Reclaiming the Word

By Andrew Schlosser

I had an undergraduate class at St. Joseph’s College where we discussed the many lenses through which one can look at literature. One of those lenses was feminism. On one occasion, the professor asked the class if we considered ourselves feminists. Most of us agreed, except one male student. He said no. This came as a surprise to some, but not to me. If you had asked me the same question a few years earlier, I would have said no too. When the teacher pushed a little further, he said he believed that men and women should be equal, but that he didn’t want to adopt that label for reasons he could not or did not want to explain. I could feel the tension in the class in the uncomfortable situation, and though I had adopted the label myself, I could also identify with the student’s thinking and stance. I decided to try my hand at reducing the tension.

I asked the student, “do you believe in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes,” adopting the phrasing of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk. He answered, “yes.” I simply replied, “that is the definition of feminism, so you are a feminist.” He shook his head, “I guess, but—”

Perhaps I was not careful enough, and the setting for this discussion was surely not all it could be. He clearly understood what I had said, and acknowledged that it made sense, but he still wasn’t completely on board.

It is an unfortunate side effect of the modern state of both news and social media that the word “feminist” has been, for lack of a better term, dragged through the mud. If polled randomly, chances are many people would say they do not identify as feminists. In fact, based on an article published by the BBC by Dr. Christina Scharff, “Fewer than one in five young women would call themselves a feminist” in the UK and the US.

The reason for this comes from both aisles of the political arena. The far-right has done its best to undermine the ideals of feminism by peddling nonsense about its core message and propping up pseudo-intellectuals like Milo Yiannopoulos who spout lines like “feminism is cancer.” But the far-left has not made joining their ranks any easier, as a common belief seems to be that men cannot or should not be feminists. Now, of course, both of these ideas are not held by the majority, but the minority of those who do hold them seem to be much more vocal about it.

So, my suggestion is this: let us reclaim the word feminist. I call myself a feminist because I believe in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. When you hear someone say that they are not feminists, ask them why they aren’t. Tell them why we are — we believe men and women should be treated equally. We do not believe that women should be treated better than men, that idea is, by definition, not feminism. Getting upset with people who do not accept the label may turn them off to the movement even more. Instead, explaining that the word feminist only means you believe in equality could be much more useful.

Emma Watson gave a speech to the United Nations called “I am a feminist”. In that speech, she says, “if you believe in equality, you might be one of those inadvertent feminists” and this is the same point I am trying to make now. The word means equality, that’s what it’s always meant and that’s what it will always mean. Let’s remember that, and reclaim it.


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