This is what you see when you Google the word ‘feminism’. As a place to start, it’s not bad. But there’s so much more to it than just this quick screenshot.
First, let’s unpack that dictionary definition a little. It’s a very thin definition based on a historically gender essentialist, Anglo-American perspective. “Advocacy of women’s rights” is a phrase rooted in first wave feminist narratives, “equality of the sexes” is often found in understandings of our humanity which reifies binary gender, and “women’s liberation” as a similar phrase invokes misogynistic views of feminism as simply bra burning misandry.
When it comes to how feminism is defined, that shit’s complicated.
Particularly in the US, feminism has been typically conceptualised as waves which swell and recede, a metaphor which implies periods of inactivity and ignores the complexities in feminist discussions (Rome, O’Donohoe and Dunnett, 2019). First wave feminism refers to campaigns for social change and women’s equality through the suffragette movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Second wave feminism originates in the 1960s, with the sexual liberation movements, equal pay lobbying and a rejection of the oppression of traditional gender roles. The third wave of feminism is attributed to the calls to make feminism more inclusive in the 1990s, centring the voices and perspectives of women of colour and queer people, in response to the critique that feminism had thus far supported white, heteronormative hegemony (Evans and Chamberlain, 2015).
Feminism in 2020 goes beyond just advocacy of women’s rights and takes a critical stance across our social world; inequality exists on multiple interrelated axes, and I’d argue that one of the key aspects of being feminist today is awareness and understanding of this point.
Of course, I would say that as I describe my feminism as intersectional. You probably have come across the term intersectionality – a metaphor coined by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, it’s grown beyond its origins in critical race theory and Black feminist theorising. Understandings of intersectionality as a theoretical, analytical framework differ. Quite widely. Much of what is discussed as intersectionality is based less on deep readings of academic work as Crenshaw herself points out. ‘I saw this word on Twitter and I was inspired/outraged’ (delete as appropriate depending on your political views) is probably more likely.
But this confused understanding of a scholarly concept gone mainstream is a wider problem for feminism. Or feminisms, as that should probably be (there are many!). In my own area in consumer research, ecofeminism, poststructuralist feminism, Black feminism and liberal feminism have all been used as frameworks to examine the role of gender in marketing. And that’s just from a quick search of articles in one particular philosophical paradigm within a discipline in the broad academic area of business. Imagine how many applications and possibilities there are for a feminist lens in art, history, literature, politics, law…
My point here is not that academic concepts cannot grow beyond their roots, nor that mainstream public understanding of what we’re working on as researchers should not be one of our fundamental goals. What I’m trying to get across in this post is that it’s important to acknowledge how we come to define such concepts. How these concepts develop in our academic discussions affects how they are interpreted in a broader context – academic buzzwords picked up by mainstream media keen to increase their clicks, shares and ultimately, profits.
The roots of different kinds of feminism lie in addressing power imbalances and inequality. This means dismantling hierarchies of identity, tackling racism, classism, heteronormativity, exclusionary practices and structures in society. It’s not about victimhood, elevating minority groups above everyone else, political correctness.
It’s about advocacy of human rights on the ground of equality for all.
Written by Sophie Duncan-Shepherd, PhD researcher at University of Strathclyde.