A Feminist Glossary: Part One


We are in dire need of a feminist glossary:  we should print one up on a flyer or brochure and post hundreds of copies in doctor’s offices, on subways, outside of movie theaters.  Why?  Because feminist terminology deals with the nitty-gritty of our everyday lives:  it is the language that explains why a  woman is fired for being too attractive (or not attractive enough), why Miley Cyrus uses black women as props in her performances, and why a teenage boy learns to discuss how to “get some” with his friends but is hesitant to mention his broken heart to anyone.  Feminist concerns are at the core of every discussion about sex and gender, from national debates about working mothers to videotaped rapes posted on Facebook, from who can get married to who can access reproductive care to how to help a child have strong self-esteem.

The personal is political for everyone, whether we ever read a word of feminist thought or not.

Unfortunately, most of that thought is inaccessible to the average person.  Part of the reason for that is feminism’s reputation—a result of backlash—and part of it is that feminism has become a discourse community.  A discourse community is a  group of people who do the same work and use shared terminology, like nurses or lawyers or plumbers.  Each group has its own lingo, its version of shop talk.  Usually, that’s fine.  When your sink breaks, you don’t need to know plumbing lingo: you just call someone who does.  But in the case of feminism, not knowing the lingo means you’re navigating the difficulties of sex and gender without understanding why things are the way the are, or what might make them better.  And you don’t know who to call to fix them.

To bridge the gap between mainstream culture’s understanding of feminism and the way it is discussed by those who talk the talk, I offer you this beginning of a feminist glossary.  I will publish it in two parts, beginning with basic terminology:

  1. Backlash:  Cultural reaction, both conscious and unconscious, to feminism.  This reaction casts feminism, feminists, and feminist concerns in a negative light.  Discussed at length in Susan Faludi’s book of the same name.
  2. Feminism: The equality and full humanity of women and men. (from Gloria Steinem)
  3. Feminist:  Someone who believes in the equality and full humanity of women and men.
  4. Feminist Ally:  Someone (often a man) who shares feminist beliefs and goals but does not wish to identify as a feminist.
  5. Gender:  Our cultural definitions of male and female, as demonstrated in behavior, dress, societal expectations and norms, etc.
  6. Homophobia:  Fear of homosexuality, as demonstrated in discrimination against homosexuals or behaving or speaking in an abusive manner to or about homosexuals.
  7. “–isms”:  Sexism, racism, classism, ageism, ableism etc.  Forms of discrimination based on who a person is.  Can be difficult to see because discrimination is often built into our social norms.
  8. Misandry: Hatred of men, demonstrated in sexist language or practices based on the idea that men are inferior or worthy of abuse.  Feminism is associated with misandry in mainstream culture:  this association is a part of backlash.
  9. Misogyny:  Hatred of women, demonstrated in sexist language or practices, based on the idea that women are inferior or worthy of abuse.  Many attacks on feminism use misogyny.
  10. Mujerista:  A term coined by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz to describe a Latina feminist; encompasses a theology that is inclusive of Latina women.
  11. Objectification:  Turning a human being into a sexual object that exists for the gratification of others—for example, using the female body as a marketing tool.  Often confused with sexual empowerment in mainstream culture.
  12. Patriarchy:  The system under which we live culturally, which privileges white, heterosexual men, giving them more power and prestige and emphasizing the perspectives of a dominant male.
  13. Privilege:  The cultural and social rewards that belong to a dominant group (whites, heterosexuals, men, middle-class and upper-class people, etc.).  Often goes unrecognized or seems invisible to the dominant group.
  14. Rape Culture:  The aspects of our culture that encourage us to see rape as the norm, such as violent, misogynistic porn, common acceptance of women as “hos” and “bitches” in rap music, etc.  Closely linked to victim blaming.
  15. Sex:  The biological and physical attributes that define a person as male or female.
  16. Sexual Empowerment: The ability to make decisions about one’s own sexuality, from how a person presents her/himself to how she/he handles decisions about sex and reproduction. The ability to present oneself as a sexual person from the inside out, rather than having sexuality defined from the outside in.  Also known as sexual agency.
  17. Street Harassment:  Catcalling or otherwise sexually harassing a woman in a public space.  Makes women feel unsafe and encourages women to curtail their movements in public places.
  18. Victim Blaming: Scrutinizing a victim’s habits, choices, or behavior, especially after a rape.  The idea that a woman wants to be “taken” or that her behavior or clothing invites rape, that rape is her “fault” and her job to prevent.
  19. Womanist:  A term coined by Alice Walker to describe a black feminist or feminist of color.  Encompasses the concerns and perspectives of women of color

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