“Feminist”: the meaning behind the word

Erika Miessner and Olivia Miller

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“I am a feminist.”

It’s a relatively simple phrase, but one that always seems to hold so much baggage. It can make or break first dates, spark heated arguments and completely color how someone views another person.

Merriam-Webster clearly defines feminism as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” But in the minds of many people, “feminist” would be better defined as “extremist man-hater.”

“What I originally thought of was man-hater, but I know that’s incorrect,” said science teacher Pete Olszewski.

“My perception is very negative,” said science teacher Shanna Piggott. “When I hear the term, I just think extremist women’s rights.”

And yet, Piggott is one of the many who supports equality and an end to discrimination, which is feminism’s main goal.

“I just want things to be fair: race, gender, age,” said Piggott. “The most qualified person should gain success.”

Senior Lupe Lara also supports equal rights in terms of gender but is not sure if he would call himself a feminist.

Some believe that people do not understand that feminism is about equality because they are not aware of the movement’s goal.

“I think feminism is about equality and I think some kids do not understand that,” said Band teacher Dom Bertino. “Women deserve equal pay and equal rights and some women do not get that.”

Another possible cause is people, often of the older generations, holding onto some of their more traditional values.

“If you talk to my grandfather who’s 93, he wouldn’t be able to wrap his mind around [the idea of] a female president,” said associate principal Barb Georges, explaining how definitions of gender roles change by generation.

Others think that some of the negative connotations can be caused by privileged groups fearing a loss of power.

“I think anytime you see some sort of human equality movement, you will see backlash,” said English teacher Victoria Lobb. “If you are asking for women to be in power, in the same respect as men, I think oftentimes the logic is that it means that men have less power. They think that means that power is going to be taken away from them. I think that comes from a place of entitlement.”

“Telling a dominant group that their privilege is unearned (that being male or having traits we socially associate with men is not actually inherently better) often makes them defensive,” said University of Illinois Gender and Women’s Studies professor Mel Stanfill in an email interview. “Losing the superiority you’ve always had your whole life does feel like victimization. So then men feel like they’re being attacked or having things taken from them, rather than just balancing out advantages they unfairly got.”

Ironically, men could stand to benefit from feminism as well.

“[Men] are essential allies and are themselves often hurt by patriarchy’s ideas of masculinities and the relations between different genders,” said Gender and Women’s Studies at University of California Berkeley Professor Charis Thompson in an email interview.

It is important to note that feminism is not the only movement that has experienced backlash in the United States.

“I don’t think that there is more backlash with feminism compared to other civil rights movements,” said Stanfill. “For example, no one has ever gone around assassinating leaders of the feminist movement, unlike the African-American civil rights movement.”

However, even though there is no violent backlash to the feminist movement, there still appears to be an effort to make the movement look bad.

“I read a book and the author talked about how the way to demonize something like feminism is to convince someone, like a woman who benefits from something like feminism, that it is something ugly,” said English teacher Maureen Ritter. “That is where this stereotype of the femi-Nazi came from. That a feminist has to be like a big, fat, ugly, lesbian. I think those misconceptions came from a purposeful effort to demonize the movement.”

The demonization of the feminist movement makes educating people about the actual point of feminism all the more important.

“If someone ever says anything out of social boundaries [in class] we talk about it,” said English teacher Chris Palmer. “We discuss why it is inappropriate and why it is hurtful. We try to keep an open dialogue, that way they do not say it in another place where it could be completely misinterpreted.”

Feminism can be very beneficial for women and cause them to feel empowered in a way that society often doesn’t allow them to be, according to Lobb.

“I think that oftentimes when we talk about gender really explicitly, that girls can feel really empowered,” said Lobb. “[Girls] feel like they have something unique to them. If they are often really quiet in classes and they have been encouraged not to talk much, it gives them sort of an empowerment.”

Even simply identifying openly as a feminist can help.

“Don’t be afraid to use the word feminist,” said French teacher Maggie Shore. “If you’re afraid to use the word and don’t use the word, people won’t associate people they admire or people they like with that word.”

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“Feminist”: the meaning behind the word