What is feminism?


About a month ago, I sent out a survey to all of the students at KO asking just two questions: Do you identify as a feminist? And, what do you think feminism is? I was surprised that the answers I received varied so much from one another, and from the true definition of feminism.

The word “feminism” has a complicated history, and it’s always carried negative connotations. The term feminism evolved from the French word “féminisme,” which originated in France in the 1800s. The first use of “féminisme” is attributed to Charles Fourier, a French socialist, in 1837. Féminisme quickly became synonymous with women’s liberation in France. The term then spread throughout Europe, reaching Great Britain by 1894.

Although it’s unclear when féminisme reached the United States, by 1910 the word had become popular here (in the Americanized form “feminism”) and was being used in written work. Feminism became widespread relatively quickly, but it had a tumultuous and confusing journey from its origin.

The French scholars who coined the term never wrote a clear definition for it, leading to misunderstanding in the future. In 1915, US newspaper The Washington Post conducted numerous interviews with readers about feminism, and received a variety of responses that proved there was no common definition of feminism among Americans. One factor that contributed to the lack of a common understanding was the correlation of feminism with women’s movements.

First, in France, féminisme was linked with freedom for French women as they fought to have more rights. Then, in the United States, feminism became connected with women’s suffrage. Since the suffrage movement, which began in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention, occurred around the same time as feminism reached the US, the two things were entwined in many people’s minds. The subconscious linking of feminism with various causes and movements caused many people to believe that those movements were what defined feminism, as opposed to feminism being the driving force for the movements.

The modern definition of feminism as defined by Merriam Webster is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes, or organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests”. To simplify, this means that anyone who believes that men and women should be equal is a feminist.

This definition encompasses feminism in its most basic form. Many feminists today are moving towards an intersectional definition of feminism based on the knowledge that women’s experiences vary based on their race, socioeconomic status, and other factors. Intersectional feminism is just a branch of feminism, though; at its heart, feminism stands for basic equality.

Today, feminism is more talked-about than ever before. In recent years, it has become a sort of buzzword, causing controversy and even anti-feminism online campaigns. Celebrities from Beyonce to Amy Poehler have spoken out in support of feminism. Emma Watson’s 2014 speech at the United Nations entitled “Gender equality is Your Issue Too” is one of the most powerful speeches made by celebrities in recent years.

There are few words more divisive in modern society than feminism; most people are quick to proclaim themselves as feminists or immediately decry the term. I recently began to wonder: Why is it that people are so eager to proclaim that they are NOT a feminist? In my opinion, the reason for most anti-feminism is a lack of education about the term. Most people who do not identify as feminists do believe in the definition of feminism. However, due to a warped and incorrect view about what feminism is, they do not label themselves as such. The definitions of feminism I received from the KO community encompassed a wide range of opinions. Most of the responses correctly stated that feminism is the belief in the equality of genders.

However, three of those responses additionally specified that feminism is not the belief that women are better than men or “man hating.” Several respondents stated that although they believed in equality between genders, they did not act on those beliefs and therefore did not consider themselves to be feminists. And finally, a few respondents stated that they thought feminism was gender equality, but they did not consider themselves to be feminists.

This article is not meant to shame or validate any one opinion. My goal is simply to educate our community about the meaning and history of feminism, in the hopes that every member of our community will make their own informed decision about what they believe. Whether you identify as a feminist or not, I hope that you will base your decision off of the true meaning of feminism and its history.