Thoughts on the term ‘Feminism’

This was posted on one of my deleted blogs in 2008 while I was going through another phase of re-evaluating my relationship with feminism.

I don’t think it’s essential to hold onto the word ‘feminism’ in order to continue the work of feminism.  Evidently, millions of women around the world work hard for other women without calling themselves ‘feminists.’  But language takes a long time to change and people hang onto generally accepted terms for the purposes of communication, so I think it’ll be quite a while before ‘feminism’ falls out of use. It probably won’t change until the majority of people interested in stopping gendered oppression decide that the term is no longer useful, move onto something else and the rest gradually follow suit. People will probably still need to have some kind of shared terminology which refers to the ideas though.

‘Feminism’ may be a broad umbrella term which doesn’t accurately describe the real situation, but it’s a short hand that a lot of people still find useful and I include myself among them.  I think a lot of women who call themselves feminists do so (at least partly anyway), to find other people who might share their interests and politics. I say “might” because, as we know from 5 minutes of looking at blogs, this is not guaranteed.  People often came to my last feminist group and told us that they had been searching for other feminists for ages because they just wanted to find people with whom they could talk about their politics.  When I find a blog or a book which identifies itself as ‘feminist’ that does mean something to me. It tells me it might be of interest, so then I take a closer look to see if it actually has anything in common with my politics.

In a way, I feel a fondness for the old term ‘women’s liberation’, but just in terms of practical communication, it’s been rendered archaic.  From reading my Second Wave Reader I’m not sure early ‘feminists’ were too taken in by an illusion of homogeneity.  Apparently feminists who called themselves ‘women’s liberationists’ generally meant that they were what we would now call radical feminists who were after a revolution in gender relations, while women who called themselves ‘women’s rights activists’ were usually liberal feminists who  wanted to achieve ‘equality’ with men.

But the problem continues when you break feminist down into more specific terms. Take ‘radical feminist,’ for example; it’s obvious that people use this term in very different ways. I’ve come across quite a few bloggers who stopped calling themselves radical feminists when they encountered the blogosphere and found something completely different to what they thought the term meant.  If I ever refer to myself as a ‘radical feminist’ (and I very rarely do these days) I mean New York radical women type radical feminism, not 1980’s sex wars kind of radical feminism or transphobic feminism, which are strands of feminism I would actively want to dissociate myself from.

But these  problems of language and appropriation are not specific to feminism. Take ‘queer,’ for example: I’ll often look out for the signifier ‘queer’ on blogs because it suggests a certain kind of politics – anti-heteronormative and anti-assimilationist.  But ‘queer’ is an umbrella term which is also inadequate and in recent years has increasingly been co-opted by rich, white, middle-class people.  In popular usage it has started to stand for a kind of individualistic, consumerist position which destroys the term’s radical potential.  There is also the issues of it’s history as a term of abuse and there are plenty of people who don’t think we should try and reclaim it for that reason.  I still use it because it retains some of its old meaning for some people, but the day may be approaching when it is no longer useful and needs to be replaced with something better.