The Powerful Language of Feminism

by | December 11, 2013
filed under Feminism

Photo of young women holding a feminist protest signby Matilda Branson

I often wonder about how to engage young non-feminists in feminism. When I say “non-feminists”, I’m not referring to people who are sexist, or anti-feminist – I refer merely to the majority of the world who just haven’t come into much contact with feminist principles or gender equality/equity debates.

That is not to say they haven’t been touched by feminism in their everyday lives, navigating gender roles and societal norms, encountering sexism or discrimination at work, or facing the baby vs. career question. They have been shocked and appalled by Half the Sky, or have campaigned for LGBT rights – it’s just they haven’t been exposed to Feminism as a concept with a capital F, and might not go out of their way to read a book or article on it, or actively define themselves as A Feminist.

It’s not a bad thing, it’s just how it is. I used to do the very same – from a young age I was highly interested in all issues promoting gender equality in every sphere of my life, but when I was 15, if someone had asked me, “Are you a feminist?”, I’m not sure I would have given a downright “Yes”. All I knew about Feminism were the negative stereotypes: feminists don’t shave their armpits, they’re often vegetarian or vegan, never wear high heels and generally come across as a bit prickly.

I delighted in smooth legs and underarms, pretty summer dresses and loved my steaks cooked blue. A lifetime of exposure to these negative stereotypes left me unconsciously hesitant to actively embrace that Matilda Was A Feminist, at the risk of being mistaken as a bearer of those negative stereotypes. It took those formulaic years at university when one’s identity begins to take on a stronger form that I gained a more nuanced understanding of the many shades of feminism, and where I fit into it all, and how I could identify proudly and comfortably as a feminist.

What I wonder is: how do you engage youth in feminism? Feminism is still a dirty word to a lot of people; the negative stereotypes seem true for many. If you are not directly touched by discrimination (or only affected by tacit discrimination, that you may not even recognize as sexism) then Feminism is not something your average teen will actively seek out.

When you’re a teenager, rattling off Foucault and Judith Butler and informing people of the merits of third-wave feminism probably won’t make you the most popular kid at school, at a time when you might just want to fit in. Feminism is also inherently political, and often gets caught up with other issues by the political left, and there are many young people who are put-off and disillusioned by politics generally and will avoid anything that seems political or involves demonstrations or petitions.

Some people say we can talk about feminism by not mentioning feminism at all, instead using terms like “gender equality” or “humanism”. These are great things, don’t get me wrong. But the moment you replace the word “feminism” with “gender equality”, it loses its edge. The word “feminism” is powerful; to some, threatening and aggressive. There is a widespread opinion that feminism needs rebranding, to rid itself of its negative associations. Rebranding, yes – rewording, no.

When you do a Google search on feminism, images of tough, battling feminists, full of colour and vigour, and historical black and white photos of passionate feminists past campaigning for the vote or the pill appear. Contrast this to a search on “gender equality” or “gender equity”, where the search yields images of neutral, almost peaceful equal sets of scales, or harmless looking rounded-off boy and girl toilet door symbols and balanced equations coloured in soothing tones of pink and blue, hued smooth by political correctness. Bo-ring!

Partly in order to engage boys and men, we steer clear of  “feminism”, “women’s rights” and “women’s movements”, to be inclusive of all, as we do in fact need all genders and perspectives at the table to achieve many of the aims of feminism (in my opinion), and for many, calling yourself a feminist is a terrifying prospect. To be a self-proclaimed feminist is to place oneself in the minority. But by using this softer language of gender equality, true understanding of feminism remains elusive. It is still the dirty old aunt in the background we’d rather not talk about, or identify with.  That’s why it’s imperative to keep Feminism at the forefront and to make use of the power of the language of feminism, at the same time working to enhance young people’s understanding of how feminism is relevant in the context of their own lives.

Feminism is colourful, exciting and confusing! It’s tough! The image of burning bras (although actually an urban myth) still conjures up thoughts of rebellion and social change in the minds of young and old alike. It gets a reaction – sometimes of fear, concern, distaste, hesitance – but it makes you think. But gender equality? There’s probably a government bureaucracy in charge of that. Gender equity? Sounds like a financial institution. No, if we are to engage new generations in feminism, there can be no hiding behind political correctness and neutral terms, but to present Feminism, and all of its many facets, to girls and boys, in ways that will help them better understand feminism in all its forms, and be able to positively and excitedly engage with feminism on their own terms.

So – I have vented on the problem – but how to solve it? How to engage youth in feminism? Here are a few of my ideas:


And finally:


(image of young Swedish feminists CC-licensed via Wikimedia Commons, by Karin Beate Nøsterud/

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