This is a compilation of several blog posts that attempt to define some common feminist terms. These should be useful when discussing and understanding feminism, but are by no means set in stone.
Feminism is the belief that all genders are equal and should be treated as such, across economic, political and social spheres. Feminists believe that we live in a patriarchal society, and as such some people are oppressed on the basis of their gender.
Patriarchy is the male-dominated social system which oppresses women across all spheres. Throughout history, men have had more power than women and have made it difficult for women to attain an equal level of power. We currently live in a patriarchal society – this is particularly evident when you look at our political institutions, top-earning professions and media, all where women are woefully underrepresented.
First-wave feminists are generally accepted to be the wonderful 19th and early 20th century women who won us the vote and other basic legal rights. These suffragettes were inspired by an even earlier feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, who published one of the first feminist treatises, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).
Women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom was a national movement that began in 1872. The outbreak of WWI led to a halting of much of the campaigning but in 1918 the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed, giving the vote to women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications. The Representation of the People Act 1928 extended the vote to all women over the age of 21. Prior to this, a Matrimonial Causes Act 1923 gave women the right to the same grounds for divorce as men.
Crucial groups include the Women’s Social and Political Union and the Women’s Freedom League. While the movement is largely painted as white and middle class, working class women strongly involved in the fight for equal rights, as were Asian women. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, for example, was a prominent suffragette and member of the Women’s Social and Political Union and marched alongside Emmeline Pankhurst on November 18, 1910, in a 400-strong demonstration since known as Black Friday.
Many first-wave feminists were imprisoned, beaten, force-fed and killed for the right to vote.
Second-wave feminism began in the early 1960s in America. While first-wave feminism generally covered legal inequalities, second-wave feminism was able to look at wider, more subtle inequalities (well, as subtle as 1960s sexism can be). It also focused on sexual liberation and reproductive rights.
In 1961, the contraceptive Pill was made available which gave women more control over their bodies, and therefore their lives, than they ever had before. Betty Friedan wrote the bestselling book The Feminine Mystique in 1963, in which she objected to the mainstream media image of women, stating that placing women at home limited their possibilities and wasted their potential. The Equal Pay Act was introduced in America the same year.
The myth of the “bra-burning feminist” began during this period when a group of radical feminists protested the 1968 Miss America contest. They put a bunch of restrictive items such as bras, girdles, etc. in a bin but didn’t set any of it on fire. They also crowned a sheep, which sounds hilarious.
Third-wave feminism was a period of feminism that began during the early 1990s and is considered by some to still be going on today. The wave began as a backlash against the predominantly white, heterosexual, middle-class form of feminism that had come before it and instead often focused on queer women and women of colour. It focused on deconstructing ideas of gender and sexuality and included everything from the riot grrrls, the ladettes and the Spice Girls, to the battle between anti-porn and pro-porn feminists. There was a strong emphasis on sexuality and whether something was empowering or oppressive – subjects such as stripping and prostitution were hot topics. The Vagina Monologues (1996), a play by Eve Ensler, began its run and comprised of monologues by women on various aspects of the feminine experience. It’s highly recommended viewing!
Fourth-wave feminism began in the last five years and can be identified by a focus on intersectionality (see below) and online activism. It has also highlighted violence against women and girls (particularly rape and FGM) and the portrayal of women in the media, and is generally considered sex-positive and body-positive. Fourth-wave feminists include individuals such as Malala Yousafzai, Chella Quint and Laura Bates, activist groups such as Sisters Uncut and Fourth Wave: LFA, and publications such as Feministing, the Vagenda and Racialicious.
Fourth wave feminists are often connected through technology and instead of the zines popular during third-wave feminism, young feminists often speak out using blogs and social media channels. The focus online has been criticised by some for leading to ‘slacktivism’ (which might include the signing of online petitions with no real-life action) and ‘Tumblr feminism’ (a pejorative term referring to a strong focus on identity politics), but has meant the wider inclusion of many people, including disabled people.
Fourth-wave feminism clearly leads on from third-wave as it closely looks at pop culture. However, responses to pop culture are more instant and extreme, meaning fourth-wave feminists have been able to exert more influence (particularly over marketing: brands such as Dove have tried to implement ‘feminist advertising’ despite this being a contradiction in terms by some people’s definitions).
A lot of people think we currently live in a post-feminist world, because of Sex and the City and other crap like that. They’re the kind of people you hear, going, “It’s all gone too far! Women have it too good!”
They are all idiots.
Intersectionality is a feminist sociological theory that describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. The term was coined by American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and basically covers the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all type of feminism. For example, a black woman would face both racism and sexism as she navigates around everyday life.
The easiest way we’ve found to explain intersectionality is to imagine you are having an eye test. You know the lenses which the optometrist will place over your eye? Being born with every privilege – white, male, heterosexual, able bodied, middle class, etc. is like wearing no lens at all. If you are a woman, for example, you wear one lens – that of being female. You see and experience the world through the lens of womanhood, and as such, it will be different to the person who wears no lens. Once you have worn a lens and become attuned to the way it differs to wearing no lens at all, it becomes easier to imagine viewing the world through a different lens or multiple lenses. This is why feminists, who are attuned to the way the world differs when you are female, should always try to imagine wearing the lens of being black, or working class, or homosexual, etc. This is being intersectional.
Intersectionality also refers to the way that if you wear multiple lenses, such as being asian, female and bisexual, you do not get to take each singular lens off before adding the next lens. As a result, all of the lenses overlay one another and result in a completely different set of experiences. You do not simply experience the world as ‘asian’ as well as ‘female’. You experience the world as an ‘asian female’, and as such, you should be considered within the realm of feminism.
Mansplaining is a combination of the words “man” and “explaining” that describes the act of a man speaking to a woman with the assumption that she knows less than he does about the topic being discussed, on the basis of her gender. Mansplaining is different from other forms of condescension because mansplaining is rooted in the assumption that, in general, a man is likely to be more knowledgeable than a woman. Mansplaining will even occur when the topic being discussed directly relates to the feminine experience, e.g. “Women like being called out to in the street – I always hear women say it is flattering.” It is commonly accepted to be one of the most annoying things on the planet but if you point out that a man is mansplaining, he will often become enraged.
A term for people whose gender identity, expression or behaviour is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. Transgender is a broad term and is generally the best one for non-transgender (or ‘cisgender’: see below) people to use. “Trans” is shorthand for “transgender.” (Note: Transgender is correctly used as an adjective, not a noun, thus “transgender people” is appropriate but “transgenders” is viewed as disrespectful.) Trans-man is a term for a transgender individual who currently identifies as a man (though simply ‘man’ is often more respectful) and trans-woman is a term for a transgender individual who currently identifies as a woman (again, just ‘woman’ is usually preferred).
It is respectful to use the pronoun appropriate for the gender the person currently identifies with. Nobody thinks you’re cool because you refer to a trans-gender woman as ‘he’ because “he was born a he though!”, so shut the fuck up. Similarly, nobody cares if you “just don’t get it”. Educate yourself.
When a person is cisgender, they identify as the gender that matches the sex that they were assigned at birth. Some feminists find the term offensive, as it implies a level of privilege associated with being born a woman that they disagree with. However, it has been argued by some transgender people that using the terms ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ is their way of acknowledging any privilege they may have experienced pre-transition.
Non-binary refers to people who do not identify exclusively as ‘male’ or ‘female’. People are using it more commonly now than ever (at least in Western culture), and it’s considered a rejection of gender norms. Some people include ‘non-binary’ or ‘genderqueer’ in their definitions of transgender.
Stands for ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’. However, this name is offensive. There is nothing radical about believing people can only be one of two sexes/genders defined by birth, and it’s not feminism if it excludes transwomen.
TERFs often claim that transwomen reinforce the gender binary (while simultaneously complaining that they don’t look ‘feminine enough’ to pass as ciswomen) and also believe that the word ‘TERF’ is a slur. This is much the same as when racists object to being called racist.
Black and Minority Ethnic. An alternative to ‘Person of Colour’ or ‘Woman of Colour’, used by some media outlets and organisations.
Check Your Privilege
Telling someone to “check their privilege” is a way of telling a person who is making a political point that they should remember they are speaking from a privileged position, because they are, for example, white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied or wealthy. It asks the speaker to acknowledge intersectionality (the school of thought which says, for example, that different minorities experience oppression differently – see below for more). So for example, if a white, female journalist tweets that she “literally could not give a shit about” the representation of black women on Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls, she will face a chorus of tweets telling her to “check her privilege” (sorry Caitlin, but that was a dumb move). Some people say it’s used too often to shut down debate and silence feminists, while others say it isn’t used nearly enough. A privileged person is not necessarily prejudiced (sexist, racist, etc.) as an individual, but may be part of a broader pattern of -ism even though unaware of it.
If a woman is expressing sexism against other women, she is not ‘sexist’ but has internalised sexism. Internalised sexism is when women consciously or unconsciously internalise sexist messages that are present in their society and culture. If the internalisation is conscious, the women may actively resent other women and if the internalisation is unconscious, the women may hold feminist views and be unaware that they regard themselves as lesser than men. Some women who have internalised sexism may try to prevent other women from stepping out of their traditional gender roles as they believe they are preserving the proper way of life. They don’t realise they are being oppressive.
Sexism can be externalised as well as internalised. While internalised sexism may come in the form of thinking, “Who am I to speak?” or “What do I know?”, externalised sexism comes from the outside and is usually easier to spot. Someone saying, “Women are all bitchy”, for example.
Internalised sexism can result in self-hate and the increased likelihood of accepting male points of view over female points of view. This, obviously, results in further internalised sexism and so it becomes a dangerous cycle. To combat internalised sexism, women must become aware of their internalised sexism. Everyone is the product of their environment and society and so, no matter how much feminist activism you do and how aware you are of gender politics, internalised sexism is almost unavoidable because of the prevalence of sexism. Once you are aware of internalised sexism, it is easier to spot its place in the background of your thoughts and so easier to challenge it. Another important weapon against internalised sexism is taking the time to actively support and encourage other women, instead of criticising them. It is important to fight against gender stereotypes and consider what attributes are authentic and what attributes are the product of society and culture.
Sometimes, a man will say during a debate, “Lots of women hate women too though!” as if that makes hating women okay. It seems obvious that, rather than this being concrete proof that women are just hateable or hateful, the prevalence of sexism is such that it results in women hating themselves.
Often, a feminist will hear the cry, “International Women’s Day?! When’s International Men’s Day? REVERSE SEXISM HURRRRRRR”. Ignoring the fact that International Men’s Day is November 19th, there is no such thing as reverse sexism. By dictionary definition, being ‘reverse sexist’ would just be called being ‘sexist’. By feminist definition (in an academic context), a woman cannot be sexist against men because they are not in a position of institutional power. They can be prejudiced, but not sexist. In the same way, you can’t be racist against white people, or classist against rich people. If you’re a woman and you say, “All men are dumb”, for example, your opinion will not oppress others as your institution (that of being female), does not have the power to oppress others. Men will still make up far higher percentages in all positions of institutional power, e.g. in government, in large corporations, in the law, etc.
In order for sexism against men to exist, men and women would have to be on an equal playing field. For those who dislike the term ‘feminism’, because they think it is sexist or not inclusive of men, they must remember this fact. We have women-only literary prizes because women have a lot of catching up to do in terms of being regarded equally to men in literature, for example, and women-only sexual abuse charities because women are more likely to suffer sexual abuse. This is regarded by most as logical. For some reason, when you have a movement that is fighting for women to gain the same place in society as men, some people do not understand why you would give it a women-centric name. It is strange.
The Male Gaze
The gaze is a concept used for analysing visual culture to see how the audience views the people that are presented. In 1975, second-wave feminist Laura Mulvey introduced the concept of the “male gaze”. Mulvey believed that women were widely sexualised in films as heterosexual men were predominantly in charge of the camera. The male gaze occurs when the audience is put into the shoes of a heterosexual man when viewing a woman onscreen – it may linger slowly over her body, for example. The woman becomes passive as she becomes a sexual object to the other characters in the film as well as the audience itself. Mulvey stated that the female gaze is the same as the male gaze, as women look at themselves through the eyes of men. A man possesses the gaze because he is a man, whereas a woman has the gaze only when she assumes the male gazer role — when she objectifies others by gazing at them like a man. This is regardless of the sexuality of the woman and is a product of habit.
The male gaze has widened as a theory to include other forms of media, such as advertising, over the years. A good example of the male gaze is during the film Gravity, when Sandra Bullock removes her space suit and the camera focuses on her scantily clad body, or in any Transformer film (though save yourself the burden of watching any of them – just take my word for it).
Not All Men!
People who say feminists don’t have a sense of humour have clearly never looked at some of the Not All Men! memes. The shark jumping out of the water one is particularly funny. Not All Men! Is the cry that goes out when you attempt to discuss a feminist issue, usually involving abuse, and one or multiple men jump in to defend themselves by pointing out that not all men engage in that particular activity. This is redundant because usually no-one is saying that all men engage in it, just that a lot of men do and that it is a problem, and it also makes the problem about men instead of women. This can be infuriating – I watched a discussion of rape descend into Not All Men! and the women in the discussion ended up comforting the man who was upset that he was sort-of-not-really-not-at-all accused of being a rapist. It is also sometimes used to make a man feel better about himself – by pointing out that HE doesn’t engage with the behaviour, he is somehow helping the feminist cause. Action is far more helpful and simply stating that you DON’T do something is not the same as DOING something to help. Finally, it is interrupting. And a lot of women are sick of being interrupted.
Prominent Radical Feminists: Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, Andrea Dworkin
Finn Mackay defines radical feminism as being compromised of four main values:
1. The acceptance of the existence of patriarchy alongside a commitment to end it.
2. The use and promotion of women-only space as an organising method.
3. A focus on all forms of male violence against women and their role as a keystone of women’s oppression broadly.
4. An extension of the analysis of male violence against women to include the institutions of pornography and prostitution.
Radical feminism arose during the 1960s ‘second wave’. Radical feminists often criticise liberal feminism for not going far enough – they believe that society must be changed more wholly than just within its laws, as patriarchy is inherent within its very structures. They also believe that the oppression of women is the oldest and worst form of oppression in the world, and must be overthrown by any means. Rad fems, as they are sometimes known, reject traditional gender roles, oppose the objectification of women and usually strongly disagree with the idea of sex work and/or pornography as female empowerment.
Radical feminists have undergone criticism for excluding men and for often being trans-exclusive (as such, some been accused of transphobia). As part of fourth-wave feminism in particular, however, more people are identifying as trans-inclusive radical feminists.
They are the type most likely to attract negative media attention, but can be thanked for bringing about ‘the personal as political’, speaking out against harmful sexual politics and encouraging sisterhood amongst women.
Prominent Liberal Feminists: Mary Wollstonecraft, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan
Liberal feminism took off in the 1950s and 60s, and traditionally focused on changing legislation to ensure gender equality in the law. Examples include the suffragettes, who fought to ensure women were given the same voting rights as men (though their approach can be considered radical, as it included encouraging the destruction of property). Liberal feminists tend to emphasise women as individuals, as well as the importance of ‘choice’.
Liberal feminists believe that men and women are socialised into believing that men are superior, and that patriarchy is a result of this. They believe that women have the same capabilities as men and as such should be awarded the same opportunities. They’re concerned with topics such as equal pay, abortion law, and equal access to all industries, and their work has been responsible for huge achievements within areas such as welfare, education and health. However, they have received criticism for focusing too closely on legal matters and ignoring wider, systemic sexism.
The movement has also received substantial criticism for ignoring issues of race and class. As such, some modern feminists choose not to label themselves as liberal.
Prominent Socialist Feminists: Naomi Klein, bell hooks, Angela Carter
Socialist feminists believe in challenging ideologies of capitalism as well as patriarchy. They believe that the two are intrinsically linked, as a capitalist society rewards men for producing tangible, tradable goods. Women have not been valued the same way as their work has been predominantly in the domestic sphere, where goods are not produced – even now, the majority of carers are women, and they tend to be the lowest earners. Men’s economic status gives them power and control over women, resulting in wide-scale oppression.
Socialist feminists believe that putting men into the public sphere and women into the domestic sphere is the result of socialisation rather than a biological difference. They believe that men and women’s roles and statuses should undergo considerable change.
Like the radical feminists, socialist feminists believe that although women are divided by class, race, ethnicity and religion, they all experience the same oppression simply for being women. Unlike liberal feminists, who tend to focus on women as individuals, socialist feminists focus on the broader context of society and believe the best way to end the oppression of women is for men and women to work together equally.
Prominent Womanists: Alice Walker, Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, Clenora Hudson-Weems
Womanism as a term was coined by Alice Walker in 1979, who said, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” She also defined a Womanist as, “A woman who loves another woman, sexually and/ or non sexually. She appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility…[she] is committed to the survival and wholeness of an entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically for health… loves the spirit…. loves struggle. Loves herself. Regardless.”
Womanists often feel that feminism is dominated by middle class, white women and insufficiently tackles the issue of race. They point to examples in the media, in academia, in trade publishing, etc. all as giving white feminists a platform over BME women. They also find it hard to relate to feminism as the experiences of being a women of colour can differ so strongly from being a white woman. Womanism, as an alternative, focuses on the racial and gender oppression of black women and those of other minority demographics.
The term ‘Womanist’ includes the word “man”, recognizing that black men are an integral part of black women’s lives as their partners, friends and relatives. Womanism accounts for the ways in which black women support and empower black men, and explores the ways that black women’s relationship to men as different from white women’s. It acknowledges and praises the history, traditions, values and power of black women while recognizing a history of sexual and non-sexual violence against them.
The University of Texas at Austin recently made headlines for announcing a new gender politics class titled “Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism”. I cannot be the only person who desperately would like to attend this class.
Woman of Colour
Woman of Colour (WOC) or Person of Colour (POC) is used to describe any person who is not white. The term encompasses all non-white peoples, emphasising common experiences of systemic racism.