When Was Feminism NOT a Dirty Word?

July 3, 2008
N.J. Lukanovich

A couple of months ago, there was an article in the Montreal Gazette with the headline: "When did Feminism Become a Dirty Word?" I thought, oh Godů she must be very young. Hasn't it always been a dirty word? A word that's rolled around in stagnant muddy waters and dead fish? And then refused to wash?

I imagine from the moment the word "feminism" was coined, in 1895, there was a man within earshot who sneered with disgust and disdain, muttering about femininists not being natural women whose sole aim was to destroy everyone else's fun.

Or maybe it was a woman, simply aghast at the notion that one of her kind had the audacity to use the root word femina to create a term that defined a burgeoning movement that would change traditional values.

Just for a lark, I looked up the feminism in Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, published in l956. The definition reads: "(a) the theory that women should have political, economic, and social rights equal to those of men; (b) the movement to win such rights for women." Seems simple enough. A feminist is: "an advocate or supporter of feminism." So far so good.

Then I looked up "feminine" and things got a little sketchy. The second definition reads: "having qualities regarded as characteristic of women and girls, as gentleness, weakness, delicacy, modesty, etc.; womanly." I guess there's nothing gentle or weak about demanding equal rights, hence, feminists are not very WOMANLY.

I suppose that the term feminism had a brief blast of popularity in the sixties, and women were proud to shout out that they were feminists, but I grew up in the seventies, and by then it was fully drenched with negative connotations - bitchy, hairy, man-hating, castrating, hideous beyond belief, a modern day Medusa, something to call yourself if you want to annihilate your romantic dreams and/or sex life.

The conflict between standing with your sisters and desperately wanting to be liked by BOYS (or men), is the one thing never mentioned in the multitude of articles that ask why so many young women don't call themselves feminists. It's not the only reason, the cultural condionning we're all subject to is the main reason, but for young women who are aware of sexism, there is no doubt that the concern, no matter how subconscious, that your dating pool will be reduced is real.

What I would say to young women is this: insecure men are not worth the dirt under your strappy high heeled sandals, and speaking of shoes, feminism is about believing in equality, it isn't about burying your sexuality under utilitarian clothing. Unless of course, you want to. Feminism isn't about giving up your options, it's about having more.

In fact, we have feminists to thank for having a sex life at all, for being allowed to enjoy sex, to have orgasms and choose our partners. We no longer have to lie prone in distaste and "think of England" while fulfilling our conjugal duties.

The most common theory about the decline of feminism, is that it's become irrelevant, it's no longer necessary, we're already so... liberated - but sexual freedom and the freedom to work are not everything: equal pay, equal representation in government, and the sharing of domestic duties are a few things worth mentioning.

So don't allow men (and women who are afraid of what men will think) to dictate whether or not you call yourself a feminist. Don't allow those who don't want women to be equal partners in society besmirch a term that simply means you believe in equality. Calling someone a ball-buster because they don't want to be submissive is a whole lot of nasty spin, and it needs to stop.

Out of wild curiosity (terribly unfeminine, no doubt, at least in l956), I checked to see if the definition for feminine or feminism had changed. The Webster's itself has morphed into the Merriam-Webster's, and in the online version the first part of the definition for feminism remains the same to a word, but (b) has been changed to: "organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests." A change that indicates we've already won legal equality rights (at least in some places to some extent).

The definition for feminine has changed dramatically. There is no mention of weakness, or delicacy. Shaved down to the bare essentials, the definition reads: "characteristic of or appropriate or unique to women." What is "appropriate" or "unique" to women is clearly up to the reader and their own perspective of women.

And the only requirement to be a feminist is to support the value of equality. You don't even have to be a woman.