The indefinable definition of feminism

// 11 May 2012


feminism► noun [mass noun] the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of equality of the sexes.

-ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from French féminisme.

feminist► noun a person who supports feminism

►adjective relating to or supporting feminism

-ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from French féministe, from Latin femina ‘woman’.

It’s odd the shock that the declaration ‘I’m a feminist’, or ‘I advocate feminism’ can elicit. I doubt if I was to declare that I was a socialist, an anarchist, a tory, that it would provoke such questions. There seems to be a weird fascination, a certain taboo that surrounds the term. In general terms, people are unable to see beyond stereotypes when it comes to feminists. On numerous times I’ve been asked when I’m going to ‘become a lesbian’ and when I’m going to ‘cut all my hair off’. Most of the time, I find such responses funny, if not predictable. People are scared of the unknown, and for many, feminism is just that – it holds a certain sense of antiquity, as if it’s been relegated to the past and is now irrelevant. Feminism, for so many is such an alien, ungraspable concept that when they meet someone who openly declares themselves a feminist, they want to solidify what it actually means to be a feminist and what that actually entails. They seem to crave a definitive version of what feminism actually is; or realise its instability which will enable them to successfully discount it.

I’m wary of such definitions. Feminism isn’t something solid and wholly definable. It is an unstable term, but for me that is one of its merits. Undoubtedly there are certain aims of feminism which are common to all of its strands, but equally it is subjective. What feminism means for one woman will mean something wholly different to another woman. Which is why it is impossible to impose an over-arching, hegemonic discourse upon feminism. But also why such questions and such a need for a definition is unsettling.

Someone once asked me how I could possibly dare to call myself a feminist and still strive for a breakdown of gender stereotypes. After all, inherent in the word ‘feminism’, is the idea of a segregation of gender, an innate difference between men and women and as a result it is self-defeatist and self destructive – what it strives to undermine it, through its very name, serves to reinforce. At the time I was speechless and absolutely furious; I saw the sense in the argument and as a result briefly saw the possible limitations of ‘feminism’ as both an ideology and a movement. What resulted was an ideological crisis. Sure, I know that feminism has nothing to do with creating a world where women are superior to men. I knew that feminism does not have one blind, all consuming, and furious purpose. I knew that it is possessed of hundreds and hundreds of different strands and facets. I also knew that his argument against feminism was limited and reductive, but I couldn’t say exactly why. I could not articulate a solid and impenetrable argument as to why he was wrong.

Laughably it’s taken me several months to realise what I should have said to him there and then. The origins of the feminist movement were to ensure equality between men and women, yes, and to bring to an end thousands of years of male dominance and female oppression. Obviously it had the interests of women at its very core. But feminism has changed; just as all movements and ideologies do, it has progressed and expanded and in a way mutated. Women’s rights will always be at the heart of the feminist movement yes, but more importantly it is human rights which are at its core. For me feminism’s aim is to see the destruction of a patriarchal system which does not just imprison women but all of humanity. Men are not the culprits here- patriarchy is, and men are just as entrapped by patriarchy as women are, just as the Wall Street Banker is as much entrapped by capitalism as the anti-capitalist activist. We are not rallying against individual people, individual genders, individual classes; we are rallying against a dominant belief system – one which has all of humanity by the throat.

To truly understand feminism, one has to look beyond the label. It’s true that if you are thinking in terms of semantics, then yes, ‘feminism’ is a somewhat reductive and oxymoronic term. But that in itself is a reductive attitude, and you yourself are guilty of imposing those limitations. If you are to think in such imprisoning modes of thought, you may as well throw up your hands and surrender to the world we live in. There is nothing progressive about such a declaration. Linguistically, feminism is tied to women, but symbolically, it goes far, far beyond that. Words are signifiers, but what is signified can be wholly different.

Language is in itself phallocentric and, as a result, a tool of patriarchy. It is part of a Symbolic Order which forces us to view the world in terms of binaries (day/night, man/ woman, culture/nature, love/ hate) and as a result, artificially creates divides and a hierarchical mode of seeing. If you chose to think of ‘feminism’ in terms of its Oxford University Dictionary definition, then you chose to view the world in terms of such binaries. Such restricted thought results in the conviction that feminism must be part of a binary, it must have an enemy, an opposite and naturally there must be a group who are marginalised and excluded from it. This causes people to flatten and compress feminism into a narrow, aggressive ideology which is solely reserved for women, is purely concerned with women, is filled with hostility towards men, is tied to an elitist attitude and, as a result, lacks transcendentalism.

But it is possible to reclaim language and to see beyond definitions which are tied to and inextricable from patriarchy and its resulting binaries Ultimately, this will result in us having taken certain steps to rid ourselves of the ‘ideology of domination’. Feminism does not signify a belief system that is tied to the feminine alone, instead it is expansive and wide-ranging awash with ideas of freedom and liberty and equality. Feminism is an unstable term and in this instance, this instability is positive. There is not one totalitarian definition of feminism, instead it encompasses innumerable strands and nuances. Do not think of it in terms of a binary, because such thinking is dangerous. Instead it is part of a dialectic and an all-encompassing fight against oppression.

‘Feminism is not simply a struggle to end male chauvinism or a movement to ensure that women have equal rights with men; it is a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates Western society on various levels- sex, race, class to name a few- and a commitment to reorganizing… society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion and material desires’ – bell hooks

The photo is of a caricature of a woman cleaning the house, posted using the creative commons license from thisgeekredes.

Comments From You

lil1 // Posted 12 May 2012 at 1:46 am

I’m going to clumsily get my thoughts out. Because of all the issues with the word pointed out above, I don’t use the label. I hate it in fact. It’s a label. Mostly used to misrepresent and deny. It’s the application of the label, to put one in their place. It denies, pigeonholes and oversimplifies a whole catalogue of human rights abuses (when appropriated by supremecists/deniers).

“After all, inherent in the word ‘feminism’, is the idea of a segregation of gender, an innate difference between men and women and as a result it is self-defeatist and self destructive – what it strives to undermine it, through its very name, serves to reinforce.”

For me the term ‘feminism’ was devised by (or inherited some formation in a climate ruled by) those who wanted to achieve exactly that ^ effect. To create doubt, to counter anything that questioned the oh so sacrosanct male world view. The origins of the term are sexist, no? Men who believe in innate difference, and want to equate ‘femininity’ perpetually with women for the purpose of continued otheration, and for there to be space to make anything *other than* women’s equality (hell general equality) seem a fair counterbalance, including male supremecist viewpoints, got it all in that word. After all notions of fairness and equality reduced to an ‘ism’, can be an ever refutable opinion. Or an ideology, rather than all of the issues that are being fought being accepted as fact.

I get that accepting the limiting binary notions of the term seems self limiting but since there is so much sexism in language I have never found it helpful to accept the label.

I believe women and some men who want to reclaim the word to mean what is really trying to be achieved, do so in good faith but I’m just unsure as to how we are going to shirk its corruption or possibly the label’s corrupt origin.

Isn’t it self evident in the fact that ‘feminism’ can’t be pinned down (very largely due to deliberate supremecist corrupting and misapropriation, reinterpretation etc) because the issue is one of human rights abuses and the main sufferer group happens to be women, that labelling advocates for human rights ANYTHING is unhelpful?

When someone I call out says “oh, you’re a feminist/such a feminist” I tend to respond “don’t label me” and ask whether/why they are anti human rights, and therefore felt the need to label and minimise me with a word they don’t even know the meaning of.

Therein for me lies to convenience for deniers – they can make this elusive ‘feminism’ mean whatever they want.

After all if you go round calling yourself women’s rights/human rights advocate it gives men particularly less space to accuse you of some sordid fictional “female supremecy” male-victimizing idea they’ve got in their heads, and if they disagree they are making themselves look as if they are stating anti-women’s human rights.

Just my thoughts.

Linda MacDonald // Posted 12 May 2012 at 4:47 am

I love this blog…the culprit for all of us — women, girls, boys and men is patriarchy. And the only way out of it is to wrestle the @#!%%%# hateful destructive system right out of existence.

Keep up the excellent word waying!!!

~Linda MacDonald~

anywavewilldo // Posted 12 May 2012 at 1:46 pm

Most liberation movements are based on struggle to achieve freedom for groups that may not exist in the same way if liberation comes. What ‘s the big deal? Working class people would not be an oppressed group without capitalism or feudalism.

However women do exist – and liberation has not yet been achieved. Radical feminists like myself argue that after patriarchy to be female will be entirely different to now; but that now is now.

We need to work together as women for our liberation. Feminism is one of the world’s women’s liberation movements. It is not just about ‘people’ it is about women specifically. I have a currently male child. I’d be happy to have him liberated from patriarchy too, but his entanglement has very different concequences for his social position than if he were a girl.

Women are meant to be scared of feminism, Womanism and other women’s movements … So fight the power and claim it.

IronFly // Posted 12 May 2012 at 3:55 pm

I agree with lil. I’ve never found it useful to use the f word. It not only gets people’s defenses up when you try to have probing discussions, but the very fact that defining the word is difficult makes it a problematic label: people just attach whatever they want to it based on their experiences.

I do understand the uses of naming things (I can see how identifying as a feminist builds strength and solidarity for some, thats great) but in my experience socialising with and challenging the people in my life, none of whom identify as feminist even though they’re pro-women’s rights, it’s more problem than it’s worth.

The author of this post said she had an ideological crisis over the way the definition was questioned. Does this not hint that, because it’s so hard for well-read activists to get their heads around, it must be a nightmare for others?

This isn’t a popular viewpoint in certain circles so I feel the need to pre-emptively defend myself: by not labelling myself I am not disrespecting the people who’ve fought sexism under that label, and I’m not suggesting that sexism doesn’t exist in obvious and not-so-obvious forms. Also I’m not against others using the label.

I just found that the inability to pin down a definition very troubling and my solution was to carry on, without a label. :-)

Josephine Tsui // Posted 12 May 2012 at 9:00 pm

I enjoy calling myself a feminist because it attracts the type of people I want to have conversations with. Just like if I label myself a runner, I have conversations with other runners and it takes it in the direction, and depth that I’m interested in exploring. It’s the same thing with feminism.

I find the world very lonely if I wasn’t able to have conversations like this.

Laura // Posted 13 May 2012 at 8:33 am

This site and all the feminist groups that have sprung up in the last decade wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have a word which we could use to identify each other and rally around. For me it’s just practical, and I find if you don’t get defensive about it, people’s preconceptions melt away.

Annuette // Posted 13 May 2012 at 11:54 am

I’m torn in a way but I’d say I too agree with lil1. Feminism can’t be boxed up or given definite terms because there are so many contrasting views, ideas and opinions. Some people are reclaiming various words, others are horrified and even triggered by some reclaimed words. Some are living one lifestyle or ideal, others are struggling against or refusing it. It’s not a one-box fits all and certainly becomes even less so when feminists argue amongst themselves regarding issues, some in fact going as far to dismiss some as feminists because views don’t mesh.

I’m loathed to be labelled, I hate labels. I remember watching friends struggle with other labels-fretting that they had to find one that fit and while good on anyone that likes the defininedness of labls-i am not a fan. I find often if you don’t quite fit or someone doesn’t think you fit, this way wank comes.

I also find myself disputing some people are feminists when they don’t fit ‘the box’ in my view-one MP in particular springs to mind who is blatantly anti-choice- so it’s easier, for me, to not use labels and just accept their choice of label while i may challenge their views

IronFly // Posted 13 May 2012 at 4:04 pm

Regarding the label being useful for forming online communities – absolutely.

Thinking about that, I’m reminded of one of my hobbies that until the last few years didn’t even have a name. After a label eventually caught on, loads of online communities sprung up, and along came all the associated problems with communities – competitiveness, the “I’m a better X/Y/Z than you are” debates, the extremists, the arguments over definitions, the outsiders and the rebels etc. It happens to all social groups, and feminism has its fair share of those sorts of issues.

But, and just like I did with my hobby above (which is called urbex), I gave up the label and a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. The in-fighting and competitiveness far outweighed the sense of community and camaraderie I felt from labeling myself. However, that hasn’t stopped me indulging in the hobby. Very similar to how I feel about gender activism and the feminist label.

But yeah, the usefulness of sites like these are pretty high and I don’t want to undermine that. I just wish we could form communities without the need to rely so much on labels.

Vicky // Posted 14 May 2012 at 10:16 am

It’s true that the word ‘feminism’ can provoke bad reactions, but those reactions don’t stem from the word – they stem from the idea of justice and liberation for women. If we were using some other word, one that didn’t contain an etymological reference to women, that word would provoke the same bad reactions. People aren’t objecting to the word, they’re objecting to the concept. For some reason the idea of full equality for women is still very difficult to stomach. I hate it when women feel obliged to say, “I’m not feminist, but…” in order to get their views taken seriously, and to me dropping the label would feel too much like doing that. I don’t want to stop calling myself feminist because it might provoke outrage/sniggers/condescension from people for whom women’s rights are not at a premium, and maybe they’ll listen to me if I use words that make them more comfortable.

There are some people who find it impossible to identify as feminists because historically the movement has been overwhelmingly white and middle-class, and people who have been marginalised within the feminist community don’t want to name themselves as part of it. They are fighting oppression, so why would they identify themselves as part of a movement that has participated in that oppression? I have sympathy with this view, and I think it should be left up to the individual how they want to define themselves. But I believe that the community can be cleaned up and made truly inclusive, so while I’m aware of the word’s genuinely problematic undertones, I won’t scrap it based on that.

IronFly // Posted 14 May 2012 at 10:41 am

I can’t speak for anyone else’s experiences, but bad reactions to the f word in my experience are absolutely nothing to do with resistance to equality. It’s down to having mostly negative experiences with feminists and not meeting/seeing/reading enough “good” ones.

Vicky // Posted 14 May 2012 at 12:47 pm

IronFly, I think there is something disturbing going on when people are only able to listen to feminist principles if they are presented to them by ‘good’ feminists. If I have negative experiences with black campaigners for racial justice, should other black campaigners start discussing how they can re-brand themselves in order to get past my preconceptions and make themselves more acceptable to me?

One of the fundamental messages of feminism is that women’s rights shouldn’t be contingent on women’s behaviour. The existence of feminists who happen to be obnoxious is not a legitimate reason to disparage the principles of the feminist movement – it just quietly reinforces the notion that women’s rights are somehow bound up with their ability to behave nicely and to please other people. Nobody should have to be classed as ‘good’ before their basic rights are respected.

sian norris // Posted 14 May 2012 at 2:37 pm

What anywavewilldo said.

Feminism to me is a liberation movement, to liberate us from patriarchy. Equality yes, but equality in patriarchy will never be a real equality, equality in a capitalist patriarchy even less so. We need liberation.

Also, in terms of ‘rebranding’ feminism or being uncomfortable with the label. I try to look it this way – feminism in the UK has achieved:

the vote

some reproductive rights

legal equality in the workplace (if not actually)

the right for women to an education

the right for women to be people in their own right – not property of father or husband

the right for women to a divorce and custody of her children

the right for women to sign their name

a (sort of) recognition that rape and domestic abuse are a crime and need to be tackled

the right to so many more things i can’t listen to them.

It wasn’t so long ago that UK women weren’t legal entities in their own right – married women couldn’t have the gas bill in their own name, they had to have signed permission from hubby to have a caesarean.

There’s nothing bad or shaming or negative about a label that has achieved so much in a relatively short space of time for women. Feminism is definitely something to be proud of!

IronFly // Posted 14 May 2012 at 2:46 pm

Vicky – I think you misunderstand. I mean that a lot of my friends (and myself included) have experienced a lot of sexism, stupidity and misandry under the guise of feminism. Obviously there are plenty of “good” feminists who aren’t these things (by good I mean open minded, level-headed, intelligent, willing to listen to opposing viewpoints), but our experiences are defined by many, many more negative experiences than good ones.

“The existence of feminists who happen to be obnoxious is not a legitimate reason to disparage the principles of the feminist movement.”

I’m definitely not trying to disparage the entire movement by deciding not to call myself a feminist, if that was what was meant. I think perhaps you missed my disclaimer in my earlier post: being pro-women’s rights doesn’t need a label. I am still an activist that believes in equal rights. Does it matter what I call myself? In my world, no it doesn’t.

lil1 // Posted 14 May 2012 at 5:37 pm

I’m coming from the viewpoint that the term feminist IS a patriarchal label, a pigeonholing of the movement for the liberation of women worded and thought of in relation to men.

Of course the movement should have women at the core, (me being simplistic —>) that’s where the most abuses happen still.

Definitely there is no such thing as a bad ‘feminist’ or good one – that’s why I don’t use it, it wasn’t the label that achieved any of these things, it was the movement. It was women. I don’t think we deserve a gendered label for it.

lil1 // Posted 14 May 2012 at 6:27 pm

*I certainly don’t avoid the word in order that others might be comfortable, and take me more seriously without it, I am the opposite – it’s about not keeping the misogynists happy. It’s about telling them women’s rights are a main issue. I’m basically saying, “you take me seriously, AND you don’t separate or label me”.

“One of the fundamental messages of feminism is that women’s rights shouldn’t be contingent on women’s behaviour”. Exactly this. For me the application of the label upon women makes it about women’s behaviour in relation to ‘man’ – ‘feminists’ as a niche in the dominant male world view.

My rejection of the word basically has nothing to to with the actions of/friction between different women’s rights advocates, and those who wear the label as a positive reclaimation being different to me, it’s about refusing to be pitted against them by a label.

anywavewilldo // Posted 14 May 2012 at 7:28 pm

I don’t know why some of the above posters even read this blog – what are you? “people for a nice world for people” activists?

This is a feminist* blog – why do we put up with these dull spoilt debates about whether we’d get an easier ride if we used a nicer word? Why do we put up with sighing missives on the difficulty of our diversity – who said feminism was simplistic?

If somebody doesn’t respect you being a feminist then they don’t respect women – If you can’t claim the word then you don’t respect yourself.

NB* of course worldwide feminism is not the only women’s liberation movement and non-western(heritage) women often name their movements differently: these remarks are not addressed to other women in struggle.

lil1 // Posted 14 May 2012 at 9:38 pm

@anywavewilldo although I see your point I sort of had to laugh, because you seemed to be falling into the same trap as I was talking about – denouncing those who don’t identify as ‘feminist’ and so aren’t ‘feminist’ enough to even be here.

Not everybody who rejects labels is doing it to pander to men/misogynists, or in the hope of an easier ride. Sometimes they can be standing up to being male-centrically defined, or just not being labelled. I think there’s a lot of self-respect in that.

IronFly // Posted 15 May 2012 at 9:28 am

Wow. Feminism is seeming more and more like a religion: you’re either with us or against us sort of thing.

You don’t need a label to fight sexism.

“I don’t know why some of the above posters even read this blog – what are you? “people for a nice world for people” activists?”


I pick battles based on my own beliefs and you can choose to support them or not. Simple.

“If somebody doesn’t respect you being a feminist then they don’t respect women – If you can’t claim the word then you don’t respect yourself.”

You’re missing the point, or at least, my point. It’s not about respecting “feminism” as some great big unified movement. As this post has proven there is no unified set of aims that unifies feminism. Even the concept of what equality might look like differs from person to person. Perhaps where we disagree is that I feel this is detrimental to my goals: a fragmented movement doesn’t feel like a movement at all to me.

So whilst yes there are people who get funny around the f word for pathetic reasons, there are a sizable proportion of people who have legit reasons for not wishing to associate with it:

I don’t like labelling. I don’t like the academic nature of the movement. I dislike how fragmented it is. I’m non-white and working class and I’m not sure if that’s another reason but yeah, it does sometimes feel as if I’m not welcome. I don’t like how a lot of feminism feels as if it’s a point scoring game. I don’t like how you automatically assume I have no self-respect because I chose not to label myself (even though I am staunchly pro-equality) – that’s a massive leap to make.

I’m a very practical person. I used to be an engineer – it’s drilled into me to think of barriers and find solutions to them. I don’t mind what people think of me, but what I do mind is my own self-identification getting in the way of my goals. And so if being associated with a movement that’s so fragmented me and my friends can’t make sense of it, then I go on, unlabelled.

Any animosity surrounding this decision only confirms my original feelings that it’s a point scoring game: I’m not suggesting the entire movement needs re-branding, I am only explaining why I chose not to label myself anymore. It’s a personal decision and not an attack on anyone.

Laura // Posted 15 May 2012 at 1:05 pm

“If you can’t claim the word then you don’t respect yourself.”

This reeks of not respecting other women and the way they choose to identify themselves, which certainly isn’t what my feminism is about! You don’t need to call yourself a feminist to have self-respect.

Rose // Posted 17 May 2012 at 6:06 pm

I feel that by calling myself a feminist, which I do, I don’t tell people that much about myself. The basics of it are, I’m a women, I think women should be treated with respect – and don’t believe that they are/have been.

On the other hand, peoples reactions can tell me loads about them – especially with all the guys who instantly go off on a women-need-to-shut-up–rapes-a-grey-area–I-own-my-wife–being-nice-is-emasculating rant. Which they do. And if I tell them that I’m not interested in their opinions? That does matter, I’m female, female-opinions aren’t worth sh*t. So they can keep talking at me – having that great male right to demand my time and attention… .Yeah.

They don’t tell every women they meet what they think of women – only the ones that are ‘proudly out of their place’. I would rather be informed and have a bleak opinion of society then go out drinking with someone pro-rape, or marry a guy who thought that made me his property.

While I recognise why people would not want to identify with the label, I find it helpful. It attracts the right people, brings honesty out of the wrong people, stops guys thinking I’ll put up with bullsh*t from friends/partners, encourages female friends to ask for my help, helps me find likeminded communities, and importantly, it means that when I’m struck with a objectionable group – they can’t really call me an ‘unwomanly freak’ for wanting gender equality, (or even ungendered equality), actually, lots of other women say it too – it’s a popular idea – it gets sections of bookshops – look it up!

I feel the term helps. You can search it on google or youtube. You can see the backlash it gets, and read the meaning of it. There have been times when I’ve used the words, ‘I’m a feminist’ to mean ‘you don’t own me’. People don’t have a exact definition of it – but they get the gist, quickly.

anywavewilldo // Posted 24 May 2012 at 11:40 am


I don’t respect all the ways women define themselves – why should I respect ways that are about internalised sexism?

Feminism is not about being nice all the time – it’s an ethical and political movement about the liberation of women. It is not feminist to respect what all women do just because they are women. Feminists don’t have to respect all women’s choices all the time.

There is a big difference between calling a political line and trashing someone personally.

Sara Ahmed, (a scholar on feminism, queer and migration among other things) wrote an essay called ‘feminist killjoys’ about the modern western dominance of the idea of ‘being happy’ and how feminists ‘kill-joy’ because they refuse to go along with the la la la la la idea that we have a right to be happy by not noticing others suffer.

Along these lines I don’t think it is feminist to say all choices, all lables, all ideas are fine. I don’t think we will get to a free world by being nice all the time.

I think it’s significant that these ideas are so strong in liberal feminism. To me it reeks* [touche’] of women policing the sexist social discourse that women should be ladylike.

*you are calling my argument smelly!? ha! an interesting choice

Laura // Posted 24 May 2012 at 12:06 pm

I do actually agree with all that! I really dislike this idea that feminism is all about choice – individual choices can have a hugely negative impact on other women, and feminism is about all women, not individuals. I think there’s a difference between respecting choices in terms of what people do and respecting their right to view and define themselves how they wish, however (a good example being respecting trans women’s gender identity).

I don’t really care whether women call themselves feminist or not. It’s your actions that count, not the way you label yourself. The aim of feminism isn’t to get women to call themselves feminists, after all!

Not sure why I used “reeks” there…

henrymcg // Posted 2 June 2012 at 11:24 am

“Language is in itself phallocentric and, as a result, a tool of patriarchy”

“Do not think of it in terms of a binary, because such thinking is dangerous. Instead it is part of a dialectic and an all-encompassing fight against oppression”

Supposing statistics are produced – at some stage – showing that women are, in fact, not discriminated against in the workplace any longer. Will it be claimed that this argument is a devious trick of the patriarchy?

Where does this end? Are we prepared to throw out logic and science (as well as language) for the sake of a political argument? I can imagine those being called phallocentric. It seems the rhetoric comes first and if reason doesn’t fit in with the rhetoric, then reason is a “tool of the patriarchy”

I agree that feminism isn’t just one set of beliefs. Best, then, to focus on individual arguments rather than labels. But you have to be prepared for the arguments to not confirm your prejudices..

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