Feminism: A Dirty, Outdated Word?

I’d like to think that I have always been a Feminist. Even as a child, I was able to sense a kind of inequality when it came to certain things. I have always been passionate about my rights being equal to those of my male peers, and have always been interested in the women before me who championed the cause and worked tirelessly to help that happen. I was lucky enough to be raised in a family that urged me to strive for whatever my heart desired and never put gender-specific restrictions on me in terms of my goals and dreams–my grandfather is an electrician by trade, and taught all three of his sons the trade as well. When I, his first grandchild, came of age, he set out to teach me just like all the rest of them. Much to my regret, I had no interest at the time and turned him down, but the fact that he saw me as an equal, who could just as easily do “man’s work” was one of the first seeds of Feminism to be planted in my mind. It has always been a source of pride, for me, to call myself a Feminist, and I have never been able to understand those women and men who consider it some kind of negative character trait, or treat the word itself as if it is a slur.

The actual definition of Feminism, according to Merriam-Webster, is:

: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
: organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests

Seems clear enough, doesn’t it? And yet, there always seems to be such a gray, unchartered area around the word and the definition of Feminism. Just talking about Feminism in mixed company is guaranteed to stir up emotions and provoke an argument. You mention that you are a Feminist, and suddenly people cringe. “What does that even mean, these days?” is a question that I get asked often. In fact, there is a whole plethora of ridiculous questions I’ve been asked since become outspoken about my Feminist beliefs. Some are well-intentioned, some are meant to be insulting and demoralizing. All of them are ignorant. A few include:

-“Women have equal rights now”¦ they can hold any job they want, have abortions, be lesbians. What else do you need to accomplish?”
-“Isn’t feminism just an excuse to be angry at guys?”
-“Isn’t feminism really just to give you guys a sense of power you can’t get on your own?”
-“Doesn’t feminism just justify women behaving badly?”
-“Isn’t feminism kind of redundant these days?”
-“I’m not a feminist. I don’t hate men. Feminism is outdated and doesn’t have a place in my world anymore.”
-“I can’t be a feminist. I like shaving my legs too much!”
-“Isn’t the point of feminism just to push men down?”
-“I don’t understand how someone who has been in an abusive relationship can call themselves a feminist. Obviously they choose to have no rights at all.”
-“Men are just as discriminated against as women. Feminism just seeks to divide us further.”
-“Why are you so interested in feminism? You have a husband and a baby! You should be satisfied with life!”
-“Feminism doesn’t even have a clear definition, does it?”

That last remark, about feminism not even having a clear definition, is generally a go-to dismissal that people like to use whenever confronted with a force outside of their control, that they’d like to see extinguished (see: The Occupy Wall Street Movement). If an issue or a cause is pesky, and unable to be pinned down in easily defined terms, it can be an even bigger threat. Therefore, those issues are the ones that people want to see dismissed the fastest. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that dismissive little barb–”What even IS this?”–thrown at me when talking about distinctly Feminist subject matter.

Feminism has become a word with definite negative connotations, and it has become so weighted with stereotypes and distasteful imagery, that even those people who are sympathetic to our cause, or are like-minded, often want to disassociate from the word. It’s almost hard to blame them, considering the smear campaign against Feminism that has been going on for decades.

[Feminism is] a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians. -Pat Robertson

All negative connotations and stereotypes aside, Feminism is simply the desire for women to have equal rights as men. Period. It is all about having equal opportunities in terms of economic, physical, political and social aspects of life. If you are a person that believes that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities, then you, my friend, are a Feminist. It has nothing to do with bra burning, your sexual orientation, or whether or not you’ve been with a certain number of sexual partners. It has nothing to do with your level of education, how you like to dress, or whether or not you’ve been a victim of abuse. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. Young or old, married or single, gay or straight, black or white, atheist or Christian. It is a far simpler concept than all of that. If you believe that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities, you are a Feminist.

Many people who are sympathetic and understanding of Feminist causes believe that while once important, Feminism is a bit outdated; because, “Hey, women DO have equal rights now!” Granted, the excellent women (and men) before us who have championed our cause have made a lot of progress. The work isn’t done, however. On the surface, it is an easy assumption to make that Feminism is/should be dead (especially if you are a man with a certain amount of unrecognized privilege). This couldn’t be farther from the truth, however. Feminism still has a long way to go, and a lot of ground to cover, if women are going to be equal to men in reality. Just a few examples of how we aren’t on an equal playing field:

-Women still make less on average than men in the workplace, even in many instances of doing the exact same job.

-Women’s reproductive rights are STILL being called into question, and being used as talking points to further political aspirations (can you recall a single Presidential debate in recent decades where Roe vs. Wade or abortion rights weren’t called into question?).

-Female rape victims are often treated as liars and suspects rather than victims of real abuse. Our society is quick to blame the victim, citing the length of her skirt, her personality, or whether or not she had something to drink the evening she was assaulted as factors, when in fact, only the rapist should have any fault.

-Magazines, television shows, and the media still target women, telling them they must lose weight, change their appearance and become sexual bombshells; all in the interest of the male gaze.

-Domestic violence victims are often not believed, or completely ignored, many times before finally being offered help and support. Female victims of sexual and physical abuse are still made the butt of the joke in society, with images running rampant in books, magazines, and the Internet, mocking their suffering and pain, and reducing it to the norm. Instead of asking the man why he chose to beat his wife, we ask the woman why she stayed.

-Girl children are still conditioned to be polite and accommodating, while aggressive, confident behavior is not culled in boy children.

-Girls are subtly pushed to not get along with others of their own gender, often proclaiming that they “don’t get along with other women,” or, “I’m not like most girls,” in the hopes of distancing themselves from the stereotypes and negative connotations associated with being a woman.

Those are just a few examples of the patriarchal society we live in and how its influence has furthered the cause for Feminism. It may seem, at face value, that men and women are equal in the eyes of society, but it isn’t the case. Not by a long shot. A great deal of progress has been made, yes, but we still have a very long way to go.

For those men who are somewhat sympathetic to the cause of Feminism, but aren’t quite certain of their place in it, I’d like to remind you that men are sometimes hurt by the patriarchy, too. From childhood, men are conditioned to be tough, rough-and-tumble, to not express feelings or pain or sadness, and to be “macho.” They are taught to fight back, to be aggressive and get what they want. Inadvertently, they are taught to see women as inferior, or at the very least, as an “other.” Men with feminine qualities are teased, bullied, and seen as inferior specimens. Even now, we see examples of how gender stereotypes in our society can effect men as much as women. For instance, it is rare that a male parent will be awarded custody of his children in a divorce dispute, even if he is the better suited parent. Why? “Because children belong with their mother.” Men who choose professions that are seen as “feminine,” such as nursing or clerical work, are often teased and mocked. Why is this? Because any quality that is seen as “feminine” in a man is to be feared and disliked. Because any quality that is “feminine” is bad. Why? Because “feminine” means female, and females are not our equals. And God forbid you be a gay man in this patriarchal society–your rights will be non-existent, and the prejudice you face will run rampant.

Then you have the group of women who feel that they are somehow “above,” or “over” feminism, who don’t see what place feminism has in our modern society, despite having benefited from Feminism and been oppressed by the patriarchy themselves. They feel that they have plenty of rights; they don’t need any more, and that there are more important things to worry about these days than some tired idea of women’s issues. These people scare me a great deal more than any man who doesn’t embrace Feminism–because these people should be our allies, should at the very least be understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish. Instead, they belittle us, reduce us to outdated stereotypes, and insist that we don’t represent all women. I can think of several celebrities in the media who should be using their fame and adulation to promote women’s rights, but who instead have turned on us and insist emphatically that they are NOT feminists. Looking at you, Lady Gaga. Seems to me that she embodies everything that a Feminist is, and yet, she claims not to be. Why? Because she is terrified of what the label “Feminist” will do to her image, most likely.

And there we have it. We are more scared of some label, some idea, some tacked-on negative connotation to the word “Feminist,” than we are of what actually living in a patriarchal society can do to us. What it has already done to us. When are we going to realize that Feminism is not a bad thing? And that Feminism can embody many things? Your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, your political views, your economic status, your life experiences–while all of them shape the type of feminist you are, NONE of them disqualify you from being a Feminist. Feminists come in all shapes and sizes, all colors and creeds, and all of them are beautiful.

It is time we realize that Feminism is not a dirty word, and accept that our patriarchal society only wants us to think so, so that we’ll lose focus on the fight for equality, opportunity and happiness. The need for Feminism is not outdated, redundant, or irrelevant. That this very argument exists is proof that the need for it is stronger than ever.

“Look closely at the present you are constructing:
it should look like the future you are dreaming.”
“• Alice Walker

By Teri Drake-Floyd

An almost 30-something synestheste, foodie, genealogist and all around proud geek.

10 replies on “Feminism: A Dirty, Outdated Word?”

Excellent article, Teri. Thank you for posting it. It’s encouraging to those of us who are older to know that there are younger women who are picking up the gauntlet. It’s been very discouraging to hear young women disparage and/or completely misunderstand the “feminist movement” and the continuing need to work for the equal rights of all people. Your list of questions that people ask is spot-on. It makes me laugh and cringe at the same time. Having kept my own last name when I married, I can add a couple of doozies to your list: Are you ashamed of your husband? And the one that almost earned a little old lady a punch in the nose: Are your children illegitimate? (Really? Is that an appropriate label for ANY child? Yikes!)

To be honest, I like to say that I’m a people-ist: I want the same rights (and restrictions) for everything that can be called remotely human (I’m sorry, puppy, we’ll get to you another time). I want a society in which it will be weird that a woman is expected to get paid less, be more responsible for the children than her spouse or lay down and be sexy but shouldn’t look at men for those ~shallow~ thoughts.

I agree and appreciate all of the points you have made, but I feel like you have left out the group of people who feel marginalized by the previous incarnations of the Women’s Rights/Feminist movement. Some of these groups may be: transgender people, racial minorities, etc. And I completely understand the hesitancy in labeling ones self a feminist in that context. I agree with you that in present-day feminism one can be a just about any type of person (except maybe a social conservative, since they seem to have political views that oppose a lot of the tenants of feminism… at least from my POV, ready for anyone to prove me wrong here…), but I understand the hesitancy to distrust the label of Feminism when previous incarnation meant no trans, no minority, etc. This is why, for me, it’s important to endorse intersectional feminism–feminism that cares about minorities issues, aside from ones that only benefit middle class white women.

However, I will admit that I had an argument with someone on tumblr about the term feminism. She argued that it was inherently biased because it had fem/female in the word. I see where she’s coming from but I can’t teach everyone feminism 101, from now on when that argument comes up I’m just going to have to refer the person to the dictionary definition. It says equality of the sexes, it does not say “only champions white ladies!”; “only champions *real* women”; “supports misandry!” It says sexes, which includes everyone. Period.

Another point, I like to give to men I discuss this with.  Men called bitches, pussies, cunts, etc. are basically being told that those perceived “female” qualities/body parts are somehow negatives.

Call a man a dick and he almost takes pride in it–it’s perceived as some sort of aggressive and macho element to their persona.

Call a man a pussy and at best you’ll get a serious verbal backlash,  at worse you’ll end up being physically attacked for doing so.

That is a major element of ingrained belief in how females are perceived and is usually something that most people can readily and easily identify with, whether they be on the side of being called one of those words or doing the calling.


This really reminds me of something I am quite passionate about, the large scale societal devaluing of things like child rearing, handicrafts, and cooking.For example, offering parental leave is not a requirement for many employers. Likewise, handicrafts and cooking (unless you are say, on Top Chef) are rapidly labeled as something only women do and can be, on occasion, complimented with phrases like “aren’t you a little Suzy homemaker.”

There seems to me to be a strong parallel between devaluing work women have traditionally done and calling men pussies as an insult. Both undermine the value of women, and basically establish the position of women as somehow inferior. One undermines labour associated with women (and simultaneously excludes men from participating) while the other degrades the female form. Until that sort of thing goes away feminism is still super relevant.

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