What’s in a name?

| Staff Columnist

I am a feminist.

If you’re still reading, that’s something. You’ve gotten past a pretty vocal, villainous set of caricatures—and, trust me, I know they can be an intimidating bunch. But I’ve invited them into my column on purpose, because it is Feminism Awareness Week, and I need them here—loud, angry, whining, stigmatized and exaggerated.

On Monday, V-Day (the group behind the annual Vagina Monologues) hosted a discussion called “Addressing the Taboo” as part of their targeted effort to “reclaim the F-word.” A panel of students and professors talked about gender violence and generation gaps, cross-cultural sensitivity and the implications of sexy clothing—but the most charged subject by far was the term “feminism” itself. Why do we still need the word, people asked, when it raises such a visceral gut reaction? Wouldn’t the general public be more likely to back anti-domestic violence laws sponsored by a “social justice” movement? Isn’t a female candidate running on a platform of “democracy” more sympathetic? Are we stuck in semantics? Is it time to “let go of our pride”?

As I’m sure you can tell, I’ve thought about this a lot since Monday. A mythical renaming of the feminist movement would certainly make my life easier—at least, within certain short-term moments. When I say I’m a Women and Gender Studies double-major, it almost always raises questions. I’ve spent so much time “justifying” and “explaining” my coursework that I can’t even imagine what would happen if I told the whole truth and admitted to my Women, Gender and—the often-forgotten and most-loaded part—Sexuality Studies major.

As a term, “feminism” is loaded, no doubt about it. But, as feminists (or even as “social justice activists” or “humanists” or “people committed to democracy”), isn’t that the point? Avoiding the words that make people uncomfortable avoids confronting the issue of their discomfort. And it’s this discomfort that only feminism can address.

You see, the same set of tensions that keep me from naming myself as a Women, Gender and Sexuality studies major keep high school sex education teachers from talking about birth control, and limit the forums in which rape victims can talk about their trauma. When I don’t express my discomfort with the portrayal of female relationships on “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” it’s an implicit endorsement of the same-gendered stereotypes that encourage middle school-aged girls to catfight. Criticizing the too-thin, distorted Ralph Lauren model in isolation divorces it from the millions of women and men suffering from eating disorders.

Feminism is important precisely because it helps us develop fuller identities in a more supportive context. It empowers us with a past and a future of collective thought. The most effective way to thwart feminist progress is to disassociate from it—to avoid the title. Without the word “feminism,” the links, themes and history of the movement disappear, to be swallowed both by dismissible caricatures and abstract theory, as Dennis Sweeney wrote about on Wednesday.

So, I pledge to own my feminism. That does not mean I have to be the model women’s rights advocate—I’m not planning to stop shaving my legs, and I will watch the occasional reality TV show. But because I want my friend, a man, to be comfortable saying “I am insecure about the size of my arms,” I am going to call myself a feminist. I am a feminist because I love Jane Austen. I am a feminist because I spent a summer working in Missouri politics and I’m still getting creepy Facebook messages from the office flirt.

I’m letting in the word “feminism” with all of its connotations, because talking about them, using the discourse and the discomfort is an opportunity—it’s the point. Those of us who can self-identify as feminists give the movement a shape and tone beyond pop culture’s angry man-haters. V-Day’s Feminist Awareness Week is a reminder that awareness—especially self-awareness—is our most powerful tool.

Ariana is a junior in Arts & Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at agtobin@wustl.edu.