Last week I was asked whether ‘feminism’ is the right word for gender equality. It was an honest question, as far as I could tell, so I gave it an honest answer.
“Feminism is the word we’ve always had to describe gender equality,” I said. “It comes from a time when women were severely disadvantaged and reflects the fact that women are still fighting to achieve parity today.”
I paused, considering whether to bite my tongue or plough forward. Given my affinity for controversial conversations, it’s not hard to guess which path of action won that battle.
I took a breath. “What I would ask,” I said, “is: what is it about the word ‘feminism’ that you don’t like? If you don’t like that it has the ‘fem’ prefix, maybe that says something in itself.”
While feminism is experiencing something of a renaissance, it’s not all plain sailing. Between equalists, humanists (the ones who think that the word is a gender neutral version of feminism, which it isn’t) and I’m-not-a-feminist-buts, the feminist boat has apparently left the port minus a few passengers.
Feminism has divided people for generations, mainly because of misunderstanding over its meaning. Yet now, even when we can agree that feminism means a belief in the equality and full humanity of men, women and people of all genders, we’re still arguing over the word itself.
A part of me wonders whether it’s because we’re using a word that has a feminine prefix to describe a generalised concept. The same part of me also wonders why ‘history’ and ‘mankind’ inspire much less conjecture. Male-sounding words seem to do just fine for concepts that include many genders. Female-sounding words… not so much.
Because male is still the default. The catch-all. We’re so used to it that we barely bat an eyelid. But when a female term tries to encapsulate an idea that includes men, God forbid. We need another word. Immediately.
The funny thing is, we have bigger fish to fry than quibbling over the word. As the ever-wise Gloria Steinem said, the substance is much more important than the word. Feminism-the-word, is secondary to feminism-the-movement. That is, the movement for gender equality.
So, whatever we want to call it, if we’re in favour of gender equality, the word we use should be the least of our concerns. We should be much more concerned with making that equality a reality – then we can argue over semantics until our equal hearts are content.