Who’s Afraid of the “F-Word”?: What is Feminism?

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.”   -Rebecca West, Nov. 14, 1913


When you hear the word “feminist,” what comes to mind? It might be a positive image, but…well, maybe not. There are any number of troubling connotations associated with that word, especially for people not familiar with it.



It’s easy to see from the video why so many people are confused about what it means to be a feminist. According to the dictionary, a feminist is someone who advocates for social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.

Given that definition, maybe more of you are feminists than you thought. But that definition’s also a little overly simplistic. One of the most common misperceptions is that feminism is only for women, or that it’s only about women. That it’s about gender…which only women have, right? Not really.

Here’s my favorite definition of feminism, by African American feminist scholar and writer bell hooks:

“Feminism is a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels -sex, race, and class, to name a few – and a commitment to reorganizing U.S. society, so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.”  (1981)

In addition to equal rights for women, feminists advocate bringing an end to structural inequalities based on gender, race and ethnicity, class and sexuality that affect us all. And they take action based on their commitment to this advocacy – this is where the service learning part of our class comes in: it’s the action half of your intellectual (or classroom) engagement with feminism.

Of course, feminism isn’t a dogma; while feminists are united in their advocacy of equal rights, they don’t always agree with each other about what the best way is to go about obtaining equal rights or ending prejudice, or about which issues are the most pressing at any given moment, or about what equal rights and change should even look like from culture to culture.

Just like the rest of us, feminists come from a broad range of nations, cultures, and experiences, and speak an array of languages, all of which influence how they define themselves as feminists and what they see as the most important goals of the ongoing global Feminist Movement. This doesn’t mean they don’t work to find common ground.


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