Feminism has always been problematic – and tricky – to define. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s “a movement supporting women’s rights on the grounds of equality of the sexes.” With such an innocuous meaning, why do fewer than one in five young women consider themselves to be feminists?
From gender pay gap disparities to the states in the USA currently passing laws to severely restrict abortion and curtail women’s rights, it’s clear that feminism still needs its champions: male, female, old, young, celebrities and mere mortals alike.
In recent years, there have been renewed examinations into what feminism means today – see Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, which urges feminism from an inclusive perspective, one that includes teaching our boys how to be feminists (for a rousing cry on how to raise our sons to be future feminists, watch Jameela Jamil’s MAKERS talk). With the changing conversation comes a changing vocabulary, one which includes terminology like “intersectionality,” and “non-binary”.
Here are the feminist words and phrases you need to know – and you’re not alone if you’re confused about some of them. The legend otherwise known as Meryl Streep recently made headlines for not knowing what the phrase “toxic masculinity” actually means.
Dream Gap: The limiting self-beliefs girls start developing from the age of five, suggesting they are less smart or capable than boys and affecting future study and career choices. Parents aren’t helping with this: they are three times more likely to give their sons a science-themed toy than their daughters, and twice as likely to Google whether or not their son is gifted than their daughter.
Gaslighting: psychologically abusive, manipulative behaviour, which undermines someone’s reality through a denial of facts (see: many current politicians). Originally coined from the 1938 thriller, the book Gas Light, by Patrick Hamilton, in which a husband manipulates his wife into doubting her reality.
Intersectionality: A term coined by American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality challenges narrow definitions of feminism as applying to those who are white, middle class, cisgender and able-bodied. Merriam-Webster defines it as: “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism and classism) combine, overlap or intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalised individuals or groups.”
Mansplaining: A pejorative term referring to when a man explains something to a woman in a condescending or overbearing manner (femsplaining, for when a woman does the same, also exists, as do the terms “manterrupt” and “bropropriate”). See Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me, for an analysis of the term used in context, written after an incident in which a book she authored was “mansplained” back to her by someone who hadn’t even read it.
Non-binary: Identifying outside of the masculine or feminine gender binary, people who identify as non-binary may feel like a mix of masculine and feminine genders or may feel they don’t have any gender at all. Some celebrities who identify as non-binary include Miley Cyrus, Jaden Smith, Sam Smith and Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness. The social-media savvy will notice that people have started using pronouns as part of their social handles; those who are non-binary may choose to identify as they/them/their.
Toxic masculinity: a form of masculinity typically defined by violence and aggression.
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Upskirting: Taking unauthorised photos under a skirt or kilt. This became a criminal offence in England in April 2019 after Gina Martin campaigned for the issue to be criminalised for 18 months.
Woke: A word which means awareness and consciousness of social discrimination, especial racial discrimination. See also “woke misogynist” – the man who poses as a feminist ally but whose behaviour in reality is demeaning and offensive to women.
Women-only clubs: Female members’ clubs are on the rise – uber-popular US club The Wing is coming to London this autumn, to join clubs like The AllBright, which helps support women-led founders and backs female-run businesses. Some people find them empowering and vital; critics say they’re sexist and elitist.
Yes Means Yes: In an effort to remove ambiguity in cases of sexual assault and rape, people are moving beyond the “No Means No” policy in favour of “Yes Means Yes.” Anything else – including silence – is a no. After the famous “Wolfpack Case” in Spain, where a woman was gang-raped at a bull running festival and the men responsible were initially convicted for the lesser crime of sexual abuse instead of rape, the landmark case prompted the country to reconsider its consent laws and put more stringent ones – like a Yes Means Yes law – into place.