Why We Need the Word ‘Feminism’ Back

I recently discovered that one of my personal, literary and feminist heroes, British author Virginia Woolf, felt a rather deep aversion to the word ‘feminism’. I was shocked and surprised, and immediately tracked down the source to which this notion had been attributed—a 1938 essay called Three Guineas. In this essay, Woolf replies to a letter sent to her by a man who asks her opinion on the problem of how to prevent war. In true Woolfian style, the author replies in epistolary form and widens out her response to include not just pacifism and fascism, but also feminism and the issues of education for women and women entering the job market.

Woolf’s condemnation of the term ‘feminism’ comes in the context of the writer of the letter asking her for funds for his anti-war society. The fact that he not only asks a woman for her opinion on the prevention of war, but also for money, is, to Woolf, something to celebrate. But not just any old celebration.

What more fitting than to destroy an old word, a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete? The word ‘feminist’ is the word indicated. That word, according to the dictionary, means ‘one who champions the rights of women’. Since the only right, the right to earn a living, has been won, the word no longer has a meaning. And a word without a meaning is a dead word, a corrupt word. (856)

The directness of the language easily distracts from the fact that Woolf’s definition of feminism is surprisingly narrow. If, indeed, ‘feminism’ means only “a woman’s right to earn a living”, then—says Woolf—‘feminism’ is no more.

Despite my belief that this definition is too narrow, this is not to say that the right to earn a living is inconsequential. Read More »