In a recent debate with a colleague, a self-proclaimed feminist, she described feminists as seeking equality for all, and not simply just women. I thought that this was inherently wrong considering the root-word and the suffix dictate that the word should mean some sort of passion for women and their ideals, be it rights or something else.

After doing research I see that a lot of people in support of feminism support the same ideas as my colleague. I'm not here to debate the truth of what they do support but simply the semantics behind the word.

Is it wrong to use feminism as a descriptor of equality for all, even though it seems to be that it is becoming more understood to be just that? If so, can defining it by the general definition now be interpreted as misogynistic by those who follow the creed of feminism?

  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 8:39
  • No one has really answered the essence of the question. Is the use of "feminism" to mean equality for every sex and gender, legitimate? Therefore, is it appropriate to use the term feminism to cover all of "mankind"?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 10:11
  • 3
    Equivalence is a symmetric relation, therefore seeking for women to be equal to men is the same as seeking for men to be equal to women. The alternative is not equality but inequality. Or maybe I'm equivocating?
    – Nacht
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 12:35
  • 9
    I'm not here to debate the truth of what they do support but simply the semantics behind the word. You probably can't separate the two. English is a common-usage language, so words mean whatever they're commonly used to mean. "Feminism" is an inherently politically charged word, so you just can't separate its "semantic" meaning from the meaning(s) it is commonly used to convey. My favorite example of this is the word "coffin." Once upon a time, it was simply a synonym for "box." Then people started using it as a euphemism for the box bodies get put in, and now that's all it means. Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 14:11
  • When you say equality for all, do you restrict it to all genders/sexes or do you mean all identity groups e.g. race, religion, nationality, class etc.
    – ottodidakt
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 8:03

14 Answers 14


I don't think so. Feminism originates from the French word Féminisme which describes a set of ideas to 'define, promote and establish the rights of women in civil society'. (Wikipedia).

None of these aims inherently suggest a promotion of women above men. Largely, Feminism draws from a - probably accurate - belief that men have historically had a greater influence and power in society. Feminism is aimed at redressing that balance to create equality between men and women.

Therefore, you might say that the word feminism is simply a reference to redressing that balance. Although, in my opinion; it is probably unfortunately named. It is the same in meaning as 'Gender Equality' but with an implication that reaching that equality will be achieved through a particular effort in the promotion of the female in society.

  • 8
    It's a good question and one that I think is sometimes misunderstood by both feminists, anti-feminists and everyone in between. Clearly, we cannot use it in its Mathematical sense here. Absolute equality would be impossible on any level due to the differences between men and women. I think equality has come to mean that groups are judged fairly. I'd contest that a part of that judgement of fairness must come from an understanding of the unique differences attributed to each gender. The problem comes in identifying which of those differences are artificial.
    – Jordan
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 17:42
  • 5
    This doesn't address modern usage/s and so is open to the etymological fallacial criticism. Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 19:27
  • 6
    @EdwinAshworth - How-so? Do you have any examples of modern usage which varies significantly from this definition?
    – Jordan
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 20:32
  • 1
    If you were to only fight for equal rights between two groups without fighting for equal duties, could not one group end up having equal rights but less duties and thus be considered in a still unequal social position (and being unequal, one being superior in some regard to the other)? Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 22:25
  • 4
    Like you, I haven't looked for say post-2000 usages. OP asks 'Is it wrong to use feminism as a descriptor for equality for all?' This can only be answered by a detailed study of modern usage/s; etymology doesn't enter into correct modern usage. Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 22:37

The earliest reference I can find to feminism is from 1841. At that time it referred to feminine quality or character. Examples of that use exist from 1841 to 1915. (OED sense 1)

In the late 19th century the word begins to take on a new meaning with the emergence of the suffragette movement. This takes us to the OED's sense 3.

  1. Advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex; the movement associated with this (see note below). Cf. womanism n., women's liberation n., femininism n. post-, radical feminism: see the first element. The issue of rights for women first became prominent during the French and American revolutions in the late 18th cent., with regard especially to property rights, the marriage relationship, and the right to vote. In Britain it was not until the emergence of the suffragette movement in the late 19th cent. that there was significant political change. A ‘second wave’ of feminism arose in the 1960s, concerned especially with economic and social discrimination, with an emphasis on unity and sisterhood. A more diverse ‘third wave’ is sometimes considered to have arisen in the 1980s and 1990s, as a reaction against the perceived lack of focus on class and race issues in earlier movements.

1895 Athenæum 27 Apr. 533/2 Her intellectual evolution and her coquettings with the doctrines of ‘feminism’ are traced with real humour.

1897 Daily News 6 Sept. 8/6 You alluded, Mr. Goldwin Smith, somewhat disparagingly, to that phase of feminism which is so curious a feature of the present day.

1909 Daily Chron. 29 May 4/4 Suffragists, suffragettes, and all the other phases in the crescendo of feminism.

1913 ‘R. West’ in Clarion 14 Nov. 5/2, I myself have never been able to find out precisely what Feminism is: I only know that people call me a Feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.

1950 J. L. Jessup Faith of Our Feminists i. 10 Unlike sociologists and other tractarians, writers of fiction have recognized feminism as lying deeper than the demand for economic opportunity or political enfranchisement.

1971 S. Firestone Dialectic of Sex ii. 16 In the radical feminist view, the new feminism is not just the revival of a serious political movement for social equality.

2011 Guardian 15 Jan. 33/5 Nowadays, saying bad stuff about men is not how feminism conducts itself.


The OP asked: 'Is it wrong to use feminism as a descriptor for equality for all even though it seems to be that it is becoming seemingly more understood to be that?'.

The point of this answer is to illustrate that feminism is a word which has travelled a long way. It is also one of those words, like freedom, democracy, socialism etc which has been claimed by people for political reasons. Thus it could in the present time be interpreted in a number of ways, one of which, it could be argued, involved 'equality for all'.

One further idea that has come to me after engaging in comments and discussion around this topic, is that a modern notion of feminism does take on board the greater infusion of society with 'feminine' values. This may well involve 'equality for all'.

  • 1
    So why isn't that in your answer? Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 19:55
  • 2
    @EdwinAshworth Due to complete and utter lethargy, neglect and dereliction on my part. (I'll bet that none of your maths pupils were ever as honest as that about their not-done homework!) Would you like me to include it now? It seems presumptuous to make substantial changes to an answer after six people have voted for it as it is.
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 19:59
  • 1
    Hey, I'm not the czar. I don't think your answer addresses the present-day usage/s OP asks about, so I worry about its popularity here. Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 20:02
  • 9
    Upvotes are not a reason to avoid further improving your post. Otherwise the edit feature would be disabled automatically. Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 4:55
  • 1
    @dom176 I'm not sure you will reach any conclusion on this. Ultimately feminism is a political word, and different people will interpret it in a way that suits them. Could you put a definition on what is meant by democracy? Bear in mind that there is such a place as The Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It's leader's idea of what amounts to democracy may be different to yours and mine!
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 17:07

Feminism is the combination of two ideas: (1) that humans should have political, economic, and social equality regardless of gender and (2) that right now in general people who present as women have limited rights and opportunities when compared to people who present as men.

If you believe everyone should have equal rights and opportunities, you're an egalitarian. If you're an egalitarian AND you think women are currently at a disadvantage, you're a feminist.

This is not a dictionary answer, but it matches common usage and is consistent with dictionary answers.

  • I think a lot of definitions of feminism take it as a given that women at currently at a disadvantage. +1 for stating that assumption explicitly.
    – Brilliand
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 17:57
  • 1
    It's important to note the difference between actually being economically, politically, and socially equal versus having equal rights and fair treatment with respect to those subjects, though. No two humans are actually equal to each other, so actual political, economic, and social equality is an unattainable (and, frankly, pointless) goal.
    – reirab
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 19:05
  • You're right. That is an important point. I meant in terms of rights and opportunity. It's a secondary point, but it's still important, so I put it in the second sentence. Equal rights and opportunities is still impossible on an individual by individual basis. Those with more money or better hair will always hold some power disproportionate to those who don't. But in terms of large populations (grouped by gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.) equality in social, political, and economic rights and opportunities is theoretically possible. Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 19:35
  • In Britain one issue centres around the low proportion of women in politics. (The present House of Commons consists of 510 men and 142 women). The Labour party in 1997 introduced the concept of 'all women short-lists meaning that in some constituencies it put forward only women for selection as candidates. (Our system works differently to yours - we don't have Primaries And this would be a bit like having all-women Primaries.) It brought more female members into parliament. But should such an idea be enforced? What do you think? Is this enforced bias inherent to a modern notion of 'feminism'?
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 14:21
  • We call these counter-bias systems "quotas" when talking about US employment law. They can be effective, but they are a very blunt instrument for change and cause a lot of backlash. Once people are used to it, the need for quotas will drop away. I feel that quotas are an awful tool and an overcompensation. But I know that I feel that way because I'm Caucasian and was brought up in the American South. Here quotas "took jobs away from white men to give them to black men." So my dislike of quota systems is built on a legacy of racism and probably shouldn't be trusted. Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 20:55

Feminism is a movement that advocates equal rights and opportunities for women. As stated in What The Hell Does Feminism Mean Today Anyway? "Feminism is about the celebration and inclusion of the many kinds of expressions of womanhood and femininity".

When the word feminism first entered English in 1851, it referred simply to being feminine.

  • By 1895, it had taken on its current meaning as a way to describe a theory or activity promoting women’s rights, especially back then, the right to vote.

You might be familiar with the wave of feminism that took place during the 1970s, when women fought for more opportunities and equal pay. (vocabulary.com)

The OED lists the following (with date of first record indicated): feminacy (1847), feminality (1646), femineity (Coleridge, 1820), feminicity (1843). feminility (1838), feminineness (1849), femininism (1846), femininitude (nonce-word, 1878), femininity (14c. in Chaucer), feminism (1851), and feminity (14c. in Chaucer).

It is also of interest to note that feminism stands apart from the others in having for its primary sense 'the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes'. (Fowler's Modern English Usage)

  • 3
    is the block quote "You might be familiar with the wave of feminism that took place during the 1970s, when women fought for more opportunities and equal pay." a direct quote from fowlers? The hostility mark is drawn for the word "Fought" in that sentence, whereas that word could easily be interchanged with advocated and still mean the same thing while reducing hostility.
    – dom176
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 18:38
  • 3
    @dom176 The voice of sanity. +1. Gandhi fought for peace and understanding, but no one would call him hostile. Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 19:53
  • 4
    -1 "hostility" is not a neutral - or particularly accurate - description of the meaning. When I look up meanings for the word, I get things like "unfriendliness, hostile behavior, opposition" or "acts of warfare". Yet the quotes you provide use words like promoting, fighting for equal pay, etc. Using a loaded term to describe something is always suspect in a question of definition - especially when that word is not necessarily justified in a all contexts in which the word is used. As this question is about proper terminology, not personal opinions and politics, the wording is not right.
    – BrianH
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 20:45
  • A complete 180 on that first sentence. More to the point of the question it seems and less political.
    – crthompson
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 21:38
  • @BrianDHall, I agree, sloppy work, Instead I meant -the term ‘feminism’ seems to isolate too many men.
    – Misti
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 21:39

There's really several issues at hand here:

  1. What is the dictionary definition of feminism?
  2. What do people mean when they use the word feminism?
  3. Do these meanings (dictionary and actual usage) match?
  4. Do these definitions make sense given the origins and history of the word?
  5. Is one definition more valid?

1: Definition

Random House Dictionary provides:

feminism: the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.

So, this dictionary definition states that feminism advocates for women to have rights equal to men (not greater). It does not mention advocating for men to have equal rights, so this definition implies that either men are not missing any rights, or that feminism doesn't advocate for them.

Merriam-Webster says:

  1. the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.

  2. organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests

The first definition states feminism is about equality for the sexes, not just women's right. But, then we see the second definition refers strictly to women's rights and interests, not even mentioning inequality.

At this point, it's at least clear that there are some variations in defining feminism.

2: How do people actually use it?

Many feminists do clarify that feminism, to them, includes advocating for men's rights as well. However, both some feminists and many non-feminists regard feminism as exclusively advocating for women's rights. Some go so far as to say feminism means raising women above men.

3: Do these meanings (dictionary and actual usage) match?

I think at this point it's fair to conclude that the dictionary definitions support both the view that feminism only concerns women, and that it includes men as well, since at least one definition explicitly states women, while another merely says "equality of the sexes"

The definition of feminism as wanting to raise women above men seems poorly supported to me, but one could argue that is implied by "organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests".

4: Do these definitions make sense given the origins and history of the word?

There is no denying that feminism has its roots purely in women's issues. Specifically, women's right to vote is a core part of the history of feminism. Given this fact, it makes sense that some people are skeptical of the word feminism used to mean equality for all genders.

However, the history of the word does not preclude expanding the usage to mean equality for all genders, since the notion of women being equal to men could logically mean women also have no more rights than men. Words evolve, and current usage should be taken under pretty serious consideration when defining a word.

5: Is one definition more valid?

I think an analogy is useful at this point. Think of the terms Liberal and Conservative.

Some people define a liberal as a "tree hugging commie", while others define it as a "progressive thinking socialist", and many others. If someone calls themselves a liberal or a conservative, they may explain what they mean, but they cannot stop people from bringing their own connotations to the table. Some uses, however, make no sense given common usage. When you use a politically-charged label, you need to be aware of its many connotations.

I would say given the definition and the history, the word feminism carries an implication that women have fewer rights than men, regardless of whether feminism also aims to address men's issues. To avoid this connotation, a term like "humanism" or "gender equality" would have to be used.

In conclusion, feminism is, validly, used to mean either advocacy for only women's rights or advocacy for gender equality.

Generally, I think it makes the most sense to listen to those who identify with a term as to what it means, but it doesn't stop others from forming their own conclusions, and that should be taken into account when choosing a label for oneself.

  • Also to note, 'advocacy for gender equality' is not the same as 'advocacy for genders having equal rights', as there are other areas genders can be unequal in. Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 21:22
  • The OP was not asking about "gender equality" but rather "equality for all". So, would you say that interpreting "Feminism" as "equal rights for all areas of society which don't currently get them" would work? Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 9:39
  • 1
    @DewiMorgan that's a good point. I actually subconsciously interpreted it as "equality for all genders", which implies addressing issues related to gender (sexism, transphobia, rigid gender roles, etc.) but not race, age, class, etc. I don't think feminism logically addresses issues that are independent of gender, though most issues are not easily separated from each other. I'll edit my post to clarify at some point, but unfotunately cannot do that at the moment
    – AlannaRose
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 18:43

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that making two things equal on some spectrum does not always achieve equality in a greater sense.

For example, consider two groups. Group A wants all people to have equal opportunities in life. Group B wants all people to have equal outcomes in life. Both groups claim they want equality and the other group doesn't. Which side is actually fighting for equality? It seems to depend upon what you consider equality. One is clearly fighting of equality in opportunities and the other is clearly fighting for equality in outcomes. But which is 'equality'.

Equality itself is a word that, while having formal definitions, has a lot of personal meaning to different individuals (much like the words 'love' or 'god'). So you may agree with group A or group B.

Feminism is much the same. By definition it is fighting for equality in some aspects. Do those aspects constitute 'equality' for all depends upon how you view equality.

This is adding to the already complex bit of defining the goals of any political group, as their goals will change with time. For example, asking which of two political parties is more liberal or conservative can depend upon a given time frame.

And to top it off, while we do judge books by their covers, the cover may be completely wrong. Take modern day Satanist who don't believe Satan exists.

In short, a name doesn't define a group, its actions do. But those actions change over time. Meaning your question is quite open ended without a definite answer.

  • Whether "feminism" relates to equality for only women, or also for the elderly, blacks, buddhists, the infirm or the poor, is unrelated to the definition for "equality": it's only about the definition of "feminism". Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 9:33
  • If you fight for equality for one group but not another, you cannot claim to be fighting for 'equality' in any general sense. Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 14:01
  • @Lawtonfogle Good answer +1. But the list goes on. In the UK it is unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of age,gender, race, sexual orientation, physical handicap. Employers (and others) are however left free to discriminate on the basis of physical appearance, hair-colour, dress, social class, speech characteristics, health record (not involving handicap),and a dozen other things. Does a modern notion of feminism (infusion of society with more feminine values) rule out discrimination altogether?
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 14:56

The modern dictionary definition of feminism - which is the basis of the feminist movement - that I'm familiar with is "an advocate of social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men". As an aside, that definition doesn't exclude a man from being a feminist.

Beyond that though, people often choose to attach a meaning to a word that differs from a dictionary.

The feminist movement when it started was largely concerned with correcting inequality that often benefited men over women - the core intent was consistent with the dictionary definition.

However, like many movements, people with more extreme views became involved. Some of those people sought to place women in a position of advantage over men. Some of the most extreme claimed to be feminists, while actively demonstrating or encouraging hatred of men.

Because of that, a fair few people - rightly or wrongly - have come to think of feminism as being about improving the situation of women at the expense of men.

Now ... to answer the question (since it has been suggested I haven't) ...

Firstly, seeking equal rights for women, by the original or root definition, means seeking equality for both men and women. Equality is a symmetric relationship, so the statements "A has equality with B" allows the conclusion that "B has equality with A".

Moving beyond that, however, words change meaning over time, as part of the natural evolution of any language. People use words in contexts beyond the original definition, and some of those become common usage - whether they supplant the original meaning or not. That is why dictionaries are regularly updated. It is why there are turns of phrase in modern literature that wouldn't have made sense to a reader in the past (and, arguably, vice versa). That change occurs naturally, albeit different people have different views of what change is "acceptable".

Which means a question "is this meaning wrong?" is subjective. Several meanings of "feminism" are in common usage, so all of them are right in some context.

  • 1
    The essence of the question is: Is it wrong to use feminism as a descriptor of equality for all? Not how it has been misused, deformed or misinterpreted.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 10:08
  • The question also isn't "can a man be a feminist". It sounds like you might be arguing that the perception by some of feminism as "improving the situation of women at the expense of men" precludes feminism covering men's issues, but right now your answer reads as a statement of how people view feminism. This could be relevant to a discussion on whether feminism can include men, but you haven't actually answered the question yet.
    – AlannaRose
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 16:55
  • Okay. I've probably left out a couple of leaps of thinking, which I thought would be obvious. I'll edit the post in a few minutes to expand.
    – Rob
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 9:09

"Feminist" -- by common definition, common usage, and by etymology -- means a focus on the rights of those who claim female gender identity, in the same way that "Environmentalist" is someone who cares mainly about environmental issues.

A perfectly valid interpretation is that a Feminist might be someone who believes in equal rights for all, even though their main interest or activity is in the domain of the rights of those with female gender identity.

It would seem obvious to me, but I suspect not to everyone, that at least a decent proportion of people who are interested in rights for women would have at least some interest in rights for others, too, since they've already demonstrated empathy by caring about a single set of rights.

However, the term implicitly excludes any significant interest in the rights for minorities based upon religion, race, age, sexuality and so forth. Basically lack of interest in any issues unrelated to gender identity. It also arguably explicitly excludes interest in the defense of rights of those with male gender identity, potentially including the transgendered.

There is considerable scope for argument about which terms are excluded, and whether the exclusion is explicit, implied, or imaginary. That is, the term's ambiguous about the claimant's beliefs, which can damage communication.

It seems clear though, that the term gives no explicit information about whether they do, or not, support rights for any other class of person. In this way, the term is again similar to "Environmentalist".

It also seems clear that (again like Environmentalist!) the term carries a whole lot of baggage for many people.

Is the term "wrong" to describe supporting universal equality?

English is usually more flexible than that.

There is no "wrong" unless you ask a prescriptivist. So this may not be the best question to ask, but perhaps we can find a question that answers the puzzlement behind the question.

Is the term "less than ideal" to describe supporting universal equality?

I would say, yes.

The facts that I am writing this now, that you are asking this question in the first place, and that you had the discussion that spawned the question, all imply that it was not the clearest possible term in that original discussion, since its meaning was not clear between two people using it in everyday speech. Its use likely derailed the conversation into a discussion of its meaning.

I would say that most people who do not self-identify as feminists, and are not well-read in modern feminist literature, will not ascribe the meaning of "pursuing universal equality" to someone who identifies as a feminist. They would, at best, say "pursuing equal rights for women".

So, for that meaning, it is certainly unclear. You would not say "Environmentalist" in this way, after all.

Are there clearer terms to use?

Well, let us consider those who campaign for equal rights based on things other than gender. How do they describe themselves?

Inclusive. Ecumenical. Fair trade. Democratic. Liberal. Socialist. Communist. Meritocrat. Social Justice campaigner. Occupier. Environmentalist. Rights activist. Human Rights supporter. Equal rights advocate. Pro-tolerance. Anti-discriminatory. Unprejudiced. And lots and lots more Pro-, Anti- and Un- ones.

Of these, some clearly leap out as comparable in their amount of focus: "Environmentalist" implies an interest in the environment, and implies nothing further about any other interests in rights.

"Rights Activist" or "Rights Campaigner" seems good, but carry extra meaning - they imply activism. Feminism is a belief, a stance, which requires no action to be taken.

In that case, the best term I can come up with to describe someone who holistically believes in equal rights for all is "Equal Rights Advocate", and for someone who is both that and who's main focus is feminism is the even-more-of-a-mouthful "advocate of equal rights and feminism" (in that order, otherwise it just sounds like a rephrased repetition of feminism for emphasis).

I am unhappy with both terms, and am sure that in both cases, there's a better one. But just "Feminism" on its own, isn't it.

[Edit: the further question asked was: can you be accused of misogyny for not ascribing this meaning to the word "Feminist"? It'd be unjust to do so, but people get very invested in their personal interpretations of their self-applied labels ("Christian", "Atheist", "Satanist", "Goth", "Geek", "Hacker"), and often gleefully take umbrage when people do not give those labels the same interpretation as their own in-crowd. So the answer is, if someone wants to pick a fight, they will pick a fight. Fight-picking over terminology is an excellent way of identifying people worth avoiding.]


Mathematically speaking, equality for women is the same thing as equality for all, the only difference is the emphasis. The concept of equality implies all being equal.

  • 3
    Not really. Mathematically speaking "equality" is about two things compared. You could be a feminist (in the sense the questioner offers: equality for women) whilst simultaneously being a segregationist and a racist (inequality between races). As long as you believe that within each race, men and women are equal, it doesn't necessarily follow that women of one race are equal to women of another race. Fortunately, that isn't what actual feminists generally believe, and hence why the questioner's definition is off :-) Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 9:43
  • This only works mathematically in a one-dimensional universe, where the dimension is gender. Where there are multiple tangential dimensions (color, nationality, religion, sexuality, wealth level, occupation, age, ability...), then making a single dimension level doesn't mean that any others become so. Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 9:28
  • 1
    @DewiMorgan: More significantly, because different privileges and restrictions affect different people differently, it is generally impossible for a particular set of privileges and restrictions to affect everyone equally. While it might be "fair" to balance out a restriction which affects women more than men with a privilege which benefits women more than men, such "balancing" can easily harm some of the people it's supposed to help unless the effects balanced for each individual--a level of precision that's almost impossible to achieve.
    – supercat
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 19:50

I think this is her point:

"Feminists seek equality for women" = Feminists want all women to be equal to each other


"Feminists seek equality for all" = Feminists want all people, men and women, to be equal to each other

...The second one is definitely a better statement of the goals of feminism, as I understand them. (Plus, even if Statement 1 became logically more accurate, it would seem to suggest something pretty narrow and reactive compared to feminists' a priori goal of universal fairness.)


It's an interesting illustration of the semantic distinction between intension and extension. The meaning of a term concerns both what it refers to (its extension) and the criteria for applying it to something (its intension). As I understand the question, it asks why the extension of "feminist" does not seem to have members who oppose equality for groups other than women, even though the intension would allow someone to count as a feminist if the person favored equality for women yet opposed equality for others (or at least didn't favor equality for others).

Perhaps it's an accident of circumstances. In general, extensions and intensions will differ.

  • To be a feminist do you not need to subscribe to 'feminine values', which are less likely to be hostile, and less likely to be discriminatory than male values?
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 15:10

In careful discourse, where we seek precision, we define terms where there is potential for ambiguity. I am persuaded that a declaration that by "feminism" we mean "advocacy for gender equality" would be a reasonable definition, even though it is somewhat removed from many simple dictionary definitions.

In less formal discourse, where I wish to be understood without having to clarify my meaning I would not use "feminism" intending to convey that less conventional meaning.

In a debate I might deliberately use "feminism" in this refined sense as a rhetorical device so that by creating a dissonance in my listeners understanding we provoke deeper exploration of what we mean by equality and related ideas.

  • Good point on highlighting the differences in usage between academic and common usage. I suspect that in academic usage, the more inclusive sense may be more common, and in some fields, might even reasonably be assumed as a common jargon term, only needing definition if dissonance arose. Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 9:23

Another way to look at this, is that feminists advocate against the inequalities caused by a patriarchal worldview. This is not necessarily the same as fighting for equality for women. There is no rule to say that every man must benefit from a patriarchal system and every woman be disadvantaged.

  • An interesting answer, if true. But, not implied in any definition of the term I can find. Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 9:12

There are two possible states a person can be in. Hungry, and full.

If I am hungry, I want more food. However, I do not want an infinite amount of food, I want a finite amount of food. At some point, I will reach a critical point of balance and will consider myself sufficiently full that I no longer consider it worth eating more food.

It is possible that I would eat too much, and if so, I will be too full. I will then regret my earlier decision to eat so much and will go for a walk.

To say that I am not hungry, simply because at some stage, if I keep eating, I will cease to want more food, is ludicrous.

If I am a feminist, I want society to treat women better relative to men. However, I do not want an infinite amount good treatment for women over men, I want a finite amount of good treatment for women over men. At some point, I will reach a critical point of balance and will consider society sufficiently fair that I no longer consider it worth improving how we treat women relative to men.

It is possible that we will treat women better than men, and if so, that will be treating women too well. I will then regret our earlier decision to change how we treat women so radically and will act to ensure rights for men.

To say that I am not feminist, simply because at some stage, if treatment of women keeps getting better, I will cease to promote fair treatment of women, is ludicrous.

We are so far as a society from equal treatment for men and women that most people haven't even considered what to do if/when we hit the point of equality, but I imagine almost all feminists would discard the title and not push for preferential treatment.

  • 1
    This seems more like an analysis of why feminism would not, in the future, exclude men, then why someone today would say feminism includes men. It reads as "right now, feminism is about women. Once women have all the rights men do, we can look at men's rights".
    – AlannaRose
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 16:59
  • To me, this answer implies that feminism, both today and in the future, means being only interested in the rights of women, but it doesn't expressing any judgement on whether any wider usage is "wrong" or not, nor the further question of whether using this narrow meaning could be interpreted as misogyny. Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 9:20

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.