As anyone who’s ever seen my Twitter feed knows, Twitter is for me a multi-faceted thing: Clipping service, networking resource, branding device, virtual water cooler, sketch pad. In that latter capacity, I’m forever finding that I’ve just tweeted what amounts to the rough draft of an actual piece, sent out into the world in little 140-character bursts — and lo, I did just that this morning. Only I think the following might also wind up looking like a draft, because I’m still working out my thoughts (blogging [as Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote] as memoir, not history).

The thinking started when I read a post by Alex Cranz on her site FemPop: “Feminism Isn’t the Problem, the Word Is.”

When I launched FemPop in March 2011 the tagline for the website was “Pop Culture Through A Feminist Lens.” It was accurate and snappy and emblazoned at the top of the site and on all related social media forums. Almost immediately people noticed the phrase. Particularly guy friends and relations.

“It makes me uncomfortable,” was the usual line.

“It just doesn’t jibe with the material,” was more specific. “Your site is for everyone. Feminism isn’t.”

….In February 2012, after yet another explanation from a well-meaning friend that the word was alienating to FemPop’s audience I snapped. I abruptly changed the logo and removed the word “feminism” from its prominent position on the website. I told myself it was an experiment I could later write about. I briefly even deluded myself into believing nothing would change.

Except there was a change, and it was so immediate and immense I actually thought I’d broken something on the website.

Cranz discovered that FemPop’s “bounce rate” — the percentage of visitors who come to one page of a site and then immediately “bounce” away — dropped. Dramatically. Like: CRAZY dramatically.

I changed one word and suddenly visitors felt comfortable poking around. Nothing else changed on the site. There wasn’t a huge redesign and the clearly feminist title of the site didn’t change. I didn’t alter color schemes or suddenly post the best article in the history of the universe. It was still pop culture through a feminist lens–but with a little less feminism on the front page.

To be honest, this shouldn’t have surprised me, and I suppose it didn’t. Not really. I may not get out much, but even in my wee, one-woman office in flyover country, I get a good eyeful of just how problematic the word “feminist” can be. I suppose I found Cranz’s piece more disheartening than surprising.

But then I got to thinking: If feminism really isn’t the problem, then maybe it’s ok to let go of the word? If we’ve reached the point where the idea of gender equality, and all the work necessary to achieve that, have been incorporated into our norms and mores — then ok. I suppose we can call whatever that is whatever we want to, and just move on. No need to derail with an apparently infuriating vocabulary choice.

But Cranz’s title, while accurate for her website, isn’t an accurate descriptor of the world in which we live (which, to be clear, Cranz wasn’t suggesting. I’m pivoting off her point).

Feminism is, to re-state the oft-stated point, the radical idea that women are people.

It is, to put it another way, the radical idea that all people are of equal value and should be treated as such.

That’s it. That’s all it is. The idea behind feminism, a word which apparently repulses so many Americans, is the same idea that stands behind the most American of values: Equality.

It makes me angry that so many Americans have gotten it so twisted, and have very little interest in getting it un-twisted. I’m not sure what they think “feminism” means or who they think it’s intended to serve or what it’s intended to do, but the animosity is so great, that it can’t be just the word. I have a very powerful feeling that if the early feminists had called themselves “egalitarians” or “equalists” or “free-to-be-you-and-me-ians,” those words would be just as reviled today.

The problem, then, isn’t the word. The problem is with the ongoing difficulty we have acknowledging the simple fact that women are as fully human as men. This is why we continue to argue over women’s right to bodily autonomy, our right to make independent decisions about our own health and well being, our right to not be assaulted or harassed, no matter what.

America’s problem is not with “feminism,” it’s with feminism. And in light of that, I think I need to hang on to word — despite all the anger and angst and sturm und drang — until we begin to get it a little more right.

PS This is why I chose that image of the President. And this. And this. And this. And this.



  1. Chad Ference

     /  December 11, 2012

    An interesting posting. The use of the word has been hotly debated for a long, long time. Observe the treatment that Virginia Woolf–in her wonderful, wonderful book Three Guineas–gave to the word: “What more fitting than to destroy an old word, a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete? The word ‘feminist’ is the word indicated. … Let us write that word in large black letters on a sheet of foolscap; then solemnly apply a match to the paper. Look, how it burns! What a light dances over the world!”

    Woolf’s larger point is that equality cannot be found in the political-cultural system as it stands. Oppressed groups–minorities and women and, especially in Woof’s time, those outside of Europe living under colonial rule–should not work to be included in a corrupt system, a system based on exclusivity. But rather should work for another system altogether, one as yet unknown. What Woolf calls an “Outsiders’ Society” needs to be formed — an obscure, unrecognized group without labels, rigid ideology (and its uncompromising terms), nationalities, unreal loyalties. In other words, to seek equality in an imperial, hyper-capitalist system (which both the U.S. and the U.K. were and are) is tantamount to seeking a position alongside the oppressors. The system itself needs to be re-imagined.

    Now, I have no problem with the word, or with what it represents (which, to me, is the radical idea that people are people). But I do think that Woolf has solid, disquieting points. For example, look at the present-day United States. We have an African-American president and a female secretary of state. Yet still we spend half our discretionary budget on the military; still unjust, horrific wars are *pursued* and fought; still are jails are unequally filled with minorities. The list goes on. The current administration, despite its diversity and appearance of progressiveness, has fueled the the corrupt system. Moreover, on some issues, it has done so in unprecedented ways–viz., the use of drones that have killed innocence from Somalia to Pakistan, the prosecution of whistle-blowers, the deportation of undocumented immigrants.

    Although I agree that the word feminism has its place and is useful, I think that the word, along with the words “progressivism” and “liberalism,” needs to be reexamined and re-positioned within (or outside rather) our political-cultural system. What is progress? I think that is a great question.

  2. The problem is with the ongoing difficulty we have acknowledging the simple fact that women are as fully human as men.

    Actually, I think the problem is that people have difficulty acknowledging the fact that women are NOT considered as fully human as men.

    People who clamour for the term “equalist” ultimately view the term “feminist” as somehow indicating a desire for supremacy; if EQUAL is not enshrined in the ideology and the movement then surely the end result is that MEN WILL BE SUBJUGATED OMG. This idea steamrolls over the reality of asymmetrical power between men and women. Ironically, trumpeting “equalist” as a term ignores how profoundly unequal men and women are in favour of imagining the possibility of a threatening, oppressive matriarchy.

    • Look, it’s you! You exist outside of Twitter! (Sorry, I know I should really reply, but it’s late and I’m really tired and I’m just so happy to see you here, too!)

  3. It’s similar to what happens when efforts to improve economic equality are framed as a “class war dividing America.” I would love to see the tweets that actually produced this essay!!!

  4. Snoring Dog Studio

     /  December 12, 2012

    It is what people with fear, denial and mistrust do – they turn words like “liberal” “government” “climate change” and “feminism” into pejoratives. But that doesn’t mean we find a euphemism for them. I consider it their problem, not mine. Unfortunately, it does change or prevent conversations when you use them, but it doesn’t mean you stop using them. You keep on working to educate others and for those who resist education, you move on.

  5. CitizenE

     /  December 12, 2012

    I always liked the word, “womanism” as it implies advocacy for people rather than gender bound principle. Usage, however, is powerful in terms of meaning. I’m with the President, as a father of daughters, a progressive, a hippie–but this:

    When I was 18, 1964, I took a road trip from CA across the country, the farthest point of which was the Arlington Cemetary, in DC. I went there to visit Kennedy’s grave and the eternal flame. I had two social epiphanies there, The second came at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It turns out that the soldier buried there from WW2 won a form of lottery, in which there were contestants from both theatres of war, ending in the finals where one was selected from the two, one from each theatre, remaining. All the other “contestants” were unceremoniously, or ceremoniously–I don’t remember, dumped into the ocean–unknown, unsung, lost to time and the oblivion of the bottom of the sea. The wrongness of our involvement in the Viet Nam War was beginning to dawn on me as a young adult, but the absolute surreality of this selection process raised in me a sense of the mighty and omnipresent throughout history horror of war.

    The first, however, was while walking toward the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where I began to notice that every single woman buried there was on her tombstone described as Mrs. Someone, the wife of General or Colonel or Major someone else. None of the women buried there that I noticed had been given to claim for a life of her own. I was not a feminist, did not even know that there was such a word, I was not yet, like the President, a father of daughters, but I had a mother, a sister, many women friends, a couple of girl friends up to that point. I was stunned; it was the first time I had noticed how women in my idealistic democratic society were actually considered institutionally. I guess you could say, from that point on I, too, have proud to say, “I am a feminsit,” and appreciate a President of the US who can, whatever his foibles, proudly show himself off thus.

  6. Darth Thulhu

     /  December 12, 2012

    To throw in the respectful dissent:

    There is no singular thing called “feminism” and you don’t get to authoritatively define the word any more than Rush Limbaugh does. For you and many right thinking people, “feminism” is just the crazy idea that female humans are fully humans, but that is not the only feminism stalking the paths of thought.

    “Feminism” is at times second-wave hate of domesticity.

    “Feminism” is at times the ideology that the only woman who matters is the one wielding institutional power and drawing a large paycheck.

    “Feminism” is at times the loudly-shared ignorant belief that the career plight and professional travails of an upper middle class white woman in America, sighing into her frappucino while she reads the NYT, is the gravest injustice on the face of the planet in this or any other time in history.

    “Feminism”, like “Zionism”, is vast. It contains multitudes. Its creed is loudly proclaimed by far more people than just those who believe women are humans. Those multitudes inevitably soil it, as we all soil our ideals in our moments of fallen selfishness.

    It is one thing to believe that the ideal meaning of the term has merit, and should be defended and restored, like “conservative” or “evangelical” or “liberal” or any of a dozen other inevitably-corrupted terms. But it is divorced from reality to believe that “evangelical” is not presently a tarnished word that many people reasonably want nothing to do with, but instead is somehow a word that only means the good ideals one might wish it to mean. “Feminism” likewise.

  7. LongHairedWeirdo

     /  December 12, 2012

    This is a good example of how memes evolve. Women challenged the traditional patriarchy, so the name that referred to that challenge suddenly became toxic, and “feminism” became the same as the most radical postulations of the least important people – so, since some women postulate that there can’t be equality living among men, women are all radical separatists who want to get rid of men.

    What’s really fascinating about this is, one might think about such a thing as requiring some scheming mastermind – but it doesn’t. It’s a subtle thing, where the things that serve the current powers that be are more likely to take root, and those that don’t are less likely to do so.

    I say this is how “memes evolve” and I think it’s a wonderful example of the concept of evolution. One reason some folks find Intelligent Design to be intellectually comfortable (NB: whether comfortable or not, it’s *not* science) is that some things just seem so *perfect* that it looks like they’re designed. But no one “designed” things so that feminism would seem toxic, or that making a rape accusation was to be more guarded against than, you know, rape. It just happened. Just as natural variations and occasional mutations ended up creating different species due to different challenges and niche strategies, certain ideas were most likely to fill certain niches without planning, because of the various powers and challenges in place in the social psyche.

    The difference is that we can change the social psyche – however long and slow a process it is. Eventually, ideas face new challenges and evolve away from the old and into newer (and hopefully, more just) ones.

  8. Not to argue that we have a problem with women being equal, or with acknowledging that we have that problem – certainly we do – but “feminism” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Many “feminists” define and represent the word as meaning that women are *better* than men, or that men are all shallow and awful, or that a woman who cares about romance/children as well as career is a traitor to her gender, or etc. It’s not entirely fair to criticize the publics’ poor perception of the word when many of the interpretations of the word out there are indeed unsavory.

  9. LongHairedWeirdo

     /  December 12, 2012

    To those trying to be “fair” and explain that, oh, but there *are* bad definitions of “feminist/feminism” – does this mean “Christian” means “supporting the Inquisition” since there was likely a time and place where the two were probably functionally equivalent? Does “believer in democracy” mean “in favor of war that is nominally in favor of imposing a democratically elected government”? The US certainly had a lot of war supporters insisting that they were spreading freedom and democracy.

    Feminism came from the idea that women were not property, were not lesser beings, were not servants or strange creatures… they were human beings with all the rights and responsibilities that entails.

    To gleefully, or sadly (but we *must* be *fair*!) point to any stupid-ass potential definition and say that’s *just* as valid as the idea that women should-to be able to own their own property, be allowed to vote, and receive fair wages is to walk down a path where no label has any useful meaning.

    The word may not have a singular definition. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t make all definitions valid.

  10. Emily: I do! I do exist outside of Twitter! It is true! Glad to be here.

    Darth: I totally take your important point, and there are dozens of perfectly valid reasons for people to want to distance themselves from the term “feminism,” most of which you articulate. None of those reasons are “men feeling snippy about women having a movement that doesn’t consider the potential future plight of men at their hands,” which is the resistance I encounter nine times out of ten, and is therefore why I, personally, feel the word is worth upholding, never losing sight of Flavia Dzodan’s specification that feminism without intersectionality is bullshit. But I completely understand and respect other women’s desire to disagree and disavow the term for themselves.

  11. Reblogged this on WIP IT – Young Women Leaders and commented:
    This makes me sad, but it’s important to explain i believe.

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