Is it Time for Feminists to Find a More Inclusive Word?

Charlotte Scurlock | Contributor 

The feminist movement has historically focused on the advancement of upper class, straight, white women, often excluding women of color and LGBTQIA+ people or even enabling these groups’ continued oppression to advance their own cause. Because of this flawed past and the remaining connotations of the word “feminism,” many people are reluctant to label themselves feminists, even if their views align with what could broadly fall under the term. Still others suggest that a name change might be appropriate in order to be more inclusive of marginalized groups.

Pitt’s Campus Women’s Organization (CWO) does not identify as a feminist group for this very reason. “We know that a lot of our membership does not [identify themselves as feminists], mainly for the reasons of the problematic history and the sometimes lack of inclusion even now,” said Chloe Kaunitz, CWO’s Community Outreach Chair. “As an intersectional organization and as a group of people who care about all people’s gendered rights, we don’t want to alienate everyone just because of a title. Many of our members do identify as feminists — I do personally — but we don’t want to necessarily link ourselves to that past.”

Despite the feminist movement’s problematic and exclusive history and the growing debate regarding the term itself, the name “feminism” has largely persisted even as the cause has shifted focus to emphasize issues of race, class, and other facets of identity as well as gender divisions. To understand the origins of the name debate, it is necessary to delve into the history of feminism as a movement, which is frequently categorized into “waves.

First wave feminism was primarily focused on white women’s suffrage. White women were granted the right to vote in 1919, a victory that is famously credited to the efforts of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who argued that women’s votes would cancel out black men’s votes in order to advance their cause. Black women were prevented from voting until the 1960’s through state laws and intimidation tactics, and many Latina women were unable to vote until an extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed in 1975, however this lag in voting rights was scarcely a focus of mid-century mainstream feminism. Second wave feminism notoriously and aggressively excluded women of color and LGBTQIA+ women, which has been much of the basis of intersectional feminisms.

There tend to be two camps of people hoping to eliminate the word feminism: those who think that feminism is no longer necessary in the United States because gender equality has been achieved, and those who feel that the term is historically outdated and exclusive. Some of the former suggest replacing the word “feminist” with “humanist.” While the word might initially sound appealing, unfortunately for advocates of this name-change, the word is already taken: Humanism is a philosophical movement about focusing on human potential and science rather than divine or supernatural powers. In other words, humanism and feminism are completely unrelated. Still others suggest using the word “equalism,” based on the premise that men and women are equal and should be treated as such. This name change disregards feminism’s roots as a women’s movement and ignores that women have unique needs in the fight for equal treatment and opportunity, which is problematic in itself.

Over the decades, scholars of various identities have contributed to feminist discourse and critiqued the under-representation of marginalized groups within feminism in order to make the movement’s goal of equality more inclusive. Beginning in the 1800s, famous abolitionist Sojourner Truth criticized the white feminist movement’s fight for equal rights for ignoring the enslavement of black people. Later, theorists including Audre Lorde, a black lesbian; Angela Davis, another black woman; and others who found themselves outside the lines of mainstream feminism contributed largely to discourse about identity and feminism.

Grappling with the exclusionary connotations of the feminist movement in the 1980s, African American writer and activist Alice Walker coined the term “womanist” as an alternative to “feminist.” Recognizing mainstream feminism’s rejection of women of color within the movement, Walker’s womanism was a brand of feminism focusing specifically on black women and later other women of color.

“Intersectionality” is the most recent and highly publicized attempt at reform by the modern feminist movement. Termed by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality calls on feminism to take into account the ways different facets of one’s identity (including race, class, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, and more) position them uniquely in society. Almost concurrently, Peggy McIntosh wrote an essay publicizing the concept of “privilege,” referring to the different advantages people are born into based on the intersections of their identity.

To some, this modern brand of feminism, which emphasizes intersectionality and acknowledgment of privilege, and where discourse flourishes on the internet, is an entirely separate wave – a fourth wave. Perhaps rather than focusing on the fittingness of the term “feminism,” the focus should be instead on constant improvement and increased inclusion within the movement. “Feminism” may have a deeply flawed and complex history, and to this day the word may represent different things for different people, but in a world where gender differences persist as a serious source of inequality and oppression, it seems inappropriate to remove this emphasis with a name-change – which wouldn’t absolve the movement of its issues to begin with. Rather than attempt to erase the problematic history of the feminist movement, it ought be acknowledged and used as a reminder of the importance of inclusion, acknowledgment, and value of the representation of various identities in the quest for genuine equality.