What does “feminism” mean?

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Carolyn Braganca—ENG Lit ’15


Emma Watson, Benazir Bhutto, Jennifer Siebel Newsom,  Susan B. Anthony, Nicki Minaj, Betty Friedan, Yoko Ono, Maya  Angelou, Hillary Clinton, Angelina Jolie, Malala Yousafzi—what  do all of these women have in common? They all support  feminism . . . but do they support the same feminism?

To start with, what is feminism? Seems like a pretty obvious answer—according to the Oxford English Dictionary, feminism is the “advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex.”

If that’s the definition, why are some women reluctant to identify themselves as feminists? According to a recent BuzzFeed survey of 300,000 participants, while 99 percent stated they believe in equality between the genders, only 69 percent identified themselves as feminists. Of the 31 percent that did not identify as feminists, 67 percent stated the term “feminism” did not accurately represent their views.

Why the discrepancy?

Those who study the English language—or any language, for that matter—are well aware of the power words possess. This power, however, is subjective because language is subjective. Even for a word with a standard and accepted definition, every individual interprets the word in subtly—or obviously—different ways.

My definition of feminism is based on my context, on my education and experiences. My brother’s definition of feminism is based on his unique context. No person on the planet can have the exact same context, which means no person’s definition of feminism is the same.

My context is similar to my best friend’s context, which means our definitions are similar but not the same. It would be fairly easy to unite our definitions and determine one standard definition. However, my context is radically different from that of someone who lives in a rural Nigerian village, so our definitions of feminism will likely be very different. How do my best friend and I add the Nigerian’s definition to the standard definition?

If no two people have the same definition of feminism, how can there be one standard and united definition? Does this mean feminism does not exist as one movement but rather as multiple feminisms? Can feminism—or feminisms—succeed if there is not one united definition?

Does there need to be a single definition? I don’t think there does.

The problem with the feminist movement is it assumes there is one definition of feminism and everyone knows what that definition is. Therefore, it is difficult for feminists to garner strong support on a national or international scale because the definition of feminism becomes too diluted to draw many passionate supporters—people can’t connect with a united definition of feminism. This does not mean, however, the feminist movement is futile or doomed to fail.

Feminists need to concentrate more on a local scale—on the small picture. The individual contexts of citizens of a state county, for example, are likely to be more similar and, therefore, easier to blend into a unified but local definition with which more people can connect and identify.

In rhetorical terms, feminists need to focus more on identifying a more specific audience and adjusting their arguments to a context to which their audience will relate and understand. By narrowing their focus, feminists will affect a smaller population in a stronger way instead of a larger population in a weaker way.

The feminist movement will not succeed by waging a war against the international patriarchy. Feminist movements will win small victories in battles against local patriarchies, and these victories will stack up to eventually win the war.

Remember, just because we have lost a few battles doesn’t mean we won’t win the war. Considering we have nothing to lose and everything to gain, the odds are in our favor.


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