Where The Word Feminism Came From
Why Feminism Still Needs To Be Called..
In a case of quite peculiar irony, the word “feminism,” used by generations of women to explain their struggle for equal rights and opportunities, was coined by a dude. Charles Fourier was a French socialist philosopher of radical principles in the 19th century, and his term “feminisme” is the basis for today’s term in English. And Fourier’s own peculiarities have led to some people wondering if it’s the right word at all.
Fourier didn’t advocate for complete gender equality because, in his world, the sexes were too seriously biologically different to be treated the same. He was also a utopian thinker, and his conception of “ideal” human life was something like a Grand Budapest Hotel-like commune where workers changed their occupation up to eight times a day to avoid monotony. (Look, if we had to get rid of all the words in English that were coined by strange white dudes, we’d likely not have much to talk about.)
Luckily, his “feminisme” was quickly co-opted by activists, and started to show up in English. Hilariously, its first appearance was in The UK Daily News in the 1890s, “what our Paris Correspondent describes as a ‘Feminist’ group… in the French Chamber of Deputies,” as a warning that the ideology could be extremely dangerous. And it came to the U.S. a decade or so later in an article by the French suffragist Madeline Pelletier(who, by the way, dressed fabulously in men’s suits and bowler hats, and was the first female French psychiatrist).
Another interesting thing about the history of the word “feminism” is that, while huge swaths of women in history worked for feminist goals like women’s voting rights and access to education, self-identification as a “feminist” was relatively rare until midway through the 20th century. People like Elizabeth Cady Stanton didn’t use the word. The real boom for the word “feminist” in English came with feminism’s “second wave,” in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s far newer in the mouths of English-speakers than you might think: only 50 or so years old.