Is “feminist” a dirty word?


I recently wrote a blog post about the sexism inherent in the latest Lynx Apollo advertising campaign, which wants to send 22 brave men to space. The post got quite a lot of attention both on social and traditional media, with Forbes, Discovery News and RIA Novosti all picking up on the issue. Tomorrow morning I’m going to be on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme talking about why I think the adverts are damaging.

There have been many comments, some supportive, some questioning why I would be surprised that a male brand is targeting men, some giving personal reasons as to why this sort of campaign could put young women off thinking about astronautics as a career. Then there was one comment stream that really bothered me. Partly because it seemed to miss the central point of my post, partly because it tried to make out that I thought things I didn’t – then labelled me a hypocrite for thinking them, and then because it stated things like “Both men and women seem to be getting quite irritated by cynical privilege seeking from feminists.”

I have to say that this honestly baffled me. There was nothing in my post that asked for any privilege, I was just pointing out I had hoped that in this day and age, advertisers should be above using damaging sexist stereotypes.

The definition of feminism is “The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men”. Equality being a key word here. Calling for equality, is not seeking privilege in my mind. I’m pretty sure I’ve not missed anything there. Equality for women, also equals equality for men. The major clue being the word equality. Right?

Does that make me a feminist? Well on the basis of the definition, yes, of course. So why did I feel strange when someone suggested that I was? It should be something to be proud of. Maybe it was the suggestion that by pointing out an inequality for women, I couldn’t possibly be interested in any other exisiting inequalities. This is not the case.

Another part of the problem revealed itself a little further along in the comment thread. The perception of what a “feminist” actually is doesn’t necessarily match the definition. The same commenter turned to a female friend to ask what she thought of feminists: “Ugly lesbians who want to be treated equally to men by being treated special” was her reply. Aha. I’m not that, and it’s not the start of that sentence that bothers me, but the end. “Want to be treated equally to men by being treated special”, no, that isn’t what feminism is about. Not in my book, and not by the definition. Feminists want equality, right? What’s wrong with that? If they wanted special treatment, then they would be hypocrites, indeed. I totally agree, but the issue is that if people assume that it what feminism is about, it makes it very easy to label things as “feminism” and then ignore them. This is itself dangerous.

If you believe feminism to be something which by definition it isn’t, you are bringing your own prejudices to situations and using the term to excuse you from having to engage with them. That means that important issues can just be trivialised as people making a fuss over nothing, or wanting to be “treated special”.

I’m uncomfortable with this idea. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I paused before posting my original blog in the first place, because I knew that someone would try to belittle my concerns or make out I was making a mountain out of a molehill. But then I decided that if everyone felt too scared to speak out, then nothing would ever change. This was something that I could do, so I did it.

It is a shame that the idea of feminism has been muddied like this, to the point that it makes me feel uncomfortable to label myself a “feminist” because I know that people think of it in the wrong way. What a shame that after all the hard work that has been done by feminists, that the term is now being used as an insult to shut people down. I don’t know what to do about it, can we reclaim it for good and remind people of the true definition, or is it now just associated with extreme militant views?

I genuinely don’t know. What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Is “feminist” a dirty word?

  1. The fact is that “feminist” is a word that is used to mean so many different things that it essentially means nothing at all. It can refer to anything from supporting women’s right to vote or seek employment, which few would disagree with these days, to the sophistic “all men are rapists” bigotry advanced by certain prominent campaigners who would be more accurately termed female supremacists.

    It’s not like it’s a good choice of term anyway — a word derived exclusively from one gender is never going to be widely interpreted as representing a desire for equality, even if this is what many its proponents genuinely want (although I have seen some VERY strange definitions of “equality”). It would be better to simply accept that the word has too much cultural baggage associated with it, and try to find a new one.

  2. I believe “feminism” has become somewhat of a dirty word, but not randomly or erroneously as you are implying, despite the even handed and worthy definition of the word.

    The word has died a slow and quiet death, I think, not killed by the “militant feminists” or the extremists, and not by some conspiracy of mindless bigotry and hatred, but by its current inability to connect with the actual lives of average men and women as they are being lived, regardless of the claimed pursuit of equality.

    Here are some things I think that simply don’t add up and don’t connect with people, creating the perception that feminism wants to be “equal” by being treated “special”.

    1. The constant insistence that the rest of the world needs to change their behavior toward women to provide women with comfort, safety, encouragement, and a flourishing life, always with the implication that men receive these things regularly in society. A man or woman living in the world never sees those things given to anybody of either gender, so those requests have the feeling of special entitlement.

    2. The impression that the notion of equality, for feminists, means the absence of consequences, accountability, responsibility, or trade offs for choices made. Both men and women know that those things are very much a part of life, and they are not the same as oppression. This causes a huge disconnect between feminists and everybody else.

    3. Feminists have become too one sided in their approach regarding equality. They are not very forthcoming in discussions about the high male dropout rate, or the enormous male suicide rate, or other issues where women are at an advantage. This causes a huge disconnect with people.

    4. The language has become too loaded with slogans and propaganda, punctuated with dubious statistics. “4 out of 5”, “75 cents”, “rape culture”, “privilege”. Even when the ideas are valid, slogans never sound like reasoned arguments. They feel like a trick to attract followers. Feminists end up repelling those that feel there are real issues involving women that should be addressed fairly.

    5. Modern feminism, unlike the courageous feminism of the early days, spends too much time and energy asserting their central thesis that women are consistently “victims”. This idea is not negotiable to current feminists, and they argue passionately about how women are victimized in a multitude of situations that often feel non gender specific and simply seem to be a part of life for everybody. Men do not like seeing women as victims, as it lowers their opinion of them, and women do not like feeling like permanent victims, as it lowers their own opinion of themselves and feels unfair. This is very alienating to both genders.

    I am a big proponent of equality for women, and I feel like it is important to stand up to bigotry and prejudices, whether subtle or obvious, and there is no question that there are issues involving women that are unjust and based in prejudice, but I have had to divorce myself from the word “feminist” and make the effort to see the women with whom I interact in my life as women, people, and human beings who I hope will want to be part of the same ideological group as I am as we relate to each other.

  3. Hello – why don’t we coin our own term. Equalist. Has a nice ring to it. I can think of Maggie Thatcher appreciating that one too hehehe

Any thoughts?

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