Resistance is fertile: the language born of the feminist movement

Resistance is fertile: the language born of the feminist movement

Ninety years ago today, while Charles Onions and his team were raising a glass to the completion of a project that had been fifty years in the offing, women across Britain were celebrating a victory that had taken even longer to achieve. On 2nd July 1928, the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act came into force, for the first time giving women the same voting rights as men. This expansion of woman’s place from the home into the traditionally male arenas of politics and the professions generated new ways of thinking that required a new vocabulary, while at the same time, conservative forces enlisted new terminology to defend the old status quo. A flip through the pages of the OED reveals how the advances and setbacks that have shaped the struggle for women’s rights have in turn shaped our language.

This is what a feminist looks like

Votes for WomenThe struggle for women’s voting rights has its roots in the early nineteenth century. In 1832, the Representation of the People Act explicitly excluded women from the democratic process for the first time. As opposition to this grew, so too did the terms by which the controversy was defined. Woman suffrage and women suffrage both appear in 1846 in copies of the Chartist Northern Star newspaper, albeit in contexts expressing the reluctance of the Chartist movement to enlarge its agitation for voting rights for working class men to similar rights for women. By 1857, the concept of the woman question, relating to the distribution of rights and responsibilities between the sexes, was entrenched firmly enough for George Eliot to happily anticipate a heaven in which she would be ‘quite delivered from any necessity of giving a judgment’ upon it.

At this time, such concerns were not yet headed under the banner of feminism, which still referred to ‘feminine quality or character’. Rather, they belonged to the earlier and vaguer womanism. Feminism in its modern sense did not emerge until the 1890s, but it was quick to establish itself as the go-to word for describing the advocacy of that similarly new coinage, women’s liberation. Indeed, by 1933, only five years after the Equal Franchise Act, it was already possible to speak of pre-feminist times. And despite the popular caricature of the feminist as a woman devoid of maternal instincts, she has mothered an impressive number of offspring. Radical feminists could be found as early as 1905, railing against domestic slavery. They have since been joined by black feminists, postcolonial feminists, socialist-feminists, lesbian feminists, ecofeminists, and cyberfeminists, a sisterhood whose diverse prefixes highlight the multifaceted nature of the women’s movement and the changing ways in which it has addressed itself to shifting social, political, and sexual mores.

This very plurality has both necessitated and defied the classification of feminism into discreet historic ‘waves’. It is generally accepted that first-wave feminism refers broadly to the period of activity that concerned itself with women’s right to vote, to enter the professions, and to own property, but precise timeframes and whether we are currently in the third- or fourth-wave are hotly debated topics.

Second-wave feminism, which focused on equal employment opportunities, access to birth control, and prosecuting rape and domestic violence, was perhaps the most linguistically productive of all the ‘waves’. It gave us such terms as reproductive rights, date rape, and consciousness-raising. It also questioned the time-honoured assumption that ‘biology is destiny’, leading to new understandings of gender. It is with some embarrassment that lexicographers may look back to the second edition of the OED and see ‘gender’ defined as ‘In mod. (esp. feminist) use, a euphemism for the sex of a human being’. As well as rewriting this, current editors have also recorded a range of new compound forms arising from the questions posed by second-wave feminists, including gender bias, gender equality, gender identity, gender issue, and gender stereotype. A theoretical emphasis on the way in which assumptions of male authority have been embedded in language also led to a rejection of woman in favour of labels deemed less patriarchal, such as wimmin and womyn.

More recently, feminism has begun to question itself, in particular its historical focus on the concerns of white and largely middle-class women. Reviving an old term, the novelist Alice Walker formulated a theory of womanism as a type of feminism pertinent to the experiences of black women. Meanwhile, the growing awareness that multiple aspects of women’s identities, such as class, race, and sexuality, can interact with each other to create unique disadvantages has given rise to the coinage intersectionality.

How to be a woman

When the British parliament voted in favour of the Equal Franchise Act, Conservative MP Robert Sanders gave a speech in which he derided the act’s detractors for dismissing it as the flapper vote. This popular slur referred to the new breed of young woman which a Times article of 1920 memorably described as ‘the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations’. This specific meaning had evolved from a more general one applied to a young girl – or, in some circles, a young girl working as a prostitute. In either case, she was a person whose youth, disregard of sexual proprieties, and interest in fashion and dancing could be supposed to negate her entitlement to political engagement.

The New WomanThis use of language to create roles for women which limited their right to social influence was of course nothing new. Sometimes this could take the form of exaltation, bringing to mind Erica Jong’s observation that ‘women are the only exploited group in history to have been idealized into powerlessness’. Thus we see, in the 1840s, the emergence of the angel in the house, and the ‘kind, fresh, smiling, artless, tender little domestic goddess, whom men are inclined to worship’. (Incidentally, it was shortly after this that femininity gained its depreciative sense, describing a quality considered undesirable in a man.) Women who did not wish to embody this ideal were met with a combination of fear and ridicule. Hence when in the 1860s the assertive and educated new woman appeared, she was widely satirized by a press who feared her demands for independence and emancipation threatened the entire edifice of femininity and, as a consequence, the masculine identity it made possible.

Though the two were often pitted against each other in newspaper articles, the new woman was ultimately the predecessor of the flapper, with whom she shared a relish of unfeminine activities such as smoking and sexual experimentation and a disdain for domestic chores. The most recent incarnation of the type of woman to affront convention by adopting traits deemed ‘masculine’ is the ladette. This label arose in Britain in the 1990s, marrying the cultural stereotype of the ‘lad’ – a boisterous young man who enjoys beer and sports – with the feminizing suffix also found in suffragette. A Daily Mail article of 1998 bemoans the ‘the rise of the foulmouthed, flesh-baring, beer-drinking ladettes’ in language strikingly similar to that with which the Times had castigated flappers 78 years previously. The unaltered conception of what constitutes appropriate female behaviour underscores the wry observation of American novelist Florence King that ‘the specter of unflagging virtue has haunted all women since time immemorial; the angel in the house simply will not leave’.

Hyenas in petticoats

Riot GrrrlThe use of language to police the boundaries of female self-expression has, unsurprisingly, found a particular target in women identifying as feminists. In the 1960s, they could be disparaged through the term bra-burning, a reference to a protest against the Miss America contest of 1968 which has gone down in history despite never having taken place. Today, those unafraid of invoking Godwin’s Law have recourse to feminazi, a term popularized by the American talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

These terms attempt to delegitimize agitation for women’s rights by associating it with militant extremism. This is a trend which some feminists have sought to undermine by actively embracing vocabulary that does similar work. A group that formed in New York in 1985 to protest sexism and racism within the art world called themselves the Guerilla Girls. Affiliates of a 90s feminist punk movement whose songs dealt with themes of domestic violence, rape, and female empowerment called themselves riot girls – or grrrls, the unfeminine growl of anger overwriting traditional connotations of the word girl.

Fight like a girl

For a time, anti-feminists seemed to have won. In the 1980s, commentators began talking of post-feminism as an era in which the alleged achievement of equality had rendered the term feminist obsolete, even insulting. In recent years this trend has been reversed as a new generation of young women have found that some battles, after all, have yet to be won. Their activism has given rise to a whole host of verbal inventions. There is the suffix -shaming – as in fat-shaming and slut-shaming – as a means of critiquing those who use women’s bodies and sexuality as a means of disparaging them. Portmanteaus incorporating bro and man highlight the ways in which male behaviour and assumptions can result in the marginalization of women. Mansplain and mansplainer, first recorded in 2008 and 2009 respectively, have already found their way into the OED, while broflake, referring to a man upset by progressive attitudes (and throwing back the insult snowflake), was shortlisted for 2017’s Word of the Year. Manspreading, manterrupting, and bropropriation (by which men take credit for women’s ideas or work) are neologisms whose development we will be tracking closely. For as long as there are injustices to overcome, feminism will continue in its tradition of inventing the words that will allow women to keep fighting.

Header image: Banner de Economía Feminista, by Justilee

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