When the term feminism first entered English toward the mid-19th century, it meant “feminine qualities or character,” a sense no longer in use. (Its companion term, feminist, also entered the language around that time, but it is not certain whether it was then used to mean anything other than “feminine or womanly.”) However, toward the end of the 19th century, both feminism and feminist unambiguously took on their modern meanings related to equal rights for women. Activists of the late 19th and early 20th century, now considered to be first-wave feminists, campaigned for women’s right to vote, or suffrage, and members of the movement were known as suffragettes or, more generally, suffragists. Even though the term feminist was not widely used during this period, there also were broad-ranging efforts to advance women’s right to work outside the home, to freely enter professions, and to own property.
It wasn’t until the 1960s and '70s, in the United States, amid the sexual revolution, that the terms feminist and feminism gained widespread use. This period, considered to be the second wave of feminism, saw the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the debate over reproductive rights, and the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW). While feminists questioned and challenged their prescribed roles in society, many antifeminists viewed this movement as threatening to traditional American family values. The semantics mattered: In 1970s polling, the majority of respondents were in favor of “women’s rights,” but less supportive when the labels “feminism” or “women’s liberation” were used.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, a period emerged that was characterized as postfeminist. Though the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) failed to be ratified by a sufficient number of states to become law, some people believed that many of its goals had been achieved, and they thus considered feminism passé. The June 1998 cover of Time magazine asked in dramatic bold letters, "Is Feminism Dead?” Activists of this era — also known as third-wave feminists — were more globally oriented and more inclusive of women of color, lesbians, transgender people, and other marginalized groups.
Supporters of gender equality in the early 2000s were less likely to self-identify as feminists. Some perceived the label feminist as exclusionary, misandrist, or anachronistic. However, the popularity of the word feminist may be on the rise again, as evidenced by its more open embrace by pop culture celebrities. But in a climate where women who call themselves feminists may be admired by some but singled out by others for harassment or threats of violence, we are faced with the challenge of affirming the core meaning of feminism, without its cultural and historical baggage, especially of the 20th century. Do you agree that women should have the same social, political, and economic rights as men? If you do, then you are in agreement with feminist ideals, even though you may still prefer to disavow the label.