The last few years have seen feminism grow in popularity, and an increasing number of people now identify as feminist.
Despite this popularity, the language used to talk about feminism is still reliant on niche acronyms, academic definitions, and in-jokes. If you don’t spend all your free time on Twitter or reading feminist blogs it can be easy to feel left behind.
Here’s a beginner’s guide to understanding the language, and how to use it.
In “Flawless”, Beyoncé sampled the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “We Should All Be Feminists”. Adichie quoted the dictionary definition of “feminist”, then supplied her own version:
“Feminist: a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it, we must do better.’”
The view that you cannot be feminist while ignoring people who aren’t the same as you is perfectly articulated by bell hooks in her book Ain’t I A Woman: black women and feminism:
“Oftentimes I’m asked by black women to explain why I would call myself a feminist and by using that term ally myself with a movement that is racist. I say, ‘The question we must ask again and again is how can racist women call themselves feminists.’”
As feminists, we must acknowledge things like racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and the many other power and social structures that impact on our lives. Ava Vidal sums it up in The Telegraph, saying:
“The main thing ‘intersectionality’ is trying to do, I would say, is to point out that feminism which is overly white, middle class, cis-gendered, and able-bodied represents just one type of view – and doesn’t reflect on the experiences of all the multi-layered facets in life that women of all backgrounds face.”
Privilege is the idea that we all have advantages over other people, and it’s important to acknowledge this. For example, as a white, middle-class, straight woman I am protected from racism, classism, homophobia, and many other kinds of discrimination.
This is privilege. I am also more likely to be listened to in feminist circles and more likely to be published online. The way I acknowledge this privilege is to promote women who don’t have the advantages I have and support them when they are discriminated against.
As Heather J wrote on Slutwalk:
“Privilege is something we have that gives us built-in advantages in life over others. Privilege being ‘built-in’ is precisely why we do not see it or how it operates unless it is pointed out to us or we are forced to encounter it somehow.”
As Laura Kacere says on Everyday Feminism:
“According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, trans* people experience disproportionately high rates of poverty and homelessness caused by discrimination in jobs and housing, but they also experience greater incarceration rates, largely due to gender profiling by the police.”
The term cisgender comes from the Latin cis, which means “on the side of”. This is the opposite of trans, which means “on the other side of”. (Yeah, Latin – no wonder we need this guide!)
For many feminists, being called cis is like being called straight instead of homosexual or white instead of black. Until cis there was no word to describe not being trans (other than not being trans).
But other feminists believe that calling people trans or cis endorses the idea that men and women are fundamentally different. They believe that gender is a spectrum, not just male or female, and that if we divide people into cis or trans then we are limiting the ways they can define themselves.
Jone Johnson Lewis writes that radical feminism centers around the belief there is “social dominance of woman by men”:
“Radical feminism is a philosophy emphasizing the patriarchal roots of inequality between men and women, or, more specifically, social dominance of women by men. Radical feminism views patriarchy as dividing rights, privileges and power primarily by gender, and as a result oppressing women and privileging men.”
Stanford University also describes the radical feminism approach as understanding “power in terms of dyadic relations of dominance/subordination, often understood on analogy with the relationship between master and slave.”
Additionally, Jonathan Dean provides a bit of history in The Guardian.
“While a minority of radical feminists were hostile to men, radical feminism was much more instrumental in generating widespread support for campaigns around issues such as rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment.”
In the last couple of decades radical feminism has split again, giving birth to a smaller group of women who are hostile to transgender people and their allies. These feminists are frequently referred to as “TERF”, or trans exclusionary radical feminists.
Trans exclusionary radical feminists believe that transgenderism doesn’t exist and that transgender people cannot be feminists.
Some suggest that transgender men are misogynists who don’t want to be women any more, and that transgender women are trying to infiltrate women’s groups because it turns them on. Many feminists disagree with them.
Here’s Roz Kaveney’s explanation of TERF in The Advocate:
“[TERF] think the existence of trans people is a delusion perpetuated as a new mode of oppression — trans women exist in order to give the idea of gender plausibility, and to divide women’s community by entering it.”
SWERF believe that sex workers cannot be feminists as the sex industry harms all women.
They believe that if men can buy women’s bodies it will encourage them to think of women as objects to be brought and sold, not human beings. An argument frequently levelled at SWERF is that they don’t consult sex workers before making generalisations about the sex industry.
Sex worker Cathryn Berarovichon on SWERF for The Gloss:
“They inform us either that we are unknowingly enslaved or that it is wrong for us to talk about our happiness with our chosen careers, seeing as there are millions and millions of women and girls (the men and boys don’t matter, you see) who are forced into sexual slavery.”
The hashtag #NotAllMen was inspired by Matt Lubchansky, the comics artist who created Not All Man, a superhero who is the “defender of the defended”. Not All Man makes sure that women don’t use the word “men” when they actually mean “some men”.
Erin Gloria Ryan has a great explanation in Jezebel:
“Not All Men! has gone from an irritating trope to a funny, giddy skewering of point-missing folks whose kneejerk reaction as part of a privileged group is to defend themselves against implications that they, as members of the complained-about privileged group, might be complicit in the status quo… In the Not All Men mind, it’s worse to be called sexist than to actually be a victim of sexism.”
Mansplaining is the word for when a man explains something to a woman that she obviously already knows.
Such as when a woman has been introduced as an expert on something (anything from medieval linguistics to beer brewing to unicorn wrangling), and the man she has been introduced to proceeds to tell her all about her subject.
As Anna Robinson writes in The Nation Institute:
“Mansplaining is when a man explains something to a woman that, not only does she already know, but there could be circumstantial evidence that suggests her knowledge that the man had willfully ignored.”
While it might just seem a bit annoying at first, many feminists believe that mansplaining represents the way society dismisses women’s opinions.
Soraya Chemaly has come up with three sentences every woman needs to battle mansplainers:
“Stop interrupting me.”
“I just said that.”
“No explanation needed.”
The previous explanation of “radical feminism” was quoted as being Jonathan Dean’s explanation from The Guardian. This was expanded to include further information.