26 Feminism Cannot Be Defined

Lucy Rice

I dedicate this chapter to my sisters. My feminism is defined by your rhetoric. I hope that as you grow older you allow your femininity to strengthen.


 Keywords: Justice, Equality, Woman, Transformation


Feminism discerns one of the many cornerstones of equality that our founding fathers failed to recognize. In order for the words of our framers, “we the people,” to represent democracy, we must expand our definition of people to encompass all people. As someone who identifies as a feminist, I am learning that my feminist agenda is shaped by my personal experiences as a woman. Therefore, feminism is very much up to the interpretation of those who adopt the word. I argue that there is not one clear definition of feminism, but many dimensions of the word and recognizing the multifaceted definitions and interpretations of feminism is essential in understanding the feminist movement. In this chapter, I discuss the various analyses of the words that are most commonly associated with feminism: equality, women, and justice. Then, I argue that society must reconceptualize the word “feminism” to fit a broader definition than the “one size fits all” definition that many ascribe to.


Equality is a word commonly used in the definition of feminism. The first wave of feminism focuses on political equality of women, for example the suffragist movement. Second wave feminism came to rise in the 60’s after Betty Friedan’s The Femine Mystique was published, revitalizing the feminist movement by changing the emphasis on political equality to economic equality of women. Many of these ideals in the early waves of feminism can be defined as liberal or hegemonic feminism. Liberal feminists have an individualistic approach to equality. They believe that the attainment of equal opportunity is strictly from political and economic factors. This agenda was not sufficient in representing women of color, therefore the term “multicultural feminism” emerged. Multicultural feminism expands the term equality beyond white, middle class women, but to women of all races and socio-economic groups. Today, intersectional feminism is commonly acknowledged by feminist theorists as a more sociological view of looking at multicultural feminism. Intersectional feminism is the framework for assessing inequality through understanding the overlap between a person’s social identities. For intersectional feminists, achieving equality is more complicated than the first and second wave feminist agenda. Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American law professor who coined the term in 1989 explained intersectional feminism as “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other” (Steinmetz, 2020).


Feminism cannot be defined without the word woman. However, feminists debate what meets the qualifications of a woman. Feminist theorist Claire Synder describes one important distinction about third wave feminism from previous waves; identity. Third wave feminism is more inclusive not only in terms of socio-economic factors, but also gender and sexual identity. Women who were not born as biologically female but identify as such are included in this conversation. Nonetheless, even in the third wave of feminism, many feminists take a more conservative stance and are classified as TERFs, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists. With the rise of trans-rights movements and activism, the popularity of fourth-wave feminism is on the rise. Fourth wave feminism promotes a broadened definition of womanhood in the feminist movement. Because of social media, fourth wave feminism has grown immensely allowing for women of all races, socio-economic statuses, and gender identities to join the conversation.


Possibly the most complex debates among feminism is defining “justice.” In feminism as in many other complex social movements, justice means different things for different people. In feminist discourse, most commonly discussed are criminal justice, social justice, and transformative justice. The 2018 #MeToo movement is an example of how feminists argue about what justice looks like. Intersectional feminist Tarana Burke created the movement to protest sexual misconduct through “the empowerment of women through empathy,” but some feminists believe that the #MeToo movement is not the way to seek justice.


Prison abolitionist feminists such as Mariame Kaba believe that justice is not reached through criminalization. Kaba argues that transformative justice is the only liberation of violence for women. In a conference with the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Kaba makes the claim that criminal justice efforts to end sexual assault have statistically been proven to be ineffective. This could be credited to the extent of evidence it takes to convict a perpetrator, but more often than not it is because of the fear people have to engage with law enforcement. An important point that Kaba makes is that oppression and domination are main features of the prison industrial complex (PIC). Feminism is about changing the structure of everything the PIC stands for. Therefore, our feminism cannot include carcerality.


Feminism continues to shape as the rhetoric of the movement changes. With the growing conversation, the definition of feminism continues to develop. Ultimately, the words equality, woman, and justice are up to the interpretation of the reader and feminism itself cannot be defined with one strict definition.

Works Cited


Kaba, M. (2020, January 29). Ending Violence Without Violence. New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault. https://www.nyscasa.org/portfolio_page/webinar-introducing-evwv/

Marcus, Bonnie. “True Feminism Is About Equality for Both Genders.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 31 Mar. 2015, www.forbes.com/sites/bonniemarcus/2015/03/31/true-feminism-is-about-equality-for-both-genders/?sh=4e05cf6190d9.

McCall, L. (2005). The Complexity of Intersectionality. Signs, 30(3), 1771-1800. doi:10.1086/426800

Snyder, R. (2008). What Is Third‐Wave Feminism? A New Directions Essay. Signs, 34(1), 175-196. doi:10.1086/588436

Steinmetz, K. (2020). She Coined the Term ‘Intersectionality’ Over 30 Years Ago. Here’s What It Means to Her Today. Time Magazine. https://time.com/5786710/kimberle-crenshaw-intersectionality/

Thompson, B. (2002). Multiracial Feminism: Recasting the Chronology of Second Wave Feminism. Feminist Studies, 28(2), 337-360. doi:10.2307/3178747


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Rhetoric in Everyday Life by Lucy Rice is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book