Nothing wrong with the word “feminism”
Does feminism need rebranding? It’s a suggestion that unhelpfully comes up every time the topic of how negatively so many people react to the word arises, so no big surprise it came up in the comments at yesterday’s post, in the traditional mansplaining tone from a commenter called TitanTransistor:
Every time something like this comes up, it pushes me closer and closer to agreeing with people who say that ‘feminism’ might need a rebranding or new banner.
The term has a ton of baggage, some undeserved and some self-inflicted, and it’s not just a matter of misogynists overtly trashing it. Moderate and progressive men and women continue to distance themselves from the title and refuse to self-identify as such.
Most people support the ideas of feminism, but many seem to loathe the label.
In an even more egregious bout of mansplaining, former “lad mag” editor Martin Daubney recently took it upon himself to tell the ladies that they need to ask for equal rights with a more man-friendly word:
Few other words in the English language instil such an immediate, powerful and usually negative response in men (and, interestingly, quite a lot of women) as the F-word…..
I really, really wish I didn’t feel like this. But as long as feminism is called feminism, a small, dark nugget of my soul will forever resist its message.
You hear this a lot. “Oh, people love the idea of feminism, but for some reason, the word just gives them the heebie jeebies, so maybe we can trick them into liking it better by changing its name. Maybe to something that reminds them less of women. Because women are icky. You know, in a non-sexist way.”
This is, of course, total horseshit. You could rename feminism the Cocksucker’s Club, but as long as feminists continued to speak out against male dominance, many people will “resist its message”. Because it’s the message they are actually resisting, not the name.
But Amanda, you say, when people are asked if they support the feminist goal of equal rights, they say they do! So it must be the name!
Blooey. When people say they support equal rights but not feminism, they mean, “I support the idea of women’s equality in theory, but in practice, I prefer good, old-fashioned male dominance.” Or perhaps they mean, “I know it’s bad to say women are lesser than men, but I really do think women need to know their place.” Or, to be generous, “Yeah, yeah, women should be equal, but anyone who actually tries to make that happen makes me feel guilty and annoyed.” Or for the ladies who express this sentiment, “I don’t think of myself as inferior to men, but it makes me feel special to think that most women are and I’m the exception to the rule.” People are always going to say they love fairness, which is why you judge them by how they actually behave when expected to treat women like men’s equals. If they throw tantrums, try to wriggle out of it, sexually harass, or even just become grossly condescending, you have your answer: The equality talk was poppycock, and they have no intention on acting on it.
I can’t believe the lesson “judge them by their actions, not their words” needs continual refreshers, but I digress.
People hate feminism because they are either afraid of change or infatuated with unfair male dominance—usually both. Change the name, and the new name will become just as stigmatized, not because feminists are wrong but because people who deeply, sincerely dislike the idea of female equality will poison the well. This isn’t something we can change with a magic wand.
Gene Demby at NPR wrote about a similar topic in a piece about how the polite name for people of color has constantly shifted, with new terms cropping up all the time and previously acceptable terms becoming offensive over time.
Minorities. Nonwhites. People of color. In some corporate-esque sectors, you might even hear someone use the term “diverse” as a modifier — as in, “We’re really interested in hearing a diverse voice on this issue,” as though an individual person might be diverse. Each of those terms came into wide usage in the 20th century, only to fall out of vogue and be replaced with a new one. Each replacement was meant to be less loaded than its predecessor, only to eventually take on all of that predecessor’s anxieties — and some new ones. Linguists refer to this process as “pejoration.”
“If a word that refers to something always appears in sentences where that thing is framed negatively, then that term will take on that negativity,” Lauren Hall-Lew, a sociolinguist at the University of Edinburgh, told me over email.
Steven Pinker gave this idea a more colorful name in his 2004 book The Blank Slate: the “euphemism treadmill.”
The euphemism treadmill doesn’t actually do anything to improve the reputation of the idea that it describes. To think that it would is to assume people are too stupid to know how words work. Since our very brains are programmed, from babyhood on, to really key into the context and subtleties of language, the notion that we could get trick people into liking feminism by calling freesexforeveryoneism is silly. That’s just not how language works and wishful thinking won’t change that.
That said, there is something that can change public opinion on feminism: Vigorous discourse that includes feminists—this often gets left out—on who feminists are and what they believe. Indeed, the only reason that people are complaining more than ever about the word “feminism” is that the anti-feminists are losing control of the narrative. The more feminists get out there and explain themselves, the better they look. The better they look, the more people who object to feminism get nervous. The more nervous anti-feminists are, the more they “helpfully” suggest feminists tone it down a little. Hopefully, feminists will be smart enough not to take the bait.