“Feminist” has always held a negative connotation for a majority or people, largely because of our society’s underlying misogyny. The Latin word fēmina, meaning woman, was the first hint in the Western world that people had an understanding of a feminine identity. As time has progressed, we see this latin root’s meaning has taken on new significance. Let’s look at how the connotations and denotations have changed since its origin to ultimately form the word “feminist.”
Keep in mind that this is a brief, non-comprehensive history of the term.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women, written by Mary Wollstonecraft, is considered a germinal essay of feminism, as she was the first to cover feminist theory at the length she did. Allegations of mental illness were used to discredit Wollstonecraft’s work.
Generally considered the start of first wave feminism, which fights for equal contract and property rights.
The French utopian socialist Charles Fourier coins the word “féminisme” to write about the correlation between women’s societal status and social progress.
Listed by Oxford English Dictionary as the year of the first appearance of “feminist” in the English language. It appears in Volume 13 of the business magazine De Bow’s Review of the Southern and Western States in 1852. An article titled “Woman and her Needs,” calls the women fighting for a true cause of womanhood “feminist reformers.” At this point, the word’s denotation means “the state of being feminine.”
Listed by Oxford English Dictionary as the year of the first appearance of “feminism” in the English language. The word now carries the connotation of the advocacy of women’s rights.
Late 19th century
Generally considered the start of the first wave of feminism, which lasted into the early 20th century, the women’s movement focuses largely on voting and property rights at this time.
The term “feminism” appears in the United States.
The New York Times publishes an article asking, “What is feminism?” They define it as a “world-wide revolt against all artificial barriers which laws and customs interpose between women and human freedom.
First publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (the English-language version is published in 1953). Simone de Beauvoir initially does not consider herself a feminist, as she believed that socialist policies were needed to solve society’s problems, not the feminist movement.
Considered the start of second wave feminism, which largely concerns sexuality and reproductive rights (did you know the United States government used to force sterilize women deemed “unfit” to regulate their own bodies?). Several important definitions emerged during this time, including Marie Shear’s famous sarcastic remark that “feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” as well as Adrienne Rich’s definition which says that “feminism means finally that we renounce our obedience to the fathers and recognize that the world they have described is not the whole world.”
A mystical notion of “feminine nature” emerges, a New Age concept that says women are men’s natural superiors. At this point, second wave feminism is criticized for focusing too much on white, middle class women. Betty Friedan, a leader of the feminist movement who wrote The Feminine Mystique, is criticized in particular for excluding the voices of a diverse range of women in the feminist movement.
The feminist movement also splits into “liberal feminists,” who focus on the rights of women as individuals, and “radical feminists,” who find that the gay liberation movement better suits their political agenda and who thus align themselves with revolutionary groups and lesbian resistance movements. “Radical feminism” calls for a reordering of society in which male supremacy is abolished in all social and economic situations.
Simone de Beauvoir declares herself to be a feminist in an interview with Alice Schwarzer, saying women could not be truly liberated until patriarchal society itself was overthrown.
TIME Magazine awards “women” its “Man of the Year.” They call 1975 the Year of the Woman, in which women dedicated themselves to “altering lives, entering new fields, functioning with a new sense of identity, integrity, and confidence.” That honor certainly gives a new definition for the word “woman.”
The first year of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (also known as MichFest), a festival meant for cis women; while trans men were welcomed into MichFest on the condition that they identify themselves as women while at the festival, trans women and nonbinary people felt excluded and were explicitly unwelcome--though many attended regardless. 2015 saw the festival’s last year.
Janice Raymond, who calls herself a radical feminist, publishes her book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. In her book, Raymond argues that transgenderism is a psychological illness that should not be treated with medical intervention. She even says transgender women “rape” women’s bodies by appropriating femininity. The publication of this book, and its glaring problems, also marks the rise of the term “trans-exclusionary radical feminism” (TERF). TERFs are feminists who deny trans people’s self-affirmed genders.
Journalists and academics declare feminism to be dead because it is no longer needed, saying the world has reached a “post-feminist” state. Post-feminism is positioned as a variety of things, from a reclaiming of traditional gender roles or an overt attempt to subvert feminism, to a way of depoliticizing the movement. No matter the form, “post-feminism” is a backlash against feminism.
Alice Walker coins the term “womanist” in her book In Search of Our Mother’s Garden: Womanist Prose. Since feminism traditionally didn’t support minority rights or initiatives, many women of color couldn’t associate with the movement and find representation under Alice Walker’s term “womanist.” She associates a womanist with someone who is in charge, serious, and generally acts like a woman (as a opposed to acting “girlish”). One of her offered definitions is as follows:
“A woman who loves other women, sexuall and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally a universalist, as in: ‘Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige, and black?’ Ans. ‘Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.’”
UCLA’s critical theorist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coins the term “intersectionality” in a paper about how black women were excluded in both feminist and anti-racist movements because their identity did not perfectly coincide with the interests of either movement. Intersectionality emphasizes the importance of activist movements, not just feminism, to take into account the various backgrounds and identities of its group when considering the social questions and issues to advocate for.
The third wave begins, in which feminists fight the micropolitics of gender equality.
Judith Butler publishes her book Gender Trouble, a postmodern feminist work that argues that gender identity is created through language. Postmodern feminism critiques the idea that gender is constructed in the same way in each individual, implying that women’s subordination has no single cause or solution. Postmodern feminism is often critiqued for being too vague and offering few solutions.
Conservative Rush Limbaugh coins the term “feminazi” in his 1992 book The Way Things Ought to Be. He defines the term as “a woman to whom the most important thing in life is seeing to it that as many abortions as possible are performed.” This word aligns with the narrative that feminism made women unhappy and hurt men.
The word “womanist” is officially recognized by The American Heritage Dictionary, which defines it as “having or expressing a belief in or respect for women and their talents and their abilities beyond the boundaries of race and class; exhibiting a feminism that is inclusive especially of Black American Culture.”
Time releases a poll asking whether the word “feminist” should be banned from our vocabularies in 2015, saying the word has lost its nuance and power when celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift state their position on the issue. They later apologized for including the word in the poll.
It’s in this year that Women Against Feminism shared photos of themselves holding signs stating why they don’t need feminism.
“Feminism” regains a positive connotation when Trump talks about “grabbing women by the pussy” and calls Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” during a debate. Ironically, his attempts to knock women down sparked a renewed interest in aligning themselves as “feminists.”
“Feminist” has always been a controversial word, and it’s clear that though the goals of the movement have changed over time, the underlying idea driving the movement is not that controversial at all: it’s the simple belief that men and women should be equal. Its roots in the latin word for “woman” should not obscure this meaning.