Why the conversation about replacing the word ‘feminist’ is moot

Equalist. Humanist. Egalitarian. It won’t work. No rebrand for the word “feminist” will succeed and here’s why (with apologies to the optimistic among us).

Any new word will be instantly and deliberately torpedoed by MRAs, misguided women, and the right-wing nutosphere. And then what? Another new name to replace each name that gets ruined? Wash, rinse and repeat? Any new name for the feminist movement will be met with cries of “Misandry!” from the most privileged group of homo sapiens on this planet as well as with comments like “I’m not a(n) insert-new-word-here, but…” from too many young women convinced that the mere utterance of any word intended to convey desired equality of the genders will condemn them to a life of celibacy.

No reboot and re-launch will stick because any new word will similarly be said to stand for man-hating. It doesn’t, but the facts don’t matter in this Cold War. The propagandists will have their cake and eat it too, so let’s not go to the trouble of all that baking.

Recently a bunch of 4Chan MRA’s orchestrated a mob-style takedown vote of the word “feminist” via a TIME poll asking “Which Word Should Be Banned in 2015?” We can only assume the author of the article must have included the word in order to generate controversy… That it did. It was one more cut among a thousand tiny paper cuts imposed on a movement that deserves a hell of a lot better from TIME and from the rest of the human race. Make no mistake: Any new word introduced to replace “feminist” will take on the same amount of enemy fire the moment it is rolled out.

Why? Fundamentally, any new word for the feminist movement will be instantly polluted because there is not enough support behind the movement itself — too many people do not want women to have equal rights. The purpose of the movement won’t change.

Some people advocate dropping the prefix “fem-” from the word because too many people perceive it to have negative connotations. Because this word has the gall to derive etymologically from “female” — the gender that is oppressed — are we obligated to trash it in favor of a less explicit word that does not connote the oppression of women that is actually going on? Should we also exchange “environmentalism” for oh, say, “energyism,” in an attempt to somehow mask our legitimate concern for the embattled environment with some kind of vague cheerleading for all forms of energy, equally, as if none of them are directly harming the environment and deserve that call-out?

It’s just not a simple issue of semantics. Saying “I support egalitarianism, but only when the rights of men receive equal attention” is like saying “I support imperialism, but only when it works out well for the colonizers.” Or, “I support fighting racism, but only when Caucasians get equal airtime.” If the only version of a thing you support is a hypothetical version of a social contract that in no way addresses the root oppression, then your support is entirely specious.

Despite wide-scale agreement with the actual individual goals of feminism when separated out from the label (like we see with the word “Obamacare” and the individual healthcare benefits therein), people will continue to be manipulated. Changing the word will only provoke the Rush Limbaughs of the world to coin perversions of the new word to the same eventual effect. Humanist could become humanazi. Scorn for women and their efforts at equality will persist despite playing musical chairs with terminology. So why bother?

Venturing further into the fever-swamp, until we fully grok that patriarchy thrives on thwarting feminist efforts to dismantle it, we will continue spinning over futile issues of PR, such as how to rebrand the effort itself.

History reinforces this lesson. Let’s take race. The word “Coloured” became “Negro” became “black” became “African-American,” and has vacillated between the latter two terms for various reasons for the past few decades. It is good that language evolves, and that racial terms change with the sensibilities of those they apply to, so I don’t mean to insinuate that these shifts should not happen. Often there is a deep need to find a sense of power in reaction to the troubling associations that have accrued to older terms. But vocabulary rebrands are not panaceas because the problem is still the underlying racism — no new word for the people who are oppressed by racism will negate the existence of racism.

Another example: “Mongolian idiots” became “mentally retarded” became “intellectual disability.” The terms used for this condition are subject to a process called the euphemism treadmill. This means that whatever term is chosen for this condition, it eventually becomes perceived as an insult. The problem is discrimination and discomfort with those who have Down Syndrome and other cognitive impairments. As long as some people continue to have the need to put other people down by uttering a hyperbolic version of “you idiot,” they will say, “you retard.”

We can educate, and it can help, but it takes a huge and concerted effort by many stakeholders. I see more and more people standing up to the bigots who use terms like “retard” or “fag” or “nigger.” But “bitch,” “cunt,” “slut?” Not seeing the same, shall we say… collective societal smack-down. The root problem — misogyny — is the last frontier of acceptable bigotry. Feminism as the antidote will be sabotaged at every turn, regardless of new terminology. From the stripping of women’s rights, to the stigmatizing of the nomenclature for the resistance to the attacks on those rights, the stubborn problem remains.

I recently watched a New Zealand movie called “Boy.” It was about the struggles of a pair of brothers, and the older one often cruelly called the younger one “egg.” I later checked the Urban Dictionary, which informed me this is New Zealand slang for dumbass, clown, or idiot. I didn’t know this while watching the film. Across two hours, I went from confused bemusement, to ineffectual cultural analysis, to noticing I was actually starting to have negative associations with a word that until that very day had simply referred to what I eat for breakfast. I suddenly understood the pernicious power of a repeated slur.

Those in media who orchestrate the use of slurs such as “feminazi” are smart. They are also fortified by plentiful rightwing money and a bloviating brigade of talk radio hosts and Fox News spokesmodels. They understand that if people hear these slurs enough — like “egg” — their perceptions will gradually shift. It’s a guerrilla tactic. Propaganda can come in sound bites as small as a single word.

Not to Godwin this post, but sometimes words don’t even need to be changed at all in order to take them from their original neutral and descriptive meaning to something sinister. The Nazis did it with “Jew,” building on centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe. A more current example is the way “gay” was shifted to mean “bad” or “stupid,” as in “that’s so gay.”

Obamacare, an attempted put-down for the Affordable Care Act that republicans flogged mercilessly in order to slander the legislation as it was rolling out, is yet another example. Act Two: Net neutrality is now derogatorily referred to as “Obamacare for the Internet” by Ted Cruz, and Paul Ryan is going around saying that the Dodd-Frank Act is “Obamacare for banks.” Even if the Democrats wanted to rename this legislation, what would be the point?

So my opinion on whether we need a new word for “feminism” is obvious. No we don’t, and I’d rather not step onto the euphemism treadmill. Isn’t the work we already have to do exhausting enough?

And a special thank you to TIME Magazine. Grow up.

 Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant, and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More and speaks on the topic of raising confident girls in a disempowering marketing and media culture. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.