I could not bring myself to admit to a new friend that I am a feminist, and as a woman of color in a male-dominated field, you’d think I’d be the last person to harbor any aversion to the term. Though I disagreed with my friend’s ideologies (her belief, for example, that marriage is every woman’s “finish line”), I was ashamed of self-identifying as a feminist while correcting her. I could tell that the word scared her, though she obviously did not know what it meant.
It means so much more than whether or not a gal opts for the white dress and baby booties. I asked undergraduate women for their definitions of feminism to better delineate my own, but also to define it for students who possess skewed judgments about the “F-word” and the people it strives to represent.
“Feminism has such a negative connotation,” says Noura Azeem, a freshman pursuing a business degree at George Washington University. “But all it means is someone who recognizes that women and men should have equal rights.” According to Azeem, this means “being a woman should never hold you back.”
Aviva Aguilar, a senior at Case Western Reserve University, agrees, acknowledging that “we all have mothers, family members and female friends who will be underpaid or underestimated for being a woman, that is just the surface of the inequalities women may face.” Aguilar recognizes sensitivity to the term, claiming, “I think some people assume feminists are a certain way or are crazy radicals, but not in my definition.”
According to Debbie Weidrick, a junior in printmaking at the Cleveland Institute of Art, negative perceptions are not so much the case in the artistic community. “Feminism is only a belief and not necessarily a way of living,” she says. “In my artist community, to recognize with feminism is seen as normal and rather positive, but it also creates an unavoidable stereotype among colleges.”
Some women feel that the feminist stereotype discriminates against women who are not commanding or aggressive. Samiha Abusharekh, a senior biology major at CWRU, says that a feminist has been perceived traditionally as “a woman in a power suit as the CEO of a company, [but] it is up to each individual woman to decide for herself what she wants to do in her life, from her career choice to her outfit of the day.”
Azeem echoes the sentiment. “I do not think people want to be labeled as feminists,” she said, “because they think it is too harsh of a term to be painted with.”
“Most of the time, people with a negative view of feminism don’t actually know what feminism means. It’s not a man-hating, matriarchal movement,” clarifies Norah Zaza, a junior chemistry and Spanish major at CWRU. “Anyone who believes in equality is feminist.”
Demetra Frangos, an international studies major at CWRU, noted a gender difference when identifying with the term. “Lately I have been hearing men saying they are feminists and a lot of women saying they aren’t feminists,” she said. “The issue is that everyone should be a feminist.”
But this doesn’t ring true for all. “I am a woman who does not necessarily identify with the ideals of feminism,” Weidrick says. “Traditional gender roles and domestic placements have a legitimate place in our culture.”
All women interviewed agreed that equality and freedom are the core values of feminism, and recognizing this fact will help clear the smoke of negativity that seems to have stuck since bra-burning days. This article has only scratched the surface of the term and its multifaceted, contemporary definition. Feminism has had an ever-widening scope since the term was first coined in the 19th century.
Frangos identified as a feminist and summarized with some humor. “Feminism is very simply no boundaries,” she says, “I am not bound by my extra X chromosome, and I don’t need no Y to get to Z. But don’t get all cranky, because I love Y too.”
Sarah Jawhari is a student at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dentistry.