Is “Feminist” a sexist word?



Whenever I teach an introductory lesson on “gender” in my first-year international affairs and international relations classes, I find myself prefacing my explanation of “feminism” with the familiar “Feminism is not about man-hating. Feminists are concerned with both men and women,” in order to fend off the usual hostile responses from both male and female students. However, it doesn’t wipe the smirk off many of student’s faces in the classroom; I still find myself feeling defensive and exasperated, particularly when combating the well-worn tropes against women in the military, gender quotas in electoral processes, or the idea that women aren’t fit to lead countries because of, well, emotions.

Studies of university students in the US (such as Zucker 2004) reveal that, while female students may espouse or support feminist ideals, they are cautious to refer to themselves as “feminists.” I’m not entirely surprised by this, as the term “feminism” has been treated as a dirty word or a “radical” identification by the American media. I also have plenty of conservative students, but their discomfort with the word “feminist” seems to stem from a deep-seated belief that saying the word itself is the gateway drug to accepting liberal ideals with reckless abandon; I’m most concerned with the knee-jerk negative response to the word feminist among otherwise liberal (particularly women) students.

Recently a conversation with my brother got me thinking about the term in a different way. My brother, also a social scientist who’s pursuing his PhD, replied to a comment I made about gender inequalities in academia with “there’s no room in my academia for sexism.” That’s nice, I replied, but far from the reality of the situation–I jokingly quipped, “of course you think that; you’re a man.”

No, he replied, you’ve got it wrong. The word “feminist,” he argued, is itself sexist, and further divides women from men, which is counter to what you’re trying to achieve. Given that I know that my brother really does believe that women are equal to men, I decided to think carefully about his point.

Is the word “feminist”—with its root in “feminine” (or rather, the French féminisme)—a sexist term? I considered other “isms” that reflect exclusions: racism, classism, ageism, and ableism (and the list does go on…). Does feminism fit into these categories?

All of the “isms” mentioned here (e.g. racism) are based on subordination and domination. One who is a “racist” believes that his or her race is superior to another, and generally social systems and culture support that belief—as such, one does not need to be “racist” to live in a racist society. Indeed, one may live one’s entire life benefitting from such a society without ever having professed any racist belief at all. The same goes for class: while one might never personally think that the poor are somehow inferior, one may still benefit from a society where such class divisions are deemed normal or even necessary.

So, can feminism be exclusionary or represent a relationship of domination/subordination? Discussions about binaries aside, I don’t think so. For my brother, the crux of his argument rested on the intrinsic belief that the sexes are equal, and to make distinctions of inequality with words like “feminism” creates an inequality through the term’s (perceived) suggestion of exclusion (that is, an exclusion of men). But once one takes the domination/subordination tack, we can see that feminism, as a word, seeks to lift the “feminine” out of the subordinate position, and perhaps to unhinge the binary altogether. As bell hooks reminds us in “Feminism is for Everybody” (2000), men are harmed by patriarchy as much as women; feminism celebrates the liberation of men as well as women.

What we finally came to—and the point where I think most students get stuck—is that sticky question of “equality” and what that means. How do we decide when we are equal? My final argument to my brother: “well, we can all be equally shat upon.” Nobody wants that. What we do want is justice—and that, I think, is the meaning behind “feminism” and the identification as a “feminist”: if the meaning of “feminism” includes an understanding of justice, the subordinate position is denied, as is the dominant one (Sen 1999).

So, rather than approach the subject of gender with the negative “feminism doesn’t mean the exclusion of men,” I think I will begin my classes with this: “feminism is the demand for justice for everyone.” Perhaps that is an “ism” that will be less frightening.

Author Bio: Denise Horn is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University. She is the author of Women, Civil Society and the Geopolitics of Democratization (Routledge 2010) and Democratic Governance and Social Entrepreneurship: Civic Participation and the Future of Democracy (Routledge 2013).