I recently had a conversation with an extended family member that I had not seen in a while. For some reason, feminism came up (all things go back to feminism, in my opinion) and, at the word, the flow of the chat came to a pause. They looked at me seriously and said in surprise,
“You’re a feminist, Nina?”
They asked this with borderline disgust, as if the word was something infectious that should be avoided at all costs. I should add that the family member in question is a woman, if that makes a difference in your book.
The question barely lingered before I went on.
In my experiences with family and friends, I’ve never had to defend feminism, or my deep-rooted faith in it. I found myself quickly referring to the dictionary definition, which is the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes. I then turned to Mikki Kendall’s framework of intersectional feminism, and recommended her book, Hood Feminism. I made sure to emphasize that feminism cares for everybody, period.
Why the Negative Attitude Toward Feminism?
I’m not sure if this conversation was impactful for the family member or not, but I do think it made them think about it a little more, at least.
Since this interaction, I’ve tried to think about where their negative reaction may have come from, or where they’ve heard feminism used as some kind of negative word. It could be chalked up to a formative experience in their younger years, or through thinly veiled misogyny in their household. I also think that the public disdain of feminism, particularly from the far right, may be accountable for the way people view it, especially those who might not understand it otherwise.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to feminism for everyone; it is very subjective. For me, the bottom line of feminism is respecting the humanity of all people, especially the marginalized and disenfranchised. Equitable access to everything from safe drinking water to healthcare to higher education should be the norm. The work of feminism is to ensure that this respect and equitable access are always available.
On the Feminist Book Club podcast, we often pose the same question to our guests: What does it mean to be feminist? The answers we get are my favorite because they are a reflection of our diverse community and the multiple ways we can show up for feminism.
Here are some wonderful interpretations of feminism that have been shared on the podcast:
Koa Beck (author of White Feminism): “I interpret feminism both historically and contemporary as a collective endeavor. In terms of assessing systems that disenfranchise marginalized genders and identifying those systems and dismantling them and protesting against them together, as opposed to very individualized, optimized pathways to overcome patriarchy.”
Echo Brown (author of The Chosen One): “Feminism for me is having sovereignty over your being, sovereignty over your personhood, your ability to make choices, your ability to control all the elements of your life without outside influence from societal aspects or patriarchy. It is that kind of sovereignty for me.”
Sonya Renee Taylor (author of The Body is Not an Apology): “To be feminist to me is to be unapologetically committed to equity and justice and autonomy and liberation of all women.”
Tess Gerritsen (author of Listen to Me): “Women have choices. They can do what they want with their lives and nobody can tell them what to do. That, to me, is being a feminist.”
How do you define feminism? Let us know in the comments.
Some Required Reading for Feminism 101
Hood Feminism (2020) by Mikki Kendall
White Feminism (2021) by Koa Beck
The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love (2018) by Sonya Renee Taylor
Can We All Be Feminists? (2018) edited by June Eric-Udorie
Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets (2019) by Feminista Jones
Click here for more recommendations from our Essential Feminist Reading Guide.
A professor of mine defined it as “eradicating the oppressions that prevent people from achieving their humanity.” And I love that definition, in part, because it’s feminism as a verb.