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Guest opinion: Even if we don’t like the term ‘feminism,’ let’s understand it better

By Susan Madsen - | Jun 22, 2024

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Susan Madsen

Even though I've spent years being a women's leadership scholar, advocate and activist, I've always struggled using the term "feminist" or "feminism." I know others in my field have been frustrated with me because I don't actively use it, but the term is so misunderstood. Although I've lived in several states, I do feel there is a stronger negative reaction to the term here in the state of Utah.

So, what exactly is a feminist? A number of online dictionaries state that a "feminist" is typically associated with someone who advocates that rights for women should be equal to those of men. These typically include social, political, legal and economic rights. Various sources confirm that feminism is not necessarily linked to putting down men or boys to elevate the status of women (although more liberal feminism may lean in that direction). In fact, the word feminism originally meant simply "being feminine" or "being a woman."

Here are a few other formal definitions of feminism:

  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary: "belief in and advocacy of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes expressed especially through organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests."
  • Dictionary.com: "the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men."
  • Wikipedia: "a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending a state of equal political, economic, cultural, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment."
  • Urban Dictionary: "the belief that women are and should be treated as potential intellectual equals and social equals to men ... embraces the belief that all people are entitled to freedom and liberty within reason -- including equal civil rights -- and that discrimination should not be made based on gender."

The themes that emerged from all these dictionary (and other) definitions appear to focus on the following beliefs:

  • All people should be entitled to liberty and freedom (within reason).
  • There should be no discrimination based on gender.
  • Women and men should be treated and respected as equals (i.e., social, political, legal and economic).
  • There is a need to secure rights and opportunities for women.
  • Organized activities (e.g., awareness, advocacy, education) on behalf of women's rights and opportunities can be helpful.

At the root of most of the definitions and descriptions I have recently reviewed is this element: Women are entitled to the same human rights as men and should be respected. This seems straightforward.

Maybe the issue is with how the term "women's rights" is understood. Amnesty International defines it as "the right to live free from violence and discrimination; to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; to be educated; to own property; to vote; and to earn an equal wage." Even Wikipedia describes the right of being free from sexual violence and being able to vote, hold public office, enter into legal contracts, have equal rights in family law, work, and be paid fair wages and equal pay. It also can include owning property and getting an education, as well as having reproductive rights. Now even if you have strong feelings about reproductive rights (either direction), look at this list more generally. These are pretty basic rights!

So, there it is. I am a feminist because I believe that all people are entitled to freedom and liberty and, with that, should be treated and respected as equals.

I would argue that if you believe that our girls and women should be able to live their lives in Utah free of domestic violence and sexual assault, then you are most likely a feminist. If you believe that women should be able to vote and serve in public office, then you are most likely a feminist. If you believe that women should be able to graduate from college and own their own homes, then you are most likely a feminist.

Overall, I agree that the term feminism brings too much baggage, and I'm probably not going to use it often. Sometimes the words don't matter as much as the work. For me, I care about ensuring that more Utah girls, women and their families thrive. This term feminist is both that basic and that complex, all at once. Instead of spending a lot of time and energy disagreeing on terms, let's dig in as a state and do the work for our daughters and granddaughters so that all Utahns can better thrive.

Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.

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