Feminist High-Five: Reclaiming the Words

This morning, Victoria Nelson’s post “Why is Feminism Such a Scary Word?” had me thinking about how words define us, and how often we allow other’s to hijack those definitions.

For example, how many of you out there have trouble saying this phrase out loud?

“I am a writer.”

It’s a simple phrase, right. But for many, myself included, it is full of implied meanings that make it more intimidating. While the definition of a writer can indeed include someone who makes an actual living out of writing, it is not the only definition:

Writer

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

  1. n. One who writes, especially as an occupation.

Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  1. n. A person who understands or practises the art of writing; one who is able to write; a penman.
  2. n. One who does writing as a business; a professional scribe, scrivener, or amanuensis: used specifically in England of clerks to the former East India Company, and of temporary copying clerks in government offices; in Scotland, loosely, of law agents, solicitors, attorneys, etc., and sometimes of their principal clerks.
  3. n. A person who writes what he composes in his mind; the author of a written paper or of writings; an author in general; a literary producer of any kind: as, the writer of a letter; a writer of history or of fiction.

However, too many of us fear claiming the phrase unless we can somehow give evidence that our writing somehow reaches beyond ourselves or a small circle of people. If we can say, “I’m published,” or “I get paid for writing” than it somehow legitimizes our work. But that legitimacy has nothing to do with the actual definition of what a writer does/is–it is a layer of definition laid on by those who want to protect their careers and fields as something unique. I’m not suggesting that everyone can write, but everyone who wants to write and makes a practice of putting words on the page can claim the identity of writer if they don’t give into the fear that comes from other people’s perceptions of what the words mean.

A similar, but perhaps even scarier proclamation is this one:

“I am a feminist.”

We need to look at why this is such a scary phrase. Again, if you look at dictionary definitions of feminist or feminism, there is nothing inherently bad about either.:

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

  1. n. A person whose beliefs and behavior are based on feminism.
  2. adj. Relating to feminism.

Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  1. n. An advocate of the claims of women as the equals of men in the realms of literature and art as well as in the sociological world.
  2. n. One who devotes himself to the study of woman, especially from the physiological and medical points of view.

Wiktionary

  1. adj. Relating to or in accordance with feminism.
  2. n. A person who supports the equality of women with men.
  3. n. A member of a feminist political movement.
  4. n. One who believes in bringing about the social, political, and economical equality of the sexes.

WordNet 3.0

  1. adj. of or relating to or advocating equal rights for women
  2. n. a supporter of feminism
Feminism
  1. n. Belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
  2. n. The movement organized around this belief.

Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  1. n. The qualities of females.
  2. n. The presence of specifically feminine characteristics in the male.

Wiktionary

  1. n. A social theory or political movement arguing that legal and social restrictions on females must be removed in order to bring about equality of both sexes in all aspects of public and private life.

WordNet 3.0

  1. n. the movement aimed at equal rights for women
  2. n. a doctrine that advocates equal rights for women

There’s not a single thing in these definitions that mentions man-hating, bra-burning, lesbian or any other of the negative terminology that have been associated with feminism or feminists. (Not that being a lesbian is a negative, but when it becomes an accusation associated with someone’s feminist leanings it reinforces unfair negative stereotypes). Who assigned these meanings to these terms? Simple, the people (male and female) who don’t believe that everyone is equal, and don’t support feminist theory. As in any type of smear campaign, words have power, and if you can make any word sound bad enough that word can become corrupt.

Last fall, when I was teaching at Bryant University, a university with an excellent reputation as a business school, I found myself in a discussion with many of the women in my class who refused to claim they were feminist. They all believed in equality, they all worked their butts off to succeed in a school that is predominantly male, they all displayed behavior that I would define as feminist, but none of them would come out and say, “I am a feminist.”

I think that’s sad. If we want the world to change, we need to take back the phrase. We need to say it loud, say it proud, and let people know that we will not let anyone define our own lives. Again, I’m not saying that everyone has to be a feminist, but if you are, then claim it with pride.

Feminist High Five!

Feminist High Five!

We need to claim our definitions. We need to claim our words.

What are some phrases and identities that you are afraid to claim?