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 more than likely it’s not. There are any number of troubling connotations associated with that word, especially for people not familiar with it, and many of these aren’t new. Let’s take a look at some of the common images and narratives we get about feminism from pop culture, courtesy of Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency:



According to the dictionary, a feminist is someone who advocates for social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.

Still, that definition’s pretty oversimplified – and consider this: whose perspective was it written from? With which men do we aspire to be equal? If you’re a woman of color in this country, do you aspire to have equality with men of your race? Do Black men or immigrant men or Latino men have equal rights in this country?

Such a definition certainly makes feminism seem less scary and like something we’d all want to support, right? But it doesn’t get at the intersectional analyses and restructuring of both private and public power dynamics that shape both our private and personal lives that feminists have long been invested in changing.

For the sake of our class, let’s agree on the following definition of feminism, written by African-American feminist scholar, writer, and teacher bell hooks in 1981:

“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.” 

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.

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 to go about obtaining equal rights or ending prejudice, or about which issues are the most pressing at any given moment. 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. But those differences don’t stop them from working together for social justice all over the world.


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