It is very often the case that people refuse to describe themselves as feminists. Either because they don´t like to “label” themselves but they “still stand for equality between men and women” or because they do not like the word feminism itself and think of themselves rather as “humanist, equalist or egalitarian” because that way they “do not only sound pro-women”.
The word feminism is a loaded word with a long history and is unfortunately now very often negatively perceived, which often prevents people from using the term. However, I believe that arguments against the use of the word feminist or especially against the idea of feminism itself do not hold. They are filled with and, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adachie would say, limited by stereotypes.
I firmly believe that it remains crucial to use the term feminist.
Firstly, the word feminist cannot be simply changed or replaced by the words humanist, egalitarian or equalist. The term feminism has a very long history. It is under this name that many of the most difficult struggles and greatest achievements for women´s rights were fought and won and that a whole school of thought and diversified literature were developed (from which contemporary feminism stems) . This is the first thing to remember, that feminism has a meaningful history, before deciding to forget about the term and using another instead.
Moreover, humanism does not mean standing up for human rights or being more inclusive of humanity. The term humanism came to be and was used during the Enlightenment period in Europe to represent the major revolution of thought that was happening at the time, to highlight the importance of human reasoning and reject the idea of a divine power and of God being the source of human values. Humanism is its own specific philosophical category and therefore cannot be used to mean supporting human rights in general. Mixing up the meanings and misusing the term only complicates the matter even more.
Egalitarianism advocates that all human beings are fundamentally equal and therefore entitled to the same rights, so feminism is naturally a part of egalitarianism. Yet, feminism is the only movement that focuses actively on gender equality and issues that impact mostly women. By doing so, it certainly does not take away from other issues related to human rights. It would therefore be dishonest to use the term egalitarianism instead of feminism because that would deny the very specific and particular problem of gender inequality and the simple fact that it is women who have been excluded for so long, and not men.
“Why does it have to be you as a woman? Why not you as a human being? This type of question is a way of silencing a person´s specific experiences. Of course I am a human being, but there are particular things that happen to me in the world because I am a woman.” (Adichie, 2017, p.44)
I think that the meaning of feminism itself is often very much misunderstood. This is especially obvious when proponents of the term equalism argue their case. They often argue that while feminism is only for women, equalism is for everyone. However, this is an unfortunately widespread confusion about what feminism stands for and what its aims are. Feminism is by definition the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes. The feminist movement started in order to help women obtain the same rights as men, but it definitely is not trying to take them away from men. The term feminism was, and still is, used not because women deserve more privileges than men, but because they just don´t have the same ones yet. Feminism also confirms that patriarchy affects men and non-binary people in very negative ways and it aims at addressing exactly that too. By emphasizing that gender is a socially constructed category that tends to lock everyone into rigid gender roles, feminism also points the way for men to liberate themselves from the shackles of toxic masculinity, and for everyone to be able to freely express their own unique and fluid gender identity.
In that way, feminism strives to include everyone and using the word should not stop people from seeing and fighting other aspects of inequality when they appear within feminism. That is also why intersectional feminism came to be. Feminism, as a political movement fighting to liberate women from oppression, must take into account the different forms that oppression can take. Some oppression is gendered, some is racialized, other is class-based or related to sexuality or disability and often, it is an overlap of different forms of oppression. Intersectional feminism thus seeks to fight against the patriarchy and for equality by integrating into feminism the awareness of all the social differences and different forms of discrimination that women experience. For a more detailed and thorough explanation of intersectional feminism, see the previous blogpost.
Now, to the people who don´t want to label themselves feminists because “they simply do not like labelling themselves” or because they “do not agree with all strands of feminism” but “they still stand for equality”, I would answer that this is great, but not enough. Words are powerful, they carry weight. By refusing to use the term feminism or by using another one instead, they indirectly participate and contribute to anti-feminism and end up denigrating feminism itself. This ultimately gives support and ammunition to the people actively fighting against it. And yes, the movement itself has been polarized from the very beginning; the movement has evolved and continues to do so and many feminists keep questioning it from the inside. You do not have to agree with every different strand within the movement to be able to consider yourself a feminist. You decide what “your feminism” is.
Furthermore, labeling oneself does not mean putting yourself into a little box. Using a specific word is there to direct and guide the person you interact with. Words have meanings and they are there to be used. And that is the case with the word feminism too. If someone´s actions and train of thoughts are fundamentally feminist, why should that person be afraid of identifying with feminism? It is important they do so, so that more people are no longer scared of using it either. And when you think of it, the fact that a man identifying himself as a feminist has more impact than a woman identifying herself as such only further proves the importance to do so and the need for feminism itself.
As Bell hooks claimed years ago, “feminism is for everybody” and its fights and successes will benefit everyone.
By Teresa Iglesias-Lopez, WAVE Intern
 Originally the term feminist was used to refer to a man with effeminate physiological characteristics. Alexandre Dumas used it in 1872 in an ironical way to designate advocates of women´s rights and men who, because in favour of women´s rights, were losing their masculinity. It was thus used in a negative way. It is in 1882 that Hubertine Auclert appropriated the word and it began to be broadly used in the eighties and it is she who gave the term its actual meaning. Feminism came to embody women´s rights. (Genre !, 2013)
Photo by Malte Bickel on Unsplash
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. We Should All Be Feminists. Fourth Estate, 2017
Chatterjee, Sloka. “The Feminist vs. The Equalist.” WatStory, 24 Mar. 2016, watstory.com/story/view/3924/the-feminist-vs-the-equalist.
Cole, Nicki Lisa. “Emma Watson’s 2014 Speech on Gender Equality.” ThoughtCo, 26 Feb. 2018, www.thoughtco.com/transcript-of-emma-watsons-speech-on-gender-equality-3026200.
Dorey-Stein, Caroline. “Feminism: Why Not ‘Egalitarianism’ or ‘Humanism’?” Progressive Women’s Leadership, 24 Sept. 2015, www.progressivewomensleadership.com/feminism-why-not-egalitarianism-or-humanism/.
Heuchan, Claire. “For the White Woman Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend: A Black Feminist Guide to Interracial Solidarity.” Sister Outrider, 1 Nov. 2016, sisteroutrider.wordpress.com/2016/11/01/for-the-white-woman-who-wants-to-know-how-to-be-my-friend-a-black-feminist-guide-to-interracial-solidarity/.
Genre! “Arguments Anti-Féministes (4) « On Devrait Se Débarrasser Du Terme ‘Féminisme’ ».” Genre !, 2 Sept. 2013, cafaitgenre.org/2013/09/02/arguments-anti-feministes-4-on-devrait-se-debarrasser-du-terme-feminisme/.
Thorpe, JR. “Why Feminism Still Needs To Be Called Feminism.” Bustle, 6 Nov. 2015, www.bustle.com/articles/122047-why-feminism-still-needs-to-be-called-feminism.
Weiss, Suzannah. “5 Reasons We Say ‘Feminist,” Not ‘Equalist.’” Bustle, 26 May 2016, www.bustle.com/articles/150295-5-reasons-we-say-feminist-not-equalist-because-feminism-shouldnt-be-a-dirty-word