Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Is Feminism The Word To Use? web event 3

Celeste's picture

Unbinding feminism has been the greatest challenge presented to me yet in this course.  All semester, our class has explored the confined of being a feminist—the varying components (and intersectionality) within feminist identities.  To deconstruct the goals and desires of feminism feels impossible without questioning the word itself.  The word suddenly feels inefficient.  Not incorrect, yet still inadequate for a form of activism that no longer relies on gender or sex to define itself.  I first question the possibility of feminism’s unbinding.  Then, alternate terms.  I’m pretty fascinated by the etymology of the word itself, and supplemental terms used by varying groups of intersectional identities to better define themselves.  As Wendy Brown asks, “Are we proposing to be after sex and gender, no longer bound by them or perhaps no longer believing in them, and yet in the peculiar offering that only temporality makes, bringing along what we are after even as we locate it behind us?” (Brown 98).  In the unbinding of a term that at first felt so simplistic, yes, that is quite what we intend.  But are we left with feminism?


The etymology of feminism is derived from the French term féminisme, which is dated to the nineteenth century.  The word specifically was defined as a word to define the “advocacy of women’s rights” (Online Etymology Dictionary).  Historically, this originated from a desire to unbind the restriction of female bodies as voters, mothers, humans, and make them equal to males.  Feminism wished to “distinguish worth” (Brown 99.  But in reality, it’s clear that this was offered to white upper class women only; social and political agency was a pretty limited privilege, but yet “feminism” was the term that stuck.  Within the safety of prejudice, nestled in the gender binary, the movement grew into a movement dedicated to moving past sex and gender overall to achieve equality for all bodies.


I found a term I had never heard of while researching the etymology of feminism.  Womanism!  Officially, the term was coined by Alice Walker, and was used to represent the aims of women of color.  Prior to the movement’s founding, the middle class white feminism that dominated the movement largely ignored class-based struggles and racism.  Alice Walker explains the theory as more connected to pro-humanism, rather than feminism.  An enlightening way Walker described it: “A womanist is to a feminist as purple is to lavender” (Walker).  By not limiting the definition of feminism to tackling the issues of specific demographics, womanists address overall issues of inequality across all genders, sexualities, classes, and races. 


 Yet now that feminism aims to move past issues of sex and gender, choosing instead to abolish all forms of subjugation, is even womanist a word to use?  Why are we using gendered words to unbind the ideas of gender?  To what extent are these phrases counterintuitive, and how do we define what it is we want?  I actually do find myself agreeing with Brown in recognizing that our “post” modernity “. . . is a complex transitional and conjunctural movement, one in which we continue to live “with” what we are also ‘after’”. (Brown).  Put simply, the revolutionary period may be over, but the solution has not yet been achieved.  We are not equal, on grounds that stretch farther than gender. 


I want to find our activism.  I question whether feminism can move beyond sex and gender while remaining feminism, if that makes sense.  To unbind feminism is to free up the assumption that the marginalization of women is the primary issue in feminism’s activism.  That’s extremely confusing.  Must we free it up at all? Consider if in unbinding feminism, we become simple egalitarians.  Ingrid Asplund, a senior at Bryn Mawr wrote about this in a post on a Mormon Feminist blog on why she refers to herself as a feminst, rather than an egalitarian:

“I can understand why it seems counterintuitive that a movement with a goal of equality should have a name that connotes one gender. . . we must remember not only who or what we are fighting for– women, girls, and other people who are oppressed by the patriarchy. . . calling ourselves “egalitarians” in a world dominated by patriarchy does not successfully communicate what needs to happen in order to reach gender equality. Because we must recognize who has and doesn’t have privilege as we fight to end privilege, “feminism” is appropriate in a world that oppresses femaleness and female people, so terms like “egalitarian” and “humanist” will not be appropriate until we no longer need feminism.” (Asplund). I see the point behind Asplund’s logic.  But yet, that suggests that the oppression of female bodies is somehow above the oppression of all gendered bodies, which I disagree with. Turning marginalization into a hierarchy is problematic indeed, as it shuts out intersectional identities and prevents that discourse from being vocalized.  It’s important to realize that gender inequality is almost always connected to issues of racial and class-based prejudice as well.  These problems all play off of each other.  Sometimes I wonder if they exacerbate each other.  Patriarchy tends to prey on certain female bodies more than others, so in effect, it may suit us better to consider ourselves humanists in the fact of intersectionality.

 In the mourning of Brown’s revolutionary period, we stare the present in the face with a confusion and ambiguity that may only be satisfied with these new terms.  Along with sex and gender, we must unbind ourselves from all methods of prejudice.  With the exception of eco-feminism, humanism is the only term that encompasses all humans, including their characteristics and varying identifications. As Robin Williams said in the movie Jumanji, “You got a problem, you face it like a man.” (Johnston 1995).  But what if we face the issues as humans?  Why must we assign gender, sex, race, and class to all issues of human rights?

 But still I struggle with unbinding my feminism without, again, refusing it all together.   This feels like an essay belonging to a Peace Studies class, rather than a Feminist Studies one.  A discussion that aims to deconstruct the nature of being a feminist feels not only counterintuitive but simply silly at times.  At the end of the day, I presume this is more an issue of one’s personal feminism.  In the same way that we cannot define feminism for all feminists, we cannot unbind it for all either.  Unbinding feminism is removing the restrictions of fighting for women’s rights, extending more so into the rights of all humans.  Patriarchy affects all people.  It affects men by placing pressure on their senses of self-expression and identity.  By enforcing the gender binary, non-binary identifiers are left feeling left out as feminists, as their freedoms and rights as trans* identities are marginalized.  Most of the time, feminism is hardly a word that links us all together—so perhaps it is time not only to unbind the term.  Perhaps for the safety of our own unity and idealism, we must set it free.    

 The mourning of Brown’s feminism will become the birth of an awareness that is focused on the equality of beings instead.  But still, I struggle with this transition.  Gender equality is not yet achieved in a global (or domestic, in the case of the United States).  Under the umbrella of humanism, we must discover a new term that better enforces the ideas of our goals for achieving gender equality.  In sticking to feminism to account for the inequality of all beings, we place one movement above another in importance, creating an unproductive “to-do” type list of activism.  Therefore, we must not mourn Brown’s revolution.  Instead, the new revolution of wider, more encompassing thought should be embraced, supported, and properly reflected on in the coming years.  It just seems fundamentally incorrect to use the word “feminism”, if we are trying to unbind the very essence of such a gendered term.




1. Jumanji. Dir. Joe Johnston. Perf. Robin Williams. 1995.

 2. Chapter 6: "Feminism Unbound: Revolution, Mourning, Politics." Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton University Press, 2005. 98-115.

3. Asplund, Ingrid. "Feminism 101- the F word." Young Mormon Feminists. N.p., 18 July 2013. Web.

4. "Feminism." Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web.









Cat's picture

Naming the Problem

I agree with you that the term "feminism" is a word loaded with problems. Its ability to bring people together is a direct result of its long history--a history formed on the exclusion of all Others who were not white, cis, upper-middle class women. The movement claims to have moved past these ideas to a more intersectional approach, but that's often simply not the case at the moment and doesn't do anything to cushion the existence of history. I'd love to see us move towards more inclusive terms, but I still find myself going back to the word feminist. You make the argument that the more gender neutral "humanist" is the way to go, but Asplund's point (in the quote and in the whole of her article) really strike a chord with me. That:

"Advocating women’s rights means advocating for the rights of different kinds of women who have different kinds of privileges and experiences. For example, women of color experience sexism and misogyny in unique ways which means that advocating for racial equality is part of being a feminist....there are also plenty of people who are not women who also experience sexism and misogyny, such as queer and trans* people who do not identify as women, and being a feminist means advocating for their rights as well because their oppression often intersects with the same patriarchy that oppresses women. Taking this into consideration, We could also define feminism as a movement to remove sexism, misogyny, and other manifestations of patriarchy from our society."

I think this comes closer to a feminism that I could get behind--one that identifies the interconnecting identities of people. The pressure you put on the word feminist, actually makes me wonder if part of the problem with the term "feminist" is that no word can encompass everything. I, at least, want a movement that fights patriarchy, which is a system of oppression that effects people in varying ways and to varying degrees. While that's still something I struggle with when labeling myself a feminist--whether it's quite intersectional enough, whether it's inclusive enough, and what problems (and for whom) it's really working towards solving, I think that by naming at least one of those things, I find it to be a more applicable word than "humanist." Patriarchy is a human problem (and a problem that effects much more than humans, as Anne points out), but it also creates problems because of specific things, like associations with femaleness. I don't quite understand what humanism is working for--I know that it's working for humans, but what exactly about humans? Feminism is explicit in the way I need things to be, and I think that works to its advantage in helping it combat patriarchy. Humanism, I think, in its generality, misses the specificity to which patriarchy functions, so I question its effectiveness. Obviously, I haven't quite figured out my politics either, and it will be a long time before I do, especially given what we have to work with to choose from.

Anne Dalke's picture

Unbinding the term

What tickles me here, Celeste, is your willingness to consider not just "unbinding" but "freeing" ourselves from the word "feminism," as too limited for our current hopes and aims. Many, many years ago, Virginia Woolf asked, in Three Guineas,

"What more fitting than to destroy an old word, a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete? The word 'feminist"... means "one who champions the rights of women."  Since the only right, the right to earn a living, has been won, the word no longer has a meaning. And a word without a meaning is a dead word, a corrupt word. Let us therefore celebrate the occasion by cremating  the corpse" (p. 101).

...which leaves us, of course, w/ the task of figuring out what word/s we want to use in its place, to name our work towards a world where there is more equality, or equality more equally distributed. "Womanism" is not what you say it is (it does address the issues of a specific demographic; see Cat's paper for more about  “a worldview primarily and perhaps exclusively of black women”); and from my own eco-feminist perspective, "humanism" doesn't reach far enough, either; as the proponents of deep ecology say, the ""well being and flourishing of nonhuman life on Earth has value in itself; humans have no right to reduce the richness and diversity of life forms...."

What your meditations seem to suggest is that every word (even "egalitarianism") seems to bind...

Your evoking Alice Walker's "womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender" actually makes me think that our new center for leadership, innovation and the liberal arts, LILAC, may also be mis-named...