Feminism – what’s in a name?

Feminism. On the surface, such an innocuous word, fighting for gender equality- who could argue with that? Words evolve in their definitions, as the classic examples of ‘literally’, ‘like’ and ‘sick’ demonstrate. Yet, in recent years the word, the concept and the activists themselves have been the targets of increasing suspicion and in some cases, derision.

Would feminism by any other name smell as bitter? Feminism inherently prioritises the female gender and its discrimination in its etymology with the prefix ‘fem’ (woman) from Latin, even though it also targets male gender inequality particularly the restrictive notions of masculinity. Men can feel alienated from the discussion, which in our modern world is often expressed through hashtags such as #NotAllMen. Some women feel that feminism automatically defines women as victims of a ‘non-existent’ patriarchy, a phrase they find insulting and false, claiming the real inequalities that women suffer such as the wage gap are exaggerated, but a glance at the figures reveals quite the opposite.

Feminism is not just a concept, it is a community which is made up of individuals who often identify with different types of feminism, quite often through political or racial divides which provide a focus for their activities, such as Marxist feminism. Feminists also surprisingly do not agree on all issues, sex work and prostitution being a very current example with the recent UK law limiting the sexual actions possible in pornography and the on-going debate over the legalisation of sex work. Within the feminism movement itself, many can feel judged for their specific feminist views which they feel may go against the ‘feminist party line’. However, though there will always be people who disagree with you, supporters can usually be found as the Oxford group ‘Cuntry Living’ demonstrates, and the only ‘feminist party line’ per se is a belief in gender equality.

‘First-world feminism’ had also been used as a disparaging term for some Western feminists who focus very much on issues such as smashing the glass ceiling, instead of female genital mutilation, child marriage and other examples of the even more grave gender disparity in other countries. The actress Maisie Williams recently criticised Emma Watson’s ‘HeforShe’ campaign in this light, the lack of female education being fought against by Malala Yousafzai for example. Julie Bindel expressed concern for the focus on attacking the views and actions of individuals such as Daniel O’Reilly or Ched Evans, instead of fighting in ways which could actually increase gender equality.

Words such as ‘egalitarianism’ and ‘humanism’ have been suggested as alternatives but lack the necessary specific focus on gender inequality, which is arguably one of the most prevalent forms of discrimination. Although most would agree that throughout the world women are the more marginalised gender, the hashtag ‘#Menimist’ used to decry instances of male discrimination demonstrates that men feel a need for a platform themselves. Joss Whedon suggested the term ‘genderist’ as this would encompass both misogyny and misandry, and would cover the move away from binary gender views, but this naturally does not focus on the more prevalent female discrimination.

The word ‘feminist’ is also practically taboo. I am so tired of hearing ‘I am a feminist but [insert ridiculous stereotype]’. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, famously quoted in Beyoncé’s song ‘Flawless’, accurately, in my humble opinion, describes a ‘feminist’ as a ‘person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes’. Nevertheless, people have been quick to decry women like Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé who self-identify as feminists because of their sexualised images and videos, suggesting they are contributing to the objectification of women. Yet, these are their own choices and not imposed without their consent, like the photoshopping of Keira Knightley’s breasts.

Frankly, separating the simple concept of ‘feminism’ from its multiple associations, both negative and positive, is an impossible task. It is not the concept itself which is necessarily to blame but rather its perception. In my mind there is no doubt that feminism is still a necessary concept and whilst the conversation must include discrimination against men, that women are still overwhelming the victims of gender inequality and therefore should be the main focus of activists.

Photo/Southbank Centre