Feminism got a spike in publicity this week, with March 25 marking the 80th birthday of icon Gloria Steinem. Add to this the ongoing celebration of Women’s History Month, and the internet would have us all believing that women’s causes are at the forefront of our national consciousness these days. It’s strange, then, that I’ve recently found myself questioning my own “feminist” status.
Rest assured, I still hold strong opinions regarding the treatment of women in our society. I still support women’s healthcare, equal wages for equal work, and positive portrayals of females in media and advertising. I am still wholeheartedly opposed to chauvinism and slut-shaming. I still give a thumbs up to any Facebook meme featuring a Tina Fey quote. But if Beyoncé and Sheryl Sandberg can ban the word “bossy,” I have another proposal: Let’s reconsider the term “feminist,” as well.
For the record, I’m not talking about censoring the dictionary here (and I doubt Sandberg, Bey, et al. are, either). What I am suggesting is that language evolves to reflect values, and it is perhaps time to think about what modern word usage is saying about the current state of our culture. Let’s consider for a moment what “feminist” actually means. In short, it is a label used to describe someone who opposes sexist behavior toward women. Let’s also consider this:
Why do we need a word for that?
What does it say about us, that we seem to have blindly accepted into our lexicon a label meant to specifically define those who oppose something so inherently wrong? At what point did we accept, onto our already heavy burdens, responsibility for bearing the vocabulary of this injustice? To be frank, it’s not my job to be a feminist. Let the weight of terminology rest on those in the wrong. The oppressors. The sexists. The chauvinists. Let them carry the labels. Let them have the Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags and Pinterest boards. Let them alert the rest of us to their presence by blatantly calling themselves out for supporting inflammatory ideas about gender equality. I, behaving as a decent human being, acknowledging that indecent behavior is in fact indecent, should not require categorization. Categorization is a method for lessening individual value, whether it’s done intentionally or not. And I am valuable in my own right.
We know that the action of labeling someone is dehumanizing, serving to impose a sense of the “other.” We see it all the time, from playground bullies shouting “NERD!” as they kick dirt in another child’s face, to any number of racial/sexual/religious slurs muttered on the sidewalk. Hateful labels exist to put individuals from imposed-upon demographics in their place. You know these labels. They start with N’s and C’s and F’s, just to name a few of the more popular letters. I’ll let you fill in the blanks for yourself. Now, decades after the achievement of women’s suffrage and Title IX and Roe v. Wade, “feminist” is all too often one of those F-words.
It’s more subtle than many of the others, of course, but the tone of degradation that bubbles up in offhanded mentions of “those feminists” can be undeniable. In many circles, even among women, the word “feminist” evokes images of an aggressive, rabid, man-hating radical. Women who speak out against acts of chauvinism, or even just gently draw attention to sexist mindsets in hopes of changing them, are usually made to feel either like the raging femi-Nazi bitch or the oversensitive crybaby—both propagated through a twisted understanding of the word “feminist,” a term that could essentially be boiled down to one meaning: “anti-sexist.”
I can think of no other anti-discriminatory label that exists in common contemporary usage. We do not regularly and willingly categorize people as anti-racists, or anti-religious-persecutors. We don’t have a word that means person-who-thinks-homophobia-is-bad, or kid-who-doesn’t-steal-lunch-money. Is it, then, a subconscious act of victim-blaming to blanket everyone who opposes sexism under the oft-stereotyped term, “feminist?”
Cheris Kramerae famously described feminism as “the radical notion that women are human beings.” Now, as human beings, we need to consider whether our thoughts are affecting our words, or vice versa. So, am I a feminist? Absolutely. But I’d rather consider myself a person with values, first and foremost. I don’t need a hashtag for that.