by Stephanie Cole

I remember when I first started hearing the infamous phrase “I’m not a feminist, but….” More often than not, it was just “I’m not a feminist.” I was in high school, and I would always respond, “Oh, so you don’t believe men and women should be equal?” Then I would sit back and watch them struggle to respond. I simply couldn’t understand where they were coming from.

Saying “I’m not a feminist,” seemed tantamount to saying, “I don’t believe in fighting racism.” It should have been like coming out as a sexist, but the people I knew who rejected the label where not sexist. Somehow, somewhere, the word itself had been compromised. It had become a dirty word, something too loaded and complicated for young women and men to want to identify with. But I never saw it that way.

Ever since I was little girl, I understood feminism as simply the title for a concern with women’s equality. However, after four years at a women’s college and directly immersed in the feminist movement, I am beginning to understand the complexities of the word. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a feminist–and you should be, too. However, I do think we feminists need to come to a little bit more of a consensus about the implications of the title.

In a perfect world, a feminist should be: (n) someone who believes that men and women are equal. However, feminism also exists as a historical political movement and an academic field. That’s where things get complicated.

Gender studies courses have taught me exactly how infuriating some feminist academia can be. And I certainly disagree with some of the narrow and radical viewpoints of various historical movements within feminism. However, I have also learned that within the historical struggle for racial equality in the United States, there have been some ideas that I disagree with, and some approaches that history has proven to be misguided. Yet, I rarely find someone who rejects the fight against racism as a result. (I guess there are some idiots who think we live in a “post-racial” world and others who believe we live in a “post-sexist’ world. No comment.) I simply don’t think that these complications should cause anyone to reject the feminist label.

However, I do think that we can go around saying, “I’m a feminist!” without really understanding what that means. Recently, I’ve settled on a more nuanced definition of the word. Recently, I read a post on the blog The B(E)-Girl Manifesta that called out feminists who harshly criticize and limit the expression of other women. I think this piece hits on a HUGE problem within feminism. I have always said that patriarchy’s greatest victory is the success with which it pits women against each other. As a result, I’m not a fan of women using derogatory words like “bitch” and “slut.” I also tend to be very sensitive to critiques of women who choose to present themselves as traditionally feminine, or those that chose to exhibit traditional sexiness. I think a woman’s identity and self expression should never be criticized for somehow “bringing down” the movement. (Full disclosure, I really like pretty dresses and makeup.) I also have a lot of problems with terms like “real women,” “real bodies,” or “real beauty,” because they suggest that skinny women or models are “fake.” No woman is a fake woman. Just because all body types are beautiful, doesn’t mean we have to ostracize anyone.  I also believe that feminism can be personalized, individual, and self-defining.

However, I do disagree with The B(E)-Girl Manifesta in that I think critical thinking and measured criticism of other women’s ideas are important. Just because someone is a women doesn’t mean she’s automatically aware of patriarchy and its effects. That’s why negative media can be so effective. Some women today have limited understandings of what feminism means. They are not aware of the prevalence of sexism in the media, and they are not be willing to question the institution of patriarchy in the U.S. or internationally.

I would like to propose a new definition of the F-Word. Feminist: (n) anyone who believes that men and women are equal, and recognizes that this is not yet the case. A feminist keeps an open mind, and tries to always be aware of patriarchy and sexism wherever it occurs. She or he also tries to educate others who are unaware, as well as speak up and take action against inequality.

This is the definition I have always held for myself. It is flexible and inclusive, but also specific and aware of complexities. I think the fear people have of the feminist label comes from an idea that they do not personally fit a perceived mold. They may have had a bad experience with some of the movement’s thornier past moments. I think if we can emphasize that feminism is for everyone, and that it is critical and engaging without being judgmental, we can welcome more bright and engaged young men and women to the fold.