If you get lost trying to keep up with the conceptual distinctions and buzzwords that frequent feminist circles, this article will bring you up to speed. Knowing the difference between sex and gender, and knowing what the plurality feminisms means will help you take your conversations on this topic to the next level.
I’m grateful to Laura Lee Bennett, Awna Besan, Victoria Chen, Francesca Frewer, Emma Joyce, Carime Lane, Nestor Navasero, Michael Rapati, and Vera Yuen for their insightful feedback and contributions on these terms.
Why learning English terms in feminism is worth your time
Feminism is a movement, theory, belief system and an approach towards many aspects of life: raising children, policy development, education, and human rights. Whether or not you choose to identify yourself as a feminist, knowing what it is, and the common English terminology surrounding the topic will allow you to engage in meaningful ways with others about a variety of topics. This guide has been created to help you as you start to explore these topics in online forums or blogs, in informal discussions with friends or colleagues, or in formal settings in academia or politics. This guide includes different terminology and relevant resources. It does NOT include an argument FOR or AGAINST feminism. After reading through the terminology and learning more about different issues in feminism, you will be better able to make an informed decision for yourself.
Three major words to get you started
Feminisms: Although feminism began as a movement for women to gain the right to vote, over time it has evolved and taken on many different forms. By pluralizing feminism, this represents the idea that there are many different forms of feminism, each with different philosophies, practices, methodologies, and core beliefs or focuses. For some, feminism encompasses issues that transcend issues of gender, including issues surrounding ableism, racism, homophobia, etc. For such feminists, addressing issues about GLBTQQ might be a focus. For others, feminism means eschewing high heels and lipstick, considering them forms of micro-oppression, while for still others, feminism entails the freedom to choose not to wear these, as well as the freedom to choose them.
A man can also be feminist, while a woman may be anti-feminist even though she acknowledges and even attempts to fight against the maltreatments also faced by other women due to gender. Some contemporary feminists argue for an individually-defined feminism, which acknowledges that no two feminists are alike, and that many feminisms can even come into conflict with one another. One thing though is for sure, feminism is not the monolithic picture often painted by a patriarchal culture at large.
What feminism is NOT
Feminism does not mean making a men-contra-women assessment or judgement.
Feminism is not about making universal claims on behalf of all women or against all men. There is no “all-ness” in either.
Feminism is not: Us against Them binary thinking, which is bound to oversimplify and obscure a struggle or issue faced by the people involved.
For another excellent definition of Feminism, visit: Feminist Glossary.
Sex: The physical characteristics of a person made up of their organs, chromosomes, and hormones. Male and female are usually used to refer to the sex of someone, while woman and man usually refer to the gender of someone.
Gender: The non-biological traits of a person that are associated with manhood, womanhood, or otherwise (as in the case for genderless or gender-queer people).
Now let’s get started!
Ableism: Discrimination (often unintentional or inadvertent) against people based on their disability, or failing to recognize the dimensions of a disabled person beyond their disability. This word is made up of able + ism, which equals “AY-bull-is-m”.
Example: The university has ignored students’ requests for installing ramps beside staircases countless times, displaying overt ableism.
Accessibility: Accessibility is about the degree to which something (an event, available information, etc.) is accessible or easy to reach by people with disabilities or with bodies or minds that are deemed “abnormal” by the public at large. If a café has a high degree of accessibility, they have wider doorways for people in wheelchairs, ramps beside staircases, as well as bathroom facilities that are equipped to accommodate wheelchairs. Often, event invitations will include accessibility details for those interested in going, but who aren’t sure if they will be able to attend given some limitation(s) that often (unnecessarily) presents a hurdle to them.
Ally: A person who does not suffer the exact same discrimination as another group, but who acts in alliance with that group, towards the same aims, while also appealing to them for their perspectives, expertise, goals, etc. A typical case is a white woman who allies with WoC (women of colour) to support their unique struggles that arise from the interactions between gender and ethnicity (among other things). Or, perhaps a WoC without a disability acts in alliance with another WoC with a disability, or with other disabled women in general.
A healthy alliance is when two parties join forces and consider each other allies, being on the same level by default, in the sense that they acknowledge each other as an individual and fellow human being who has a common interest or concern about an issue. Mutual respect is essential. But, in a specific context, the dynamic often involves one taking on a leadership role while the others serve to provide supporting subsidiary resources as allies.
Androcentrism: The conscious or subconscious practice of placing the male perspective in the centre of a broader worldview (androcentrism is the noun; the adjective is androcentric).
Bechdel test: A test to check if a movie offers a well-rounded representation of women. In order to pass the Bechdel test, the movie must meet three modest criteria:
- The movie must have two women in it.
- The women must talk to each other.
- They must talk to each other about something other than a man.
To see if your favourite movies pass the Bechdel test, or to learn more, check here.
Body positive: Being body-positive is being accepting of bodies, no matter how they look; regardless of weight, shape, height, hair, etc., without the accompanied belief that there is an inherent need for change.
Catcalls: Unsolicited shouts, hollers, whistles, comments, etc. often centred solely around a person’s physical appearance, and often objectifying the person.
Check your privilege: To check your privilege is to be realistic about the advantages with which you were born that affect your life as you live it.
Example: Having an able-body in a world that is mostly designed for people who appreciate full functionality of their body. This is a major privilege compared to those who don’t. For a Privilege Checklist, see the Resources below.
Cis/Cis-gender: Cis is the opposite of trans. Cis comes from the Latin “on this side of”, and it describes people who have a gender identity that corresponds with the sex that they were born with.
Consent: Usually in reference to sexual activity, a mutual and informed agreement by both parties to engage in shared activities/experiences. To give consent is to give permission for something to happen. A common term in feminist discussions of rape or sexual assault.
Cross-dressing: Dressing according to the norms of a different sex, without identifying as that sex.
Example: If a male-bodied person wears a dress, but still identifies as a man.
Drag King/Queen: A female-bodied person who dresses up in men’s clothing, usually to perform (singing, acting, comedy, etc.) or, a male-bodied person who dresses up in women’s clothing, usually to perform (singing, acting, comedy, etc) respectively.
Eco-feminism: A theory and philosophy that claims a connection between the feminine and ecology/Earth/the natural environment and discusses the oppression of both, considering a possible link between the two.
Equal pay: When men and women filling the same roles in companies, organizations or industries are offered the same wages, it is considered equal pay. When this is not the case, there is a wage gap (see definition in Part 2).
Female-bodied: Having a female sex (which does not necessarily include having a feminine identity). One could also use male-bodied to refer to having a male sex.
Gender binary: The assumption that there are only two genders: Man and woman. This is often accompanied by the belief that gender always directly corresponds to the male and female sexes.
Gender identity: The gender with which a person associates themselves.
Examples: Man, woman, genderqueer, or genderless (see definitions below).
Genderqueer: “Someone who blurs, rejects, or otherwise transgresses gender norms. Also used as a term for someone who rejects the two-gender (binary) system.” Source: Click here.
Gendering: Influencing someone (often a child) with the gender norms expected of men and women.
A crude example: Dressing a girl in pink, and giving her only dolls and no cars OR dressing a boy in blue and giving him only cars and no dolls.
Genderless: Having no association with a specific gender.
GLBTQQ: Abbreviation for Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Trans-Questioning-Queer. When a rainbow flag is displayed outside/inside a public place such as a store or restaurant, it is understood to mean that the public place is GLBTQQ-friendly.
Hardwired: The belief that gender traits (such as being tidy, being fashionable, being violent, aptitudes in math versus language, etc.) are permanent parts of the brain that do not change. This is a view not supported by neuroscience. See Cordelia Fine’s book, cited below in Resources.
Heteronormativity: The belief that the only acceptable sexual preference is the traditional pairing between man and woman. Any other preference, such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or otherwise is viewed as abnormal, immoral, wrong, or bad in a heteronormative framework.
Hyper-sexualization: The act of accenting or emphasizing the sexuality or sexual activity of a person, ignoring other dimensions to a person, often objectifying that person.
Internalization: Accepting something (especially oppression, sexism, or racism) as normal. When someone internalizes oppression around them, it becomes a subconscious part of their thinking.
Example: When girls are surrounded by subliminal messages (and often explicit messages) about how women can’t do maths, girls will often subconsciously not try very hard in maths classes.
Intersectionality: A theory that discusses how different forms of oppression, domination, and discrimination, such as homophobia, sexism, and racism interact with each other and how they affect people. This theory accounts for how various oppressions are experienced differently by different people. Intersectionality shows how oppressions are more complicated than a 1+1 equation.
Intersexed: A person who has both male and female genitalia, or whose sexual characteristics are not entirely male nor female.
Invisible disability: A disability that is not immediately perceived through physical appearance.
Example: Mental illness is considered an invisible disability.
To be continued in Part 2.
More on the Male Gaze: Visual Pleasure Narrative Cinema (1975) Essay by Laura Mulvey
Iris Young’s Five Faces of Oppression
The Personal is Political Wikipedia Entry
On “They” as a singular pronoun
10 Reasons why Ableist Language matters
An article about how some feminisms leave the disabled behind
How mainstream feminism perpetuates Ableism
How to be an ally with someone with an invisible disability
To see if your favourite movies pass the Bechdel test, or to learn more