The F Word: Feminism

If, when I began this blog, someone had asked me if it was going to be a feminist blog, I would have used too many words to mitigate the one that mattered:  yes.  I wouldn’t have come out with yes, not right away, because the word feminism conjures up the derivative slang femi-nazi, and all of the enraged connotations thereof.   I’m not sure I even would have defined myself as feminist, much less this blog, because of those connotations—I’m not angry at men as a whole; if I get angry at one in particular I generally get over it, and I try not to hold him accountable for cultural attitudes toward women since the beginning of time.  I have led a life in which I could determine my own path—none of my choices have been directly affected by blatant sexism run rampant, which makes me part of a very fortunate generation of women.  So, to use such a gung-ho, loaded word as feminist to describe myself, or the writing in which I’m trying to address the cultural issues we still have around womanhood?  No, no, feminism was too strident a word—all I really want is for women and men to communicate and hear each other, to treat each other as equals in every realm of life, so that all of us—women and men—are free to be our whole selves.  And so that the children we create and raise together are free to be their whole selves.  So…what word is it that I need to describe my aims?

As it turns out, the word I need is the one I wanted to avoid:  feminist.  The problem isn’t the word—it’s her bad reputation, which is undeserved.  It took me a while, and a little bit of research, to figure that out.

I first started pondering the issue when I was searching for images to use in this blog.  Enter the word “feminism” in a search engine on a photo website, and you will get many images like this one:

Man with handcuffs

Man with handcuffs

My, my.  Is THAT what this is all about?  And by the way, this image is tame.  There are images of women:

      • Tied to railroad tracks (of course)
      • Jerking men around by their ties
      • Yelling at men, pushing men, or holding a man back or down
      • In a dominate position over a half-naked man in bondage while wearing…well, let’s just say they wouldn’t wear these outfits to work
      • Wearing chains or ropes, but liking it just a little bit—and looking pretty damn hot while they’re at it
      • Standing on conference tables—always in heels and a short skirt.  This is, I’m assuming, to show female dominance while asserting  sexuality, though I’m not sure how that’s accomplished by making sure your coworkers can see your underwear.

In short, the images that symbolize feminism are pissed off, and they’re not gonna take it lying down.  Unless they want to, and then they will be in high heels, preferably red.

Gracious.  None of those images would do, so I didn’t use any of them.  But I did start thinking about the word feminist, and what it means to me.  Then I wrote my post entitled The Language of Sexual Agency.  A friend of mine who read this piece asked me to think about what word we should use to describe men, like her husband and mine, who support feminist goals and ideas.  Men who recognize that we still have some work to do culturally about gender roles and female sexuality, who see women as their equal partners and friends, and who would like to be in on the conversation about change.   I know tons of men who need a word they can use in this respect—and, you know, if they use the word feminist they’re gonna get some funny looks.  They can’t be pissed off, that’s for those crazy bitch femi-nazis, so they must not be—ahem—very masculine.

My friend didn’t say all of this when she asked me to think about what word would apply to a male feminist—she didn’t have to.  I knew exactly why a man might be uncomfortable naming himself as feminist.  I wasn’t even comfortable naming myself that way.

This question of nomenclature percolated in my mind for a bit.  I really didn’t want to come up with a whole new word for a “feminist” man—it seemed to me that the right word—the calm, rational, equal, respectful, tolerant, democratic and Socratic word—should be androgynous, or at least unisex.  I considered humanist, but that’s already been taken by the humanists.  We can’t grab it from them—they might become humi-nazis.  No, no, we need our own word, simultaneously strong and inclusive, a word that advocates for women  without disparaging men and wouldn’t dream of putting you in bondage against your will—not even if she was wearing four-inch red heels.

As I was searching for the right word, I started reading Gloria Steinem.

And I understood, in a way I never had, just exactly why women of her generation got so pissed off.  Many of the angriest feminists had a right to be angry.  They were disrespected and degraded, professionally and personally, in ways that are illegal today—because they fought to make that level of sexism and harassment illegal.  Their anger propelled change.

But even then, in the midst of the sexual revolution, feminism was not about rage and retribution.  Here is what Steinem had to say about it in 1983, as she is describing the zeitgeist of the 1970s: “Though feminism was (and still is) a misunderstood word, many women readers wanted a magazine that supported its real definition: the equality and full humanity of women and men.”  (“Life Between the Lines,” Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, p. 5).

So the word I need, the word to describe myself and anyone else (even an uber-masculine man) who wants “the equality and full humanity of women and men”—is the word I wanted to avoid because of its reputation:  feminism.  And yes, this is indeed a feminist blog.

My primary aim in writing my way through the issues around gender is this: to see women being truly whole, at every stage in their lives, whether they have children or not, whether they marry or not, no matter what kind of job they have, no matter how old they are.  I want there to be a time in which women can be born, go through puberty, choose mates, have children, and find fulfilling careers without feeling that a part of themselves—or more than one part of themselves—has been co-opted or truncated by societal norms and expectations.  Those women, whether they are in my daughter’s generation or my great-granddaughter’s, are the why of everything from suffrage to bra burning to boycotting Carl’s Jr.  Those women are the why of feminism.  And those women, when they arrive, are gonna be so damn happy they’ll make the world sing, as long as we make sure they know how long it took to get them here.  And while we’re at it, we better make sure they know that feminism, while it might be a fraught word that requires a book and a conversation to untangle, has never been a dirty one.

2 thoughts on “The F Word: Feminism

  1. Charles says:

    Liz, your blog post struck me because that’s exactly how I felt about using the word atheist. It has many negative connotations when, in reality, it shouldn’t. As a word and as an idea, it is amoral. Knowing my religious disposition doesn’t tell you anything about how I will behave in a given situation. As a society, we have to move beyond demonizing others and start trying to understand each other, which is, as I understand it, one of the goals of your blog. So thanks for writing and sharing!


    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Thanks for commenting, Charles. Atheist is indeed a “loaded” word, just like feminism. It would be interesting to come up with a list of words that describe various beliefs or ideological positions, and work through the connotations of each. Now that I’m teaching argument, I am beginning to think about rhetoric more consciously (as a writer, I tend to employ it without analyzing it)–and in many rhetorical situations, the negative connotations of a word can be used to dismiss an opposing viewpoint–or what might seem to be an opposing viewpoint at first glance. You are right that one of my aims is to get people truly communicating, and one of the ways to do that is to look at the language we are using, and the reactions others might have to that language, as well as our own reactions. Thanks again for sharing!


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