What Does "Feminism" Mean? A Brief History Of The Word, From Its Beginnings All The Way Up To The Present

Amid recent efforts to get people to stop shying away from the label "feminist" and the debate over what "feminism" means and who gets to decide on a definition, I decided to do some digging into the history of the word "feminism." What I've found might surprise you, make you laugh, and possibly depress you a little. That said, I hereby present to you a brief, non-comprehensive history of the use of the word "feminism."

The First Wave, Part I: The 19th Century

According to the New World Encyclopedia, the term's earliest roots encompass two things feminists are often associated with, whether rightly or wrongfully: France and socialism. In fact, its French translation "feminisme" was first used by French socialist Charles Fourier in 1837 to describe the emancipation of women he envisioned for his utopian future. The first documented English use is from Volume 13 of De Bow's Review of the Southern and Western States, a business magazine from the American south, in 1852:

The reforming ladies have not yet got an "ism" for their move; but have nevertheless come forward scarcely less boldly than their masculine condjutors... Our attention has happened to fall upon Mrs. E. O. Smith, who is, we are informed, among the most moderate of the feminist reformers! Tolerably fair specimens of the other extreme have been made public in the sundry women-convention reports which have appeared...

But really, I cannot do it justice. You can read more of De Bow's Review 's fulminations on "Woman and her Needs" on Amazon.

The First Wave, Part II: The Early 20th Century

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The Oxford English Dictionary confirms that "feminist" first appeared there in the late 1800s. But in 1914, there was still some confusion over the term, as Bucky Turco documents on Ratter . An article from that year in the North Carolina newspaper The Robesonian sums up a misconception many are still working through today: “We are asked, what is feminism? We supposed it is a new term to describe the womanly woman as a distinguished from effeminacy. It is rather a term that embodies woman’s rights." Go figure.

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The New York Times published a more evolved characterization of feminism by women's suffrage activist Carrie Chapman Catt that same year:

WHAT is feminism? A world-wide revolt against all artificial barriers which laws and customs interpose betwen [sic] women and human freedom. It is born of the instinct within every natural woman's soul that God designed her as the equal, the co-worker, the comrade of the men of her family, and not as their slave, or servant, or dependent, or plaything.

A century ago, in 1915, The Washington Herald interviewed several people about feminism but said most of the responses they got were not in plain English. Their favorite one, though, was: "Feminism is the doctrine of the social, legal, and political equality of the sexes." Hey, that's not too different from the modern definition!

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However, English actress and suffragist Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale gave a very different explanation in 1917, according to Pennsylvania newspaper The Reading Eagle: "The three cardinal principles in the movement are: The development of the highest type of monogamy; the recognition of the single standard of morals and the consecration of the best thought of parents to the interests of their children." To me, that just sounds like morality, yet it was delivered in a lecture to the Brooklyn Ethical Culture Society titled "What is Feminism?"

That same year, a Sydney Morning Herald review of W.L. George's The Intelligence of Woman quotes a passage from the book that is surprisingly reflective of modern gender politics: "There are no men and there are no women; there are only sexual majorities." According to the review, which spends more time criticizing George's writing style than addressing her points, George believes a feminist is more radical than a suffragist, wanting to not just attain equal rights for women but also challenge what it means to be a woman or a man.

The Second Wave: 1950 to 1990

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Voting rights were indeed a focus of first-wave feminism, but second-wave feminism (technically from the '60s through the '80s, with a little spillover on either side) brought gender itself to the forefront, though historians still say the largest issues it addressed were sexuality and reproductive rights. The 1949 publication of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex in France (followed by a 1953 publication in the United States) is sometimes considered the inaugural event of second-wave feminism. Drawing from existential philosophy, Beauvoir's "founding text of feminism" famously states that "one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman" — a claim that has left even many of today's pundits aghast. Yet Beauvoir initially dissociated herself from women's movements because she believed economic reform was the solution to gender inequality. In 1972, however, she stated in an interview with Alice Schwarzer that she'd reached the conclusion that she was in fact a feminist.

During feminism's second wave, a few notable definitions emerged, including writer Marie Shear's sarcastic remark that "feminism is the radical notion that women are people" and this eloquent explanation from Adrienne Rich: "Feminism means finally that we renounce our obedience to the fathers and recognize that the world they have described is not the whole world.... Feminism implies that we recognize fully the inadequacy for us, the distortion, of male-created ideologies, and that we proceed to think, and act, out of that recognition."

The Third Wave: 1990 and Beyond

Fast forward to the '90s, when third-wave feminism brought the dismantling of gender and other categories to front and center. Third-wave feminism, which we're now experiencing (though some scholars have said we're entering a fourth wave), is focused on challenging the gender binary and making room for the LGBT community and other diverse perspectives within feminism. During this time, feminism has become a popular topic of discussion, with the use of the word "feminism" in books peaking in 1995.

As feminism has gained widespread publicity, however, it has also accrued backlash. Members of the Women Against Feminism movement started sharing photos of themselves holding signs describing why they don't need feminism in 2014. Many celebrities also have recently spoken against feminism, saying it's "too strong" or "alienating," though a notable number have also voiced their support.

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In 2014, TIME included "feminist" in a poll asking readers which words we should ban in 2015, suggesting that the trend of celebrities from Miley Cyrus to Taylor Swift announcing their feminist status trivialized the movement. After receiving backlash for reinforcing the popular notion that "feminist" is a word to avoid, TIME apologized for including it in the poll.

But pressure to abolish the word "feminism" lives on. If I Google "feminism is," "for everybody" pops up first, but it's directly followed by "bullshit," "cancer," and "bad."

In addition, the #WomenAgainstFeminism hashtag is alive and well on Twitter, with women arguing that feminism actually impedes gender equality.

The definition and value of feminism seem to be as much under debate as they were a century ago, so who knows how much longer we'll be fighting this battle to win feminism mainstream acceptance. But here's to hoping that 2016 will go down in the history of the word "feminism" — with some victories in its favor.

Images: Giphy(5); Wikimedia Commons; Look Human