A WORD IN THE HAND: FEMINIST
Too many unrighteous dust bunnies on this lazy old f-word
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Military intelligence dictates that one should cover one’s rear when entering potentially hostile territory. So before I am bitten on the buttocks by a host of outraged harpies, let me state that I am, unreservedly, a feminist. I do wish, however, that we could honourably discharge the word “feminist” and recruit something fresh in its place.
Saying this sort of thing can lead to trouble. A few years ago, Time magazine had to issue an apology after including “feminist” on a list of words that should be banned. Had the complainers read the entry properly, they might have grasped that the writer was not suggesting we cease fighting for equal rights, only that the label affixed to those who care about equality is in need of an overhaul.
“Let’s stick to the issues and quit throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B Anthony parade,” wrote Katy Steinmetz in the offending article.
As hard as I try to be tolerant, I do find her use of “quit” slightly offensive. What on Earth is wrong with “stop”, for Pete’s sake? (And who the hell is Pete?)
But back to labels. In the 1300s, a label was a decorative strip of ribbon attached to one’s clothing. The verb form of label, meaning to define or categorise, surfaced in 1853, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Now we label everything, and it is a dangerous practice.
Take hedgehogs. Not every hedgehog thinks it owns the hedge, but they are all stuck with the selfish label. To make matters worse, hedgehogs have very short arms and legs. Once labels have been pushed onto their spikes, it is nigh impossible for them to remove these stickers without help. But to ask for help would be to violate the conditions of their label. What’s a hog to do?
Many feminists are similarly hampered by their appellation, which, incidentally, is even younger than the word “label”. In 1837, the French came up with the word féminisme to describe the attributes of female humans. Only in 1895 did it enter English as a term for the advocacy of women’s rights.
What else could we call feminism? Alice Walker tried to encourage the use of the term “womanism”, but it never really caught on. “Egalitarianism” sounds like some sort of fad diet, and “humanism” means something else entirely.
In a perfect world we would no longer need a word to describe those who desire the end of gender-based discrimination. It is not a perfect world, of course, and the need for feminism remains, but the tired old label has peeled at the edges and as a result all sorts of grubby stereotypes have become stuck to it.
Former Loaded magazine editor Martin Daubney wrote a column for The Telegraph in which he appealed for feminism to be rebranded. “Few other words in the English language instil such an immediate, powerful and usually negative response in men (and, interestingly, quite a lot of women) as the f-word,” he wrote.
Daubney issued a challenge to the advertising industry: “Make us [men] ache for feminism the way we crave an iPhone or the new Jag,” he begged.
All he received in response was a bucket of chauvinist bilge. But wait now. “Chauvinism” is also a label. You don’t often see feminism and chauvinism holding hands, but they are united as labels that have both picked up unrighteous dust bunnies along the way.
On the marvellous website Wordorigins.org, Dave Wilton explores the origins of chauvinism, a word that used to mean “blind patriotism”. Carl Sagan once referred to the delusional belief that our species is superior as “human chauvinism”. Only in the 1960s was chauvinism sandwiched between “male” and “pig” and propped in a boxing ring opposite a similarly maligned feminist.
When it comes to words, labels are like clichés – lazy shortcuts that stop us from thinking about what we really mean.