Observations about Modern-Day Usage of the Term “Feminism”

This article began as an attempt to answer the question: “Where does feminism stand today in the eyes of young, professional women? What is Modern Feminism?” My research consisted of numerous intriguing conversations with my girlfriends over cocktails; awkwardly drawn-up conversations with acquaintances and strangers at work or the grocery; an hours-long interview with celebrated Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies professor Anne Runyan from the University of Cincinnati; and another analysis with a local lawyer (we will call her Karen, as her job prohibits the use of her real name) who confronts gender politics in both the courtroom and her own workplace.

Born from that research, my short answer is Who the hell knows? It means something different to every woman, depending on her politics and her own personal situation. But the one constant that appeared in my research is that the term “feminism” itself has staunchly laid its claim in academia while simultaneously withering in many women’s day-to-day conversations.

At first, I kept hearing the expression “Feminism is dead,” primarily from friends or acquaintances with whom I would casually bring up the subject. My initial reaction was shock: “But as we speak, there are women running for and winning presidencies, gunning for secular rights, battling for positions of power! How can anyone, anywhere, say that feminism is dead?” And then it occurred to me that the last time I referred to myself as a feminist was more than 10 years ago while exploring a minor in Women’s Studies.

It’s certainly not the concepts behind the movement that have croaked, but perhaps the word “feminism” is beginning to pass away. For many women, it seems the problem with defining feminism today is this: Feminism is not so much about women’s rights as it is about natural-born rights. ‘All’ feminists really want is for everyone (every thing, sometimes) to be treated equally. But now that feminism has built its own history, it must battle connotations, rigid stereotypes, and stagnant ideas others see it as embodying.  When I asked Karen whether or not she considered herself a feminist, she answered, “I would never say I’m not a feminist, but I would refer to myself as a human rights advocate.”

“It’s difficult for me to pin down any one, readily identifiable definition for the term ‘feminism’ other than the ‘struggle for women’s equality.’ The problem is that the context of who is struggling and the manner of identifying and prioritizing goals within that struggle may vary widely,” adds Karen.

Throughout history, feminists have focused on questions of human equality, issues that surfaced during the abolitionist movement, or the Vietnam War, issues that clearly went beyond the struggle for women’s equality, and yet we seem to see it less defined within the scope of gender nowadays.

Many feminists would argue that the two terms, Human Rights Activist and Feminist, are synonymous, interchangeable even. According to Anne Runyan, “Today’s socio-political arguments espouse what feminists have argued for a long time: Commercialization is problematic, wars are wrong, gender discrimination is bad—all under the banner of the idea that there can be other worlds. There doesn’t have to be this world saturated with the void of caring in terms of democratic participation.”

Regardless, it does seem that modern-day women are rejecting historical vocabulary terms for a movement that has both shifted and adopted meaning. Looking at my notes from my interview of Professor Runyan, they are chock full of politically charged, academic terms that fit perfectly within the discourse of feminist research and the classroom. But when poring over discussions about disparities between treatment at our jobs, or even fighting our own mothers for a non-traditional lifestyle, my young female friends are essentially discussing feminism without ever using the word, and often turning away in disgust when women like Sarah Palin adopt it as her own.

“The ultimate goal of feminism is to wither away, to not be ‘needed’ anymore, but research shows us that it is still very much needed,” Professor Runyan comments. “The Death of Feminism is always organized by those who don’t want feminism.” But that is perhaps not the case for the word itself, nor those who are adopting their own language to discuss themes common among feminists for decades, even centuries past.

“There are swarms of women who are concerned with women’s issues, and who appreciate what was done for them by old-guard feminists. We live in a world where women are active in politics and have a real voice,” adds Karen.

It may just be that they are finding new ways to define feminism with that voice.