THE BLOG

Language Barriers: Should We Fight for the Word Feminism?

24/03/2015 16:49 GMT | Updated 23/05/2015 10:59 BST

The only reaction my friend could manage to International Women's Day this year was, "Well, when is International Men's Day?" I told him that this reaction, and the fact that he couldn't say anything about women without putting men first, was one of the reasons that we had International Women's Day in the first place. "F**king Feminists," he mumbled. He made it sound like an insult.

The common bastardization of the word Feminist to "Feminazi" is proof in itself that many people see Feminism as a radical, man-hating movement, rather than a synonym for gender equality. It can often seem as though the word prevents people from seeing the movement for what it really is: a diverse and wide-ranging campaign which incorporates all issues on which people are treated differently because of their gender. While patriarchy is prescriptive in assigning gender roles, Feminism encourages choice and freedom. If you think people should be treated equally, regardless of their gender, I hate to break it to you, but you are a Feminist.

In the past, when speaking and writing about Feminism, I would often dilute the conversation by avoiding the F-word, and opting for something more neutral like "gender equality". It seemed to me that with the Feminist movement fighting battles on so many fronts, that it would be a waste of time to dispute the packaging. Surely, cutting the crap about etymology would allow the conversation to focus on the juicier debates about real people's lives, experiences and issues - right?

Well, no, actually. Feminism only has a bad reputation among those who don't understand it, and so the choice is as follows: do we make a concession to people who don't like the word, by rebranding it as "gender equality"; or, do we insist that people educate themselves before criticising the movement - and thus reclaim the word Feminism for what it really stands for?

I realised that to avoid using the word Feminism would be to concede a point to the movement's opponents. I would effectively be raising issues around gender equality and at the same time apologising for making these points as a woman. It would be like saying, "Sure, it's OK that you 'hate' Feminism - to save you the trouble of spending ten minutes educating yourself about what it actually means, I'll just change the word to make it easier for you to stomach, and we can skirt around the issue until it disappears because no-one properly understands it".

And yet, what about the case of Scope, formerly The Spastics Society? In 1994, the Society felt its name was "holding it back", and changed it to Scope due to the prevalence of "spastic" and "spaz" as pejorative terms. Could we not say the same of Feminism?

The difference here is that the signifier "Feminism" and its "fem-" prefix are directly linked to all female words, all female history, and all female people, in a way that the word "spastic" is not. As Sherrie Silman puts it:

Feminism declines to change its name to not include the "fem" because the desire to erase the feminine is negatively prejudicial. Feminism is called Feminism precisely because of the anti-fem sentiment infecting this planet.

In addition, Feminism is more reliant on its history than Scope - a history which it risks losing, if it changes its name. The word Feminism links current campaigns to first-, second- and third-wave Feminist movements, and to incredible women who broke boundaries to effect change and give us the rights and privileges we have today. Their achievements are evidence that Feminism works, and that it benefits society as a whole, even as it adapts to current issues and modern threats. Women are better able to contribute to society when they are able to vote, to work, to create; so imagine what we can achieve as we gain more rights, freedoms and opportunities.

The word Feminism also reminds us that the movement has a duty to address the serious disadvantages that women continue to face. Feminist victories, after all, merely punctuate a patriarchal history which continues to shape society today. Feminism is more weighted towards women's rights as it needs to readdress the balance and compensate for patriarchy's preferential treatment of men, and discriminatory treatment of women - but this doesn't mean that Feminists hate men or ignore the problems that men face.

Meanwhile, looking back at how far the movement has come is what gives us the momentum to keep fighting. When we think of Feminist accomplishments, we often look back to first-wave Feminism and the large-scale changes effected by the campaign for suffrage, but the F-word endures even now and is still making huge gains. To abandon the word now, for example, would negate the effectiveness of The Fawcett Society's "This is what a Feminist looks like" campaign in 2014. Although controversial in terms of its production ethics, the campaign successfully brought respected public figures, both male and female, under the heading of Feminism.

Meanwhile, however, young women in Hollywood like Kaley Cuoco and Shailene Woodley have been criticised for saying they aren't Feminists. I doubt such people actually oppose the movement for gender equality or the actual principles of Feminism, and suspect that it is the word itself that they are reluctant to endorse, particularly as their comments show no understanding of Feminism. This reluctance only demonstrates the pervasiveness of misogynistic and anti-Feminist sentiment - a view so pervasive that it can infiltrate an industry as sexist as Hollywood, and convince even its female actors that this inequality isn't a problem. As Ellen Page puts it, "How could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when Feminism is a bad word?"

All things considered, I think I'll keep waving my Feminist flag high. Oh, and if you were wondering, International Men's Day is November 19th. F**king Feminists, indeed.