By Imogen Bole
Unfortunately, feminism is garnering more and more bad press. It has become one of those fashionable terms we hear thrown around and recklessly posted over social media. But, even with big celebrity names raising their heads above the parapet of the bloody gender-war we are still fighting – and worse still, the one we’re still having to fight – there is nevertheless a growing contempt for what has become both the most fashionable and most resented of the ‘-isms’.
The breadth of responses usually oscillate between truculent support and exasperated eye-rolling, followed by a “Christ, not this again”. And these exaggerated and rather binary reactions are precisely why a shift away from this particular term might reset the prejudice towards these four little syllables.
One of the main reasons why ‘feminism’ causes such controversy is the meaning we have interpreted from it, and not just the word itself in blissful, context-free isolation. Languages are very much like thermostats: they self-regulate. And I think the term ‘feminism’ has lost its power through misinterpretation from both ends of the spectrum. However, I would like to add that I am certainly not advocating the avoidance of all words that may cause offence – or else Jeremy Clarkson would be awfully quiet. But, then again, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
In reality, the advocacy of women’s rights was off to a bad start due to the fundamental problem lying in the etymology of the word, a problem that’s pretty tricky to shake off. The word ‘feminism’ is a hybrid word, meaning that it is of both Latin and Greek origin, like ‘television’: τῆλε (tēle), ‘far’, and visio, ‘seeing’. Feminism comes from the Latin word, femina, meaning ‘woman’ and the Greek word, ισμός (ismós),‘-ism’.
Its first appearance was in 1851 where it simply meant ‘qualities of females’. It wasn’t until 1895 that the idea of feminism being synonymous with the advocacy of women’s rights (from the French term, féminisme) came into being. It is precisely this cluttered linguistic load the word lumbers around that has lead to so many lachrymatory labels and lamentable lambasts of its meaning – see how that lagged? It seems really rather difficult to demand (and I use ‘demand’ intentionally) equality with a word of unequal dimensions through the ostensible exclusion of the opposite gender.
Another approach to consider would be to compare feminism with the other ‘-isms’: racism, classism, communism, deism, humanism… ad infinitum. The indicative morphemes, meaning the bit before the ‘-ism’ of these words, specify the exclusive focus and promotion of these ideas: ‘racism’ is the discrimination against a race or races; ‘classism’ is the discrimination against a social class or classes… and so on. If, therefore, racism is the concept meaning the discrimination against a race and the aggressors are called the ‘racists’, why, by the same logic, are feminists called ‘feminists’? If feminism is the concept that condemns the injustice towards women, surely the misogynists should be the feminists, and we should be calling ourselves ‘anti-sexists’ – provided you’re on my side, that is.
Why not ‘Egalitarianism’, you ask? I’ll tell you.
Egalitarianism – from the French word, égale (‘equal’) – is closer to what the term is trying to achieve, but not quite. Even though equality between the sexes is the eventual aim, in order to bridge the existing gap, we need a more specific term that indicates the effort to promote specifically gender equality, as egalitarianism (and humanism) also refer to race, class, education, political and civil rights. The term, feminism, attempts to achieve this distinction by including ‘fem-’ in the word, but it certainly doesn’t indicate neutrality. Feminism is actively concerned with the promotion of women’s rights and raising awareness of women’s issues, making egalitarianism the wrong term for this specific focus. And this focus has lead to the term often being synonymous with ‘female supremacy’. ‘Anti-sexist’, however, clearly shows its concern with gender, yet doesn’t discriminate one way or the other as – contrary to what is often believed – it really does work both ways.
I’m sure plenty of you are sitting there thinking this is a trivial and pedantic point, and I’m aware that you can enter into a very treacherous game when getting bogged down in semantics. We could read atheist as ‘a-theist’, woman even has the word ‘man’ in it, and catcalling could stir up all kinds of offence (if taken literally), so sometimes it’s best not to relentlessly boy-cott every semantic snag we encounter and just put the dick-tionary to one side.
However, this is not another example of political correctness gone mad. If gender equality is truly the aim of feminism, why not use a term that actually denotes equality as the aim, with a discernible sub-text of an objection to gender discrimination? If you don’t like ‘anti-sexist’ that’s up to you, but at least the only way it is divisive is against sexism, not a specific gender.
Photograph: Pete via Flickr and Creative Commons