Defining Our Terms: Feminism 101

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Feminism is rife with so many terms that we all pretend we understand, but secretly go home and google later. As someone who teaches students how to write essays, one thing I always stress is that YOU MUST DEFINE YOUR TERMS! Don’t assume that your reader shares the same knowledge as you. In other words, forget that I, your teacher with ALL THE KNOWLEDGE (although not really), am the person reading your essay. I’ve seen so many students submit papers with 1000 jargon-y words. And while I might understand 99% of them, that still doesn’t mean that they can get away with not defining them. Clarity is way more sophisticated than you might think.

I was talking to a good friend of mine about future blog post ideas and she suggested that I do a series where I explain some of the key terms that get used again and again in feminist discourse. Terms that might alienate non-academics and might act as a barrier for choosing to define oneself as a feminist. So I did what any person living in the age of social media would do: I went onto Facebook and asked folks to tell me what terms could use some definition. In this post I’ll try to break down some of the most common terms and in following posts I’ll get into some of the more esoteric ones.

I’m really grateful for my pal’s suggestion because, as an educator and a feminist, I always need to check my own privilege — and that can come in the form of the discourse that I take for granted. This past summer I was teaching Queer Writing for the first time and it NEVER occurred to me that I would need to define the difference between sex and gender! Then there was a student (from a totally different discipline, getting his humanities credit) who made a comment that revealed that he did not possess the same knowledge as the majority of his classmates. From that moment onwards, I tried to be more conscious of defining my own terms — which can be more challenging than you think when you’ve been using them for so long. So anyways…here’s my attempt to define feminism, privilege, and intersectionality.

Disclaimer: These definitions are in no way exhaustive or comprehensive. I’ve done my best to summarize and distill these terms in such a way that my readers can (hopefully) get an entry point into feminist discourse. If you feel like this definition is lacking, that’s because it probably is. Please feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section 🙂

1. Feminism. Okay, so this is perhaps the hardest one to define. In part because there are so many different ways to be a feminist. And in part because feminism has changed so much over the years. The definition you’re probably the most familiar with is: feminism is the belief that everyone should be treated equally. “Well,” you might be asking yourself, “why call it feminism — a term that clearly excludes men?” (In case you’ve managed to avoid hearing this question, here’s one dude’s explanation for why there is a problem with the word feminism — which I still can’t wrap my head around). My first response would be: just because a term is gendered, doesn’t mean it’s exclusionary. My second response would be: because women AREN’T treated as equal to men and until that happens, we’ll stick with the word feminism.

A more nuanced definition might look something like this: “The term feminism can be used to describe a political, cultural or economic movement aimed at establishing equal rights and legal protection for women.” Feminism recognizes that there is a gendered hierarchy, with men occupying the more powerful position in society. Men get paid more than women who do the same jobs; men can walk down the street at night and not be afraid of being attacked; “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

Scholar bell hooks defines feminism as: “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” I once had a friend of mine (who was a man) ask me when I thought we’d no longer need the term “feminism” and my response was: “as soon as I can walk down the street late at night and not fear for my life.” So while I made be afforded the same (legal) rights as men, I do not get to experience the same privileges they do (see definition below).

Feminism has fought for women’s legal rights (i.e. property rights and voting rights); for abortion rights and for reproductive rights (including access to birth control); for protection of women and girls from domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape; for workplace rights, including maternity leave and equal pay.

first wave feminism

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

Now that we’ve got a general sense of how feminism is defined, we should talk about how feminism gets divided into “waves.”

a) First wave (19th and early 20th centuries).
The first wave is associated with women’s suffrage movements, which were concerned mostly with the right to vote. Suffrage literally means the right to vote in political elections. By 1918, women over the age of 30, who owned houses, could vote in Britain. And in 1928 this right was extended to all women over the age of 21. In the US, women were granted the right to vote in all states in 1919, with the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. Hooray!

b) Second wave (1960s to late 1980s). I’m gonna spend a little bit more time with second-wave feminism, as this is where many of the bad myths about feminism come from. In case you’re not familiar with these myths, Bustle has a really great article. Whereas first-wave feminism was focused on women’s political rights, the second wave was more concerned fighting social and cultural inequalities — and sought to acknowledge the ways in which cultural and political inequalities were inextricably linked to political issues.

The slogan, “the personal is political” became linked to second wave feminism. This term was coined by Carol Hanisch in her essay “The Personal is Political” (written in 1969 and published in 1970).  Hanisch was a member of New York Radical Women and a prominent figure in the Women’s Liberation Movement. This term acknowledges the ways in which women’s private lives (i.e. lives that are contained to the home, where they take care of children) are very much political. The phrase also acknowledges the on-going battle over women’s reproductive rights (access to safe abortions).

second wave feminism One of the central myths of second-wave feminism is that women hated men, wanted to do away with them, and must becomes lesbians in order to be feminists. While Andrea Dworkin condemned pornography as always promoting violence against women, and Valerie Solanas might have claimed that men ruined in the world in SCUM Manifesto (1969), neither were the voices for all of feminism. Dworkin responded to the claim that she once uttered the words “all sex is rape” by stating the following: “Penetrative intercourse is, by its nature, violent. But I’m not saying that sex must be rape. What I think is that sex must not put women in a subordinate position. It must be reciprocal and not an act of aggression from a man looking only to satisfy himself. That’s my point.” In a future post, I’ll try to define the sex positivity movement and will return to Dworkin’s claims.

One of the major issues in/with second-wave feminism was its lack of intersectionality (see definition below). Unfortunately, the dominant historical narrative of second-wave feminism ignores the presence of women of colour, and focuses on white, East Coast, and predominately middle-class women.

c) Third wave (1990s onwards). So many say that we’re still in the third wave of feminism. Third wave feminism is primarily be concerned with addressing the issues with second-wave feminism. One of the major failings of second-wave feminism was the lack of intersectionality. Second-wave feminists were also guilty of ignoring transgender women (an issue that is still very much alive and well today with what we call “trans exclusionary radical feminists” or TERFs for short. See entry below). One of the central concerns of third wave feminists is a discussion of queer identity politics (like, for example, the difference between sex and gender, which I’ll define in a future post).

Instead of saying that all pornography must be eliminated, third wave feminists remain divided on the subject. Third-wave feminists are interested in developing a more capacious understanding of how women might feel empowered by pornography, sex work, and prostitution. Other issues that are central to third wave feminism include gender violence (or addressing what I’ll soon define as “rape culture”) and the legalization of abortion, which continues to be threatened. Just look at what happened with Planned Parenthood in the US last year.

third wave feminism

From the first Slut Walk in Toronto (April 3rd 2011)

Shelley Budgeon claims that third-wave feminism is supposed to make space for the plethora of ways that one can be a feminist and that “there is no one ‘right’ way of being one.” If this is the case, then I wonder why Roxane Gay wrote Bad Feminist — a collection of essays in which she grapples with, for example, her decision to say that black is her favourite colour when really it’s pink. One of the issues that I have with third-wave feminism is that it is still invested in dictating the terms under which a woman can be a “good” feminist. I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read about how growing out your armpit hair is a straight path to being a rad feminist.

d) Fourth wave (Right now?). So the reason that there’s a question mark is that, well, some folks use the term third-wave when referring to the current moment of feminism and some are using fourth wave. I fall into the latter camp. How would I define fourth wave feminism? Let me turn to Tavi Gevinson for a little help. In her TedX Teen Talk from 2012, Tavi explains the problem she has with reconciling her love of fashion with her feminist politics: “Actually recognizing all of the contradictions I was feeling became easier once I realized that feminism was not a rulebook but a discussion, a conversation, a process.” Ugh. Tavi. Stop. Being. So. Awesome.

There are two reasons I quote Tavi (and they’re not “just because she’s awesome”). The first is that at the helm of fourth-wave feminism you’ll find teen girls. The Internet has made it way more possible for teen girls to learn about feminism and so it makes sense to me that teen girls are thinking about and grappling with what it means to be a feminist. And I say “grappling” because as Tavi points out: feminism is messy and full of contradictions.

What’s kinda awesome about fourth-wave feminism is that we don’t necessarily need to solve these contradictions. We can love fashion while being critical of the fashion industry; we can continue to post selfies on Instagram despite being told that millennials are some of the worst narcissists; we can be sexually empowered while also recognizing the complicated nature of our desires (which may be influenced, in part, by the patriarchal society in which we live).

tumblr feminism

From Rewina Beshue’s instagram (@rgb_)

It is this connection between feminism and the internet that has led others to use the term “tumblr feminism” when discussing the fourth wave.

Tumblr feminism can be defined as the act of using social media to depict and discuss female sexuality. While tumblr was birthplace of this aesthetic, “tumblr feminism” can also be found on sites like Instagram, with artists Petra Collins, Molly Soda, and Grace Miceli championing the style. In Dazed Magazine, Rowan Blanchard, the fourteen-year old Disney star of Girl Meets World, defines “tumblr feminisms” as follows: “make-up, pink, selfies, iPhones – all these things that we use to undermine teenage girls and make them feel embarrassed. Girls are saying, ‘Well, if that’s what you’re going to use against me, then I’m going to use them for me.’”

tumblr feminism

From Petra Collins’ instagram (@petrafcollins)

The author of the Dazed Magazine article tells us how “many have been quick to dismiss the work of artists under fourth wave as vapid and apolitical due to their aesthetic ties with the fashion and beauty industry. However, photography in the digital age is arguably free from class restrictions, often carving out space for marginalised communities to represent themselves and others like them when the media refuses to.”

e) Post-feminism (or postfeminism). I must confess that I shudder whenever I see this word. Put simply: post-feminism believes that women have achieved equal rights and we can just throw away that silly term feminism because who needs it anymore, right? In other words, we are “post” or “beyond” feminism. This opinion gets disseminated through popular media. Postfeminism works to commodify feminism, via the figure of the woman as the empowered consumer.

In the introduction to Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra note how postfeminism is inherently white and middle class and that postfeminism views consumption is seen as integral to the production of the self. Feminism is a stylish identity that can be put on or taken off — both literally and figuratively — at will.

As Rosalind Gill points out, postfeminism suggests that all we need to do is “lean in” and “love our body” in order to be successful. These injunctions lead women to believe that any lack of success is their fault. Gill writes: “[Postfeminism] seeks to persuade us that women are being held back not by patriarchal capitalism or institutionalised sexism, but by their own lack of confidence – a lack that is presented as being entirely an individual and personal matter, unconnected to structural inequalities or cultural forces.”

Angela McRobbie offers some examples of postfeminism that include Bridget Jones Diary and Sex in the City, in which the women claim to be liberated and enjoy their sexuality, but they’re constantly on the search for men who will make their lives better.

f) TERFs. TERF is an acronym that stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists. Basically, TERFs don’t believe that trans women (women who have transitioned from their assigned gender “man” to the gender of woman) are women at all. If you were born with a penis, than you’re a man for life. Many TERFs hold the view that trans women are just “gay men who are too afraid to come out as gay and so they’ve chosen to hide by becoming a woman” (as though choosing to change your gender is SO much easier than being a gay man).TERFs hold the view that being transgendered is a mental health issue — despite the fact that the DSM-V no longer includes “transgender” as a mental illness. There’s a super awesome checklist that really helped me better understand what this term means.

2. Privilege. The phrase “check your privilege” became all the rage in 2012 . I saw it on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, to the point where the term almost lost all meaning. But that doesn’t mean that we still shouldn’t think about our privilege.

Privilege can be defined a number of ways. Because I’m an English student, I’ll turn to my old friend, the Oxford English Dictionary: “A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by an individual, corporation of individuals, etc., beyond the usual rights or advantages of others; spec. (a) an exemption from a normal duty, liability, etc.; (b) enjoyment of some benefit (as wealth, education, standard of living, etc.) above the average or that deemed usual or necessary for a particular group.

In other words, privilege = the advantages you have/benefits afforded to you that others might not have access to. Your privilege is based on which identity categories you occupy, such as race, class, gender, disability, sexual orientation, etc. Let’s take class privilege as an example. Children coming from lower-class/lower-income families are more likely to have to work through university, take loans (and thus go into debt), or they might not go to university at all because they have to help support their family by working. On the opposite end of the spectrum, children from middle to upper-class families might receive financial support from their parents, and thus be able to attend school without working or going into debt. I say might because it’s not always the rule that parents will pay for their children’s university education.


From the USF Check Your Privilege Campaign. Find out more here.

Those who hold less privilege than others are more vulnerable or precarious — another academic word that needs defining. For now I’ll leave it at this: a precarious existence is to live without security. Think for example of those who have to take under the table jobs in order to pay the bills, and thus could be fired at any moment, for no legitimate reason. I just read a great article about Amy Schumer’s racism on The Establishment in which the author acknowledges her white privilege as follows:

“And yes, I am white, and yes, I am racist too—because we live in a society founded on racism that affords me racial privilege, and because I haven’t always fully acknowledged how I move through this world differently because of the color of my skin, and I’ve done some racist shit. I’ve thought ‘that cop was nice!’ when I got off without a ticket, instead of ‘How would that have been different if I wasn’t white?'”

The fact that you just had a pleasant experience with a police officer is one thing; the fact that you didn’t even need to worry about whether or not you’d have a pleasant experience (let alone still be alive after the encounter) speaks to the privilege that you possess as a white person. In other words, if you don’t have to think about it, it’s a privilege.

3. Intersectionality. This term was first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” For Crenshaw, when we discuss systems of oppression, domination, and power (such as the patriarchy, neoliberalism, capitalism, systemic racism), we MUST consider how different aspects of our identity make us more or less vulnerable than others.

For example: I’m a woman, therefore I have less power than a man. But I’m a white woman, which means I have more power and privilege than a woman of colour. I come from a low-income family with a single disabled father, so I haven’t experienced as much privilege (i.e. financial security) as women from middle to upper class families. I’m queer (therefore less privileged) but I’m a cis-gendered (I present as the gender I was assigned) and I’m femme and so my queerness isn’t visible, and thus affords me more privilege than a queer trans or gender-queer person.

Intersectionality is concerned with examining how different different biological, social, and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, age, and nationality, interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels. So, for example, you might experience discrimination not just because you’re a woman, but because you’re a woman of colour who is younger than the other job applicants, and is not originally from Canada. When we begin to think about intersectionality, we can better understand how identities exist on a hierarchy. intersectional feminism

So how might one put their intersectional feminist politics into action? Speaking from my own experience, this summer when I was teaching the Queer Writing course, I tried to make sure that the texts on the syllabus spoke to a variety of different queer identities. I ensured that not all texts were written by white men or women. I acknowledged that the history of queer writing began with white men (and some women), from the middle to upper class of society — but then strove to fill in the gaps of that history with texts from indigenous writers and other authors of colour. If I were to do this course again, I might do away with the historical approach, which meant that all students got for the first couple of weeks was white writers, and opt for a more thematic approach.

But more generally, you can be aware of the space that you’re taking up in a conversation. For example, in that Amy Schumer article I cited earlier, the author notes how each time the leader of Black Lives Matter tried to speak about racism, Amy Schumer’s producer would jump in and cut her off, repeating the refrain “Amy isn’t racist.” In the classroom, I try to be aware of who else has raised their hand to speak and wait to ensure that those who haven’t spoken as much get a chance to do so.

On the BUNZ Feminist Zone, they offer a series of questions you should ask yourself before posting, in order to ensure that your post supports the group’s commitment to intersectionality. These include:

“Does my post only refer to a type of oppression that is a top issue for white feminism but actually affects women of colour, trans and non-binary folx differently? ie) the wage gap? Does my post acknowledge this fact?”

“Is your post looking to help facilitate community, inclusivity and safe space while centering marginalized voices? Or is this post just arguing a luxury point that only privileged folks have time and space to be concerned with?”

When I think about my goals as a feminist, the major one is that I’m working to acknowledge the privilege that I hold as I strive to be more intersectional in my thinking about feminist issues.

I hope that you’ve found this post useful! I definitely feel way more confident defining my terms than I did before I started this post. In the next “Defining Our Terms” post, I’ll tackle these terms: patriarchy, rape culture, the male gaze, and misogyny. Ugh. Get ready to have all the feelings.

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This post was written by Margeaux


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