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. In Woolf’s feminist writings, the advancement of women throughout the ages is often characterised by the attainment of very basic rights, with major consequences for every-day life. Hence, a woman having “a room of her own” and a sufficient amount of money to live off is the recipe for a liberated woman writer, who is able to write what she pleases without suffering any patriarchal consequences.
Of course, Woolf was not a stupid woman. Her narrow definition of feminism may have been an easy tool for her to write off the term as antiquated and no longer relevant, but if she truly disliked it, it couldn’t have been because it no longer covered the women’s struggle. The basic rights that define Woolf’s feminism are seemingly simple, but never truly so. Things like the vote and credible education have enormous consequences for women—a huge number of options become open to them.
But because of what Woolf wrote in Three Guineas, she is often listed as a feminist who criticised the word ‘feminism’, and there have been a fair few of those. These days, there are as many articles supporting feminism (term and movement) as there are rejecting it, often claiming both the term and the movement as either irrelevant or alienating. Emma Watson was asked not to use the term in her HeForShe speech for fear of alienating the very people the campaign addresses: men. She ended up using the term several times and discussed how it has become “synonymous with man-hating.”
[Feminism] has become an unpopular word. Women are choosing not to identify as feminists. Apparently, I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, and anti-men—unattractive. Why has the word become such an uncomfortable one? (United Nations)
Recent experiences have left me asking the same question. When I asked some of my co-workers whether they identified as feminist, one woman replied, “Not really, I don’t think women are inherently better than men, or should be.” When I explained to her that feminism was merely the economic, social and political equality of men and women, and asked her whether she would identify with that (THE) definition feminism, she replied that she would. But her assumption that feminism meant the supremacy, rather than the equality of women with respect to men, startled me. The same thing occurred when I discussed it with two male friends of mine—both better educated and better informed than my female colleague. Both, it turned out, were burdened by the same prejudice. They both struggled to call themselves feminists, in spite of my insistence that all it means is that they support gender equality. A few days later, one of them reiterated that he believed women should have the same rights and opportunities as men, but that he would not call himself a feminist, because of everything that word implied.
The problem we have, it seems, is purely semantic, which is why so many articles cannot help but call feminism “the F-word”—but feminism’s stigma as a swear word is more damaging to the movement as a whole than Germaine Greer expressing her belief that transgender women are not women.
An article by The Telegraph’s Martin Daubney compared a possible rebranding of feminism to the rebranding of a lad’s magazine he used to work at—as if it is as simple. He glosses over the causes of the negative connotations associated with ‘feminism’ by merely hinting that “some say the radical feminists—affectionately labelled the ‘femi-Nazis’—have made the whole concept damaged goods.” In other words, if ‘feminism’ is a bad word, that’s entirely the fault of the feminists themselves—nothing to do with anti-feminists and misogyny at all. Daubney writes that first-wave feminism, the Suffragettes, proved that “we don’t need a woman-specific word” for feminism—seemingly forgetting that ‘Suffragette’, with its female French suffix, inherently and explicitly includes a feminine connotation, however condescending it might have been intended back in the day.
The fact is, ‘feminism’ is called ‘feminism’ because men are the dominant gender. They dominate politics, business, education (on the teaching end), most art forms (literature, the film industry, static arts, etc.), and all religions. At all levels of society, men are in charge. Women in charge are exceptions to ancient and established (albeit largely unwritten) rules. I write this without anger and without blaming any individuals for this situation. It is merely the way things are at the moment. But once the feminist movement got started, the term ‘feminism’ was appropriate because it stood up for the subjugated gender: for the women.
Over the course of the last century, enormous strides have been made for the women’s cause. In more and more countries, women lead full lives, obtaining education and jobs just as men are, entertaining ambitions that were until fairly recently only men’s ambitions. With the changes achieved by feminists, the word ‘feminism’ has come to mean something else, for very simple reasons. As the definition of femininity—what women should and shouldn’t be, what women should and shouldn’t do—has changed, the interest in definitions of masculinity has grown. Just as we are less and less willing to accept female stereotypes, we are less and less willing to accept male stereotypes. The concept of toxic masculinity is discussed more and more often; it encompasses the ways in which the male stereotype harms men, because it doesn’t allow them to be vulnerable or emotional and to express themselves, and forces them to be strong and aggressive. As gender has become a more fluid concept, for both men and women, we have begun to realise that the feminist fight can benefit both men and women, which is why ‘feminism’ has come to mean ‘equality for men and women,’ rather than ‘championing the rights of women,’ as Woolf defined it.
The reason why we still use the word ‘feminism’ is because the fight originated with the subjugated gender, and because, in too many ways, the female gender is still subjugated. In my own country (the Netherlands), the TV show Zondag met Lubach (a Daily Show/Last Week Tonight type show) expounded the dominance of men in business by setting up a website called dezemannenkunnengeenvrouwkrijgen.nl (“These Men Can’t Get Women”), which lists every large company in the Netherlands with no women on their boards of directors or commissioners—eighteen companies in total. This is just one example in one area of public life. The fact that in November, the US was inching closer and closer to possibly electing a woman for President for the first time—after electing a black man for the first time—says much about the position of women in politics. Again, my own country is no better—since 1848, when the Netherlands became a parliamentary democracy, we have only had male prime ministers. There are many more male political leaders here, on national and local level, than there are female leaders.
The continuing subjugation of women and the continuing domination of men, therefore, means that we need the word feminism, but the fact that we define it as the equality between men and women means that it is a very inclusive term, encompassing both genders rather than merely advocating for the rights of one. Of course this is not to say that feminism, the political, social and economic equality between men and women, implies that EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD SHOULD BE EQUAL FOR MEN AND WOMEN, WHETHER WE LIKE IT OR NOT. I am not a great supporter of quota, to obligate companies and other institutions to hire a set number or percentage of women. When it comes to applications for a job, if a male candidate is more qualified for it than a female, then obviously the man should get the job. This is not what feminism is concerned with.
What feminism is concerned with, is the inherent gender-related prejudices and stereotypes that influence a lot of decisions we make, from what we raise our daughters to believe about their own opportunities in life to which politician we vote for. If we raise our daughters to believe that they can only choose ‘female professions’, such as nursing or kindergarten teaching, we limit their options before they’ve even begun to live. When it comes to politics, if gender-related prejudices teach us that men are better leaders, then it is more likely that we vote for a male candidate, even if a female candidate is more qualified. This is harmful.
In short, feminism is concerned with two things. Firstly, the equal legal rights of men and women—in other words, to ensure that by law, men and women have equal voting rights, financial rights, educational rights—any and all rights that are not related to physicality. Because what follows physicality is difference, and if reproductive healthcare covers women because of the risk they run to get cystitis or other such ailments, this does not mean that men should be covered for viagra BECAUSE EVERYTHING HAS TO BE EQUAL.
Secondly, feminism is concerned with dispelling gender-related myths, stereotypes, assumptions and prejudices that force individuals to live set lives and behave in set ways, preventing them from breaking out of those patterns. These assumptions and prejudices are not the same for each gender, but they have the same effects. Individuals should never be forced to live according to antiquated prejudices associated with the gender they happened to be born into. Feminism stands up for these individuals (i.e., all of us) as it originally did for women who were deprived of the vote.
In other words, feminism has evolved over the last century, and we could hardly have expected it not to. But why are we so reluctant to accept its changed definition? Why does it offend so many people that it implies femininity, when all it does is express its history and its origin? The term ‘racism’ implies the domination of the white race over most (if not all) others—therefore, when we call someone racist, it usually implies that his or her racism is aimed at non-white people. That is simply the assumption that is locked inside that word. But we know that black people can be racist just as white people can, and so can Asian people towards black people. Racism is not an exclusively white practice, just as feminism is not an exclusively female cause, for and by women. We have accepted an altered and more diffuse definition of racism, but not an altered and more diffuse definition of feminism—why?
For every man who writes off a feminist as a man-hating, female supremacist, there is a woman who writes off a feminist for the same reasons, which confuses and saddens me. Although there are women who really would rather see men as the dominant gender, most of the women on “Women Against Feminism”, for example, do support gender equality—they just don’t call themselves feminists. This, to me, is the ultimate contradictio in terminis. As Caitlin Moran writes in How to Be a Woman, “The more women argue, loudly, against feminism, the more they both prove it exists and that they enjoy its hard-won privileges.” But, writes Moran, “We need the only word we have ever had to describe ‘making the world equal for men and women.’ Women’s reluctance to use it sends out a really bad signal. Imagine if, in the 1960s, it had become fashionable for black people to say they ‘weren’t into’ civil rights.”
Women’s reluctance to call themselves feminist is both due to its perceived definition as excluding men, and its stereotype of shouting, angry, bra-burning, hairy, lesbian, misandrist, frigid, superior, ugly, bitchy, anti-family women. This stereotype is unfair, it is superficial and it is plainly wrong. Feminism is one of the most inclusive movements that exist today. It demands legal equality and celebrates and encourages individual diversity through the dissolution of gender stereotypes and prejudices. Moran writes,
…the purpose of feminism isn’t to make a particular type of woman. The idea that there are inherently wrong and inherently right ‘types’ of women is what’s screwed feminism for so long—this belief that ‘we’ wouldn’t accept slaggy birds, dim birds, birds that bitch, birds that hire cleaners, birds that stay at home with their kids, birds that have pink Mini Metros with POWERED BY FAIRY DUST! bumper stickers, birds in burkas, or birds that like to pretend, in their heads, that they’re married to Zach Braff from Scrubs and that you sometimes have sex in an ambulance while the rest of the cast watch and, latterly, clap. You know what? Feminism will have all of you.
What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy, and smug they might be.
I would like to add to this the second part of the modern definition of feminism—namely the belief that men should be as free as women, however unwilling to lead, vulnerable, short, lacking in muscles, fashion-loving, sport-hating, and emotional they might be. With a definition like this, perhaps it would be possible to unify most people who support equality between men and women under a sobriquet like ‘modern feminism’—a term that recognises the history, the present state and the future of the fight for equal rights and opportunities, and the struggle against gender stereotypes, both male and female.
Daubney, Martin. “Why men have a problem with the word ‘feminism’.” The Telegraph, 11 November 2014. Web. 9 May 2016.
Moran, Caitlin. How to Be a Woman. New York: Harper Perennial, 2011. Print.
United Nations. “Emma Watson at the HeForShe Campaign 2014 – Official UN Video.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 22 September 2014. Web. 9 May 2016.
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. The Selected Works of Virginia Woolf. Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2007. 785-923. Print.
Zondag met Lubach. VPRO. 14 February 2016. Television.