try to understand it. As with many other issues, I believe the key to fixing the problem is education. Both women and men today need to be properly educated in what the term feminism means and implies. I hope one day all women, and men, won’t be ashamed to call themselves believers in feminist ideals.  

-N

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