What Does It Mean to Be Feminist?
How a growing movement makes simple language unclear
It’s no secret that "feminism" is something of a dirty word to a lot of people, to the point that “feminist” can be considered an insult (Waugh 2015). But where does this come from? Is the movement that started with women getting the right to vote (Ruiz) and progressed into fighting against environmental destruction (We Rise; Kapoor 2015; Ruiz), capitalist oppression (We Rise; Red Letter Press 2007; Kapoor 2015; Ruiz), and racism (We Rise; IWDA 2018) really such a terrible thing?
Well, the biggest issue is that these examples aren’t feminist. Not always, and not entirely.
"Feminism" is an extremely broad term. It’s hard to really explain just how expansive it is, because I could honestly write an entire essay just on the different types, and how they overlap or contradict each other. So, I’ll try to be relatively brief.
First, a quick Google search of the phrase “different types of feminism” turns up a mountain of links, but that’s hardly unusual for Google. The important thing is what these various webpages actually say. For instance, one site lists eight types of feminism (We Rise), but another site states there are only three “main” types of feminism (Red Letter Press 2007). Another page defines six types (Kapoor 2015), while yet another lists 10 types—five main and five secondary (Ruiz). There are definitely more.
I won’t get into defining each and every type, but I think listing some gives an idea of how varied and expansive the feminist movement really is. You have liberal feminism, radical feminism, black or intersectional feminism, Marxist feminism, cultural feminism, ecofeminism, global feminism, visionary feminism, transfeminism, cyberfeminism, etc. That’s a lot of movements under one umbrella.
What does this mean, though? Why does it matter that feminism is such a huge and diverse social movement? Is it not a good thing, that people are trying to accomplish so many different aims and ideals under one broad, unifying umbrella?
Well, first, these movements don’t all work together. In fact, some directly oppose each other. Some radical feminists, for example, argue that lesbianism is necessary for women to find sexual fulfillment, that porn and prostitution are inherently oppressive (Ruiz), and “they often minimize the importance of solidarity between women and men of color in the fight against racism” (Red Letter Press 2007) in favour of all women uniting in the fight against the patriarchy instead. Some radical feminism is even trans-exclusionary, earning supporters of this movement the name TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) (Wikipedia Contributors 2019). These ideals are in opposition not only to transfeminism, but also to black and intersectional feminism, or any part of the movement that aims to support and protect sex workers. It may even be seen as exploitive or trivializing of lesbianism, and women-loving-women identities (We Rise; Ruiz; IWDA 2018; Wikipedia Contributors 2019).
A lot of people have experienced tension or hostility with feminism, and I’m not talking about men feeling threatened or uncomfortable with a women’s rights movement. As I just touched on above, some portions of the feminist movement are outright exclusionary—of trans people, or people of colour, or the poor or the disabled, or any number of oppressed and vulnerable groups that need more support, not less.
One such type of feminism is often referred to as “white feminism,” and it can be considered quite toxic. As Rachel Elizabeth Cargle stated in her 2018 article for Harper’s BAZAAR, “If there is not the intentional and action-based inclusion of women of color, then feminism is simply white supremacy in heels.” She goes on to explain a number of ways that liberal white feminists can be toxic and hostile toward women of color in the movement, including tone policing, dismissing real and ongoing problems with racism, displaying a serious white savior complex, and turning conversations about issues faced by black women into a discussion of how race effects white women (Cargle 2018).
All this is to say that, when someone calls themselves a feminist, it can be hard to know what they actually mean.
This doesn’t mean that feminism is bad, or that calling yourself a feminist is wrong. It just means that the term is unclear and, ultimately, might not communicate what you intend—especially depending on who you’re talking to. It also means that some people may declare themselves non-feminist for any variety of reasons, and that doesn’t mean they don’t care about equality and the fight against oppression. Using more specific language is important, as is a serious analysis of where you sit within the movement—and whether you might have aligned yourself with one of its more problematic and harmful sects.
The core, unifying principle across the broad scope feminism is supposed to be growth, empowerment, support, and push for meaningful change. Sometimes, that change might mean calling out fellow activists and re-examining what, exactly, it means to be feminist.
Cargle, Rachel Elizabeth. 2018. "When Feminism is White Supremacy in Heels." Harper’s BAZAAR. Retrieved October 16, 2019 (https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/politics/a22717725/what-is-toxic-white-feminism/).
IWDA. 2018. "What Does Intersectional Feminism Actually Mean?” Retrieved October 16, 2019 (https://iwda.org.au/what-does-intersectional-feminism-actually-mean/).
Kapoor, Ishita. 2015. "6 Common Types of Feminism." Respect Women. Retrieved October 15, 2019 (https://respectwomen.co.in/6-common-types-of-feminism/).
Red Letter Press. 2007. "Feminism 101." Red Letter Press. Retrieved October 15, 2019 (https://www.redletterpress.org/feminism101.html).
Ruiz, Jesús. "10 Types of Feminism." Healthywaymag. Retrieved October 15, 2019 (https://healthywaymag.com/lifestyle/10-types-of-feminism).
Waugh, Rob. 2015. "One in Five People Think Being Called a Feminist is an Insult." Metro. Retrieved October 16, 2019 (https://metro.co.uk/2015/11/10/one-in-five-people-think-being-called-a-feminist-is-an-insult-5491478/).
We Rise. "Different Kinds of Feminism." JASS. Retrieved October 15, 2019 (https://werise-toolkit.org/en/system/tdf/pdf/tools/Different-Kinds-of-Feminism.pdf?file=1&force=).
Wikipedia Contributors. 2019. "Feminist Views on Transgender Topics." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 15, 2019 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_views_on_transgender_topics).