Relabeling a Cause: How Feminism Became Notorious

by wildfeministappears

This was my capstone for my English degree.  I hope you enjoy it!  Sources at the bottom for further reading.

“Relabeling a Cause: How Feminism Became Notorious”

The language that we use in everyday life is generally innocuous.  The idea of calling a frog, “frog”, is an evolution of language that we have come to accept.  When we add new words to our lexicon, we adjust.  But when we use labels, we switch our lexicon entirely to a word based feast of assumptions and judgments that mark us as different from the rest of the world.  We are no longer “boy” and “girl”, “man” and “woman”.  We are individuals standing apart from our group, plastering our foreheads with a word that is never taken in the same light, and can never settle on one definition.

One label in particular is so mixed up in its own history that it has branched off from itself and become several new entities, a wave of discrimination and definition confusion that has left even those who label themselves as such to wonder what they are actually calling themselves.  “Feminist” rings out in media and politics, both damning and a salvation for those who take on the word.  Ridicule is certain for feminists, and sometimes those who know them best take a step back and reevaluate them when they find out that they have the label.  Who is this person?  Suddenly they seem radical and hardened to the world.  Suddenly they seem as though they are unwilling to compromise with the rest of the world.  Suddenly they have a poster in their hand that says, “Yay abortion”, and there’s no telling what they’ll do with that sign!

Unfortunately, the definition of feminist is so skewed that there really is no telling how a feminist will act in social and political situations.  There are many branches of feminism, each with their own goals, and their own strategies.  They are clumped together by the mass, however, and this can cause confusion, and sometimes fear and anger.  Each wave of feminism has had their own set of successes and failures, setbacks and backlash, but ultimately they had the common goal of better living for women.

Linguistically speaking, the definition for “feminist” has come down to personal opinion, and this has changed the tone of the word dramatically.  It is wielded as a hard stance to any conversation.  The reason that I picked this word in particular is because I have found that there are very few other words that come with such baggage.  The history is rich, and the back and forth between good and evil is just a matter of a few minutes in television and conversation.  It is my hope that I can clarify the actual definitions of feminism, and relate how people react to the word when they are left to make their own opinions.

My research consists of writings from the first, second, and third waves.  These writings are both positive and negative, and give a good sense of the dichotomy that has always been around feminism.  I will also discuss some of the discrimination that has happened in feminism in the past, and how it resulted in the breaking apart of feminism into many different segments, creating a new definition of feminism.  My research will consist of both political and general media related content, creating a backdrop for the backlash and redemption of the word throughout its history.

I will discuss modern feminism in its forms, the current definition, and how the current population relates to the word.  My survey of forty-two respondents have a wide range of definitions to the word feminism, many positive, and some remarkably negative.  I will discuss how these opinions came about through examining current media and the backlash from the 1990’s that still carries into today’s society.  Finally, I will talk about current feminist media that is fighting back to reclaim the word, whether it is necessary to keep the word, and what can be done to put it back into a more neutral light.

The definition of feminism is “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men” and “an organized movement for the attainment of such rights for women” (, 2012).  This simple declaration created some of the largest changes in human rights for the world.  The first wave of feminism started with the right to suffrage, and the rights a woman has to property, work, and children independently of a husband.  Many of the first feminist writings did not use the word “feminist”, and were stamped as feminist after the fact, although the writer’s might have called themselves feminists in their daily lives.  Male and female feminists alike wrote about the living and working conditions of women.  They called out to the men of the world to let women be independent and safe in their lives.

Thomas Hood wrote a rallying song, “Song of the Shirt”, which spoke of the working conditions in factories for women in England.  “Oh men, with sisters dear!/Oh men, with mothers and wives!/It is not linin you are wearing out,/but human creatures’ lives!”  This song signaled a need for change for working women, who deserved to be treated with respect.  This extended to America, where the women were working on their own to get the respect they wanted.  Lucy Stone made a speech “Disappointment is the Lot of Women” during the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1855, and she used the words “women’s movement” in her writing, calling it practical.  She said, “It shall be the business of my life to deepen this disappointment in every woman’s heart until she bows down to it no longer,” (Schneir, 1972).

Much of the backlash from the early feminist movement came from the discrimination of women of color.  Sojourner Truth led the movement in including all women during this time, and her most famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” sparked a change in the women’s movement to accept that every woman deserves equal rights, not just the white middle-class.  She actively identified with the feminist movement during the time, despite the discrimination, but she spoke strongly against it, especially when the first feminist women said that they had intellect and therefore deserved rights.  “What’s that got to do with women’s rights or Negro’s rights?  If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?” (Schneir 1972).

The second wave of feminism, along with the explosion of media, created a new situation for feminism, both positive and negative.  The Equal Rights Amendement might have been a huge success for women, but the way that it was portrayed in media led to women being punished for their own success.  Women became stressed out taking care of the house, the children, and work at the same time, and much of the media said it was because of feminists.  “Feminists, according to the late Victorian press, were ‘a herd of irrational she-revolutionaries,’ ‘fussy, interfering faddists , fanatics’…Feminists had laid waste to the American female population; any sign of female distress was surely another ‘fatal symptom’ of the feminist disease,” (Faludi, 1991).  The attack from the media made feminism seem like a killing machine of lives and romance.

There was a serious backlash against the independent woman during this time.  Women were traipsed out into the media world, decrying the lifestyle of career before marriage, and freedom from monogamy. “’CBS Morning News’ devoted a five-day special in 1987 to the regrets of single women.  Just like the timing of the Newsweek story, the show was graciously aired in the wedding month of June” (Faludi, 1991).  The fear of being an independent woman became stronger, and soon that fear was attached to feminism.  Ms. Magazine started covering the backlash, to “show women that ‘feminist’ was a word they might embrace instead of fear, to explain how American culture had demonized that word precisely because it offered such potential power for women” (Faludi, 1991).

Meanwhile, other writers were taking on feminism themselves, admonishing others for accepting the movement and the damage that it was clearly doing.  George Gilder, “America’s number one antifeminist”, became a spokesperson for the evils of feminism.  He claims that he was once a feminist, but that he was attacked by feminists, and therefore had every right to fight against their movement.  “Feminists are turning to ‘coercion’ to have their way, his books warned: in business, they ‘menace not only the sex roles on which the family is founded but also the freedoms at the very heart of the free enterprise’; in Washington, they are trying to ‘emasculate the political order itself’” (Faludi, 1991).

The political realm for feminists has always been a strong point of contention.  Whenever the government tries to regulate the rights of women, feminists are at the forefront of the protest, making sure that their opinions are heard.  They are seen as stubborn and loud by the general population, for good and for bad.  However, what Gilder is insinuating is that feminists are trying to take men out from their positions and make the political realm about their problems and issues.  This reflects back to feminists being considered fussy and fanatical.

This turn from independent women to coercing fanatics stuck to the label of feminism in every realm.  The political order became the focus of feminism, not just for equal rights, but for reproductive rights.  Allen Bloom wrote about the horrors of feminists, “the feminist insistence on ‘freedom of choice’, the feminist challenge to traditional marriage, and the feminist ‘propaganda for unlimited abortion.”  Even other women attacked the feminist movement and its failures.  Sylvia Ann Hewlett said that, “’In a profound way, feminists have failed to connect with the needs and aspirations of ordinary American women.’ They failed to understand that ‘many homemakers did not want to be treated equally’” (Faludi, 1991).

The freedom of choice in reproductive rights has been a major issue in third wave feminism, so to see the backlash reflected in the second wave already starting is a good indication of why the populous today would still think the same of feminists that they had before.  Many women still want to be stay-at-home moms and give birth to children without restraint from other people, and many times the fight for reproductive rights is reflected as an attack against reproduction altogether, making stay-at-home mothers uneasy about the prospect of feminist ideals in their homes.

This sentiment has not gone unnoticed by the modern public.  Many people still feel that feminists are unrelenting and domineering towards men and women alike.  In my survey, people marked whether or not they were feminist, what gender they were, and what they believed feminism was about.  Many of the negative comments echo the words of those who attacked feminists in the 1980s and 90s.  One woman who identified as non-feminist said, “Feminism has the connotations of almost militant anti-male sentiments.  I understand this is not the core of feminism, but that is what is most visible.  Many ‘feminists’ seem to hate on women who conform to society’s expectations and succeed within the patriarchal system.”  Another female who said she was feminist said, “I generally feel an intense dislike for the term feminist… I despise ‘feminists’ who realized early on that the government would pay for their entire lives if they had a child and became an only parent… Same goes for anyone who believes that woman [sic] are superior to men, or feels the need to disprove the fact that it takes all kinds to have a functioning society… including the chauvinistic pigs they hate.  It is all so ridiculous.”

The question becomes why they put “feminist” in quotes in each of their responses.  There could be a distinction for the respondents that, based on their beliefs, these feminists are not feminists at all and are merely taking up the term as a social barrier.  Another possibility could be that they do not believe in feminism at all, and this term is just a dead label to justify the ‘feminist’s’ actions.  Either way, it is clear that the beginning definition of feminism is nowhere in their responses.

Even the respondents who commented positively on feminism could not entirely agree on the definition.  One female believed that with feminism, “equality is something to strive for, no matter the race, religion, gender, etc.”  One male respondent believed that feminism was, “seeing a point of view of a culture or issue form a female point of view.”  Another male was not sure he could answer “yes” to the question of if he was a feminist.  “I would consider myself a ‘feminist’ even though I am a male.  The reason is because I am a firm believer in human rights for all- women, LBGT, etc…”

Most of the respondents, however, believed that feminism was about equality in some way, mostly for women.  They also believed that the movement was about the protection of women’s rights, safety, and lifestyles.  This definition works well with the third wave of feminism, which works to promote equality in political situations, particularly with reproductive rights.  The general theme of the third wave is to keep the government from recanting rights that they gave during the second wave of feminism, and to create new laws that make those rights more stable and economic for the poor.

However, the media is as strong as ever, if not stronger with 24 hour news stations looking to fill their time with opinions and stories that are generally beyond their usual realm of reporting.  The opinion section is expanding, and with that comes the inevitable need to come up with more interesting ways of reporting those opinions and the news that they surround.  Inflamed attacks become part of the general theme, against political figures, criminals, and even toward other news stations and just the general populous.

Rush Limbaugh, a popular conservative radio personality, is one of many that started throwing out attacks against people in an inflammatory manner.  He first coined the phrase “feminazi” comparing abortion rights to what happened to the Jews in World War Two.  He has always defended this statement, and although he says he does not use the word often, there are several examples of him using “feminazi” to talk about women who are fighting for equal rights, and especially those who say that they are feminist in particular (Media Matters, 2005).

While this seems to be to the extreme, the mass media has the penchant to make sure that there are no grey areas in their reporting.  “For feminists, being cast as outsiders, troublemakers, even evil women, is inevitable since they challenge the very basis of a patriarchal society” (Beck, 1998).  Objectivity is difficult for the media when it comes to gender related news, especially in America, because the idea of challenging patriarchy is also the idea of challenging the American ideal of family and peace, a community that stands together through all challenges and refuses to divide.  In reality, the American ideal is challenged daily, but only when there is a label, a problem with a name, is the media able to attack the challengers and demonize them.  Also, because there are several branches of the feminist community, the political and philosophical discussions that they have with each other are portrayed by the media as “catfights”, making feminists seem as though their movement is falling apart at all times, making the American dream and ideal seem all the more stable and available to the rest of the American people (Beck, 1998).

Contributors to news organizations have exceptional freedom to express their opinions and relay them as actual news.  Many times these opinions are not evaluated fully, and problems that are in other realms can be connected to another realm of interest.  Liz Trotta, a contributor for Fox News, said that because feminists got their way in the military and women are now allowed in the front lines, more women are being raped, and this is the feminists’ fault (Wakeman, 2012).  This was met with severe criticism, but many people agreed with her, damning feminists to a place of responsibility where there was none.

Bringing “feminist” back to neutral standing is a challenge because it has so many years of bad press to work through.  For most Americans, the word “feminist” has too many bad connotations for them, and despite the general approval of women’s equal rights, the idea of labeling themselves as feminists is considered a poor choice.  71% of men and 78% of women believe that the women’s movement is favorable, but when labeled as the feminist movement, the favorability decreases significantly, about an 11 percent decrease (Houvouras and Carter, 2008).

However, given the textbook definition of feminism, more people identify themselves as feminist, male and female alike (Houvouras and Carter, 2008).  This shift in self-identification shows the root of the problem that exists with the poor response to the word “feminist”:  No one truly knows what a feminist does or stands for, and the only recourse is to take cues from the media and the world around them.  In an independently similar survey to mine, one student remarked that he believed feminism was the same as racism, but after he found out the definition, he changed his opinion and believed that he was a feminist (Houvouras and Carter, 2008).

This kind of information is not surprising.  As already discussed, the first wave of feminism primarily focused on white, middle class women who had a desire to leave their homes and work.  This original discrimination has not entirely gone away in the feminist movement, and although it has changed considerably, the mark of racism is still there.  “Unfortunately, what usually happens is that whatever hope there is of real conversation is dashed on the rock of white privilege, something that white women, even feminists, are sometimes loath to admit exists” (Nelson and Aronson, 2001).

The exclusion of certain groups lends to some of the negativity against feminists.  The media makes sure that feminists seem divided in their ideals, and when feminists exclude or show that they are not entirely for the female gender as a whole, they are prey to negative remarks from the community that they are trying to fight against, and the community they are trying to help.  Without a strong front of solidarity, feminists seem more like an unstable movement than they actually are, and when people claim that the feminist movement is over, they cannot entirely silence the claim.  Mary Kay Blakely says, “Whether you call yourself a feminist doesn’t matter to me, but I think it’s important that women of color who believe in these values identify themselves as feminists so their peers can see that movement is about all of us” (Nelson and Aronson, 2001).

A part of the confusion could also be the low amount of attention to the factions of the feminist movement.  There are several factions, each with their own agendas and definitions.  Liberal feminism; womanism, which is another word for black feminism; equity feminism, antiporn feminism, lesbian feminism, girlie feminism, and pro-sex feminism are just the start of a wide range of different topics and focuses (Fudge, 2005).  Is it any wonder that with all the contradictory values and goals that people would be confused about the definition that just started as “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men”?  A huge problem with identifying feminists is not, “I’m not a feminist but…” it’s “I’m not that kind of feminist.”

In order for the word “feminist” to come back as an understandable, recognized, and neutral label, the community must create more positive media for themselves and educated the rest of the world about the diversity of its cause.  Exclusivity has to be stopped, and everyone must understand that feminism is for everyone who believes in the equality of genders.  Mosurinjohn from Bitch magazine says, “I wonder where this conception of feminism leaves those whose gendered experiences can’t be described by a conception of ‘what men should do’ and ‘what women should do,’ such as trans people, genderqueer people, non-gendered people, Two-spirit people, and so on,” (Mosurinjohn, 2012).  It’s a valid question that needs to be addressed by the feminist community.  Exclusivity to one gender can only cause more hatred toward the group in a time where they need positive light shined on their movement.

In the end, more research needs to be done about this topic, particularly with focus on the media’s portrayal of feminism and how the public responds to such portrayals.  If the feminist community comes together to create a more concentrated front, they may be able to reclaim their word from the media and portray themselves in a more positive light, making themselves more akin to words like “liberal” or “republican”.  Relabeling is always a difficult process, especially for a movement that has been so prevalent throughout history.  However, changing the word will not change the problem, but in fact separate the group further, leaving the movement weakened as a whole.  Instead, they must stay feminist, say they are feminist, and live their lives with their label stamped proudly on their foreheads with the hope that someday, someone will see the label and praise them for being part of such a meaningful community.

Works cited


Beck, D. B. (1998). The “f” word: How media frames feminism. Feminist Formations, 10(1), 139-153. Retrieved from

Faludi, S. (1991). Backlash: The undeclared war against American women. (pp. 69-110, 283-313). New York: Dial/Doubleday publishing.

Feminism. (2012). In Random House Dictionary. Retrieved from

Fudge, R. (2005). Everything you always wanted to know about feminism but were afraid to ask. Bitch Magazine, Retrieved from

Houvourus, S. (2008). The f word: College students’ definitions of a feminist. Sociological Forum, 23(2), 234-256. Retrieved from

Limbaugh defended his use of term “feminazi” as “right” and “accurate”. (2005, June 24). Retrieved from

Mosurinjohn, S. (2012, March 2). What does a feminist look like? teaching boys about feminism. Bitch Magazine, Retrieved from


Nelsen, J., & Aronson, A. (2001). Is feminism a 4-letter word?. Liberty Media for Women, 46-55. Retrieved from

Schneir, M. (1972).  Feminism: the essential historical writings. (pp. 59, 93-95, 106). New York: Random House publishing.

Wakeman, J. (2012, April 05). Fox news lady who claimed women should “expect” rape in military blames feminists. New York Times. Retrieved from