I don’t think college freshmen are unique in the trouble they have defining feminism. Pat Robertson comes to mind. The word “feminism” is a dirty thing for many people, something that carries connotations that are far outside the realm of the word’s actual definition. When I teach freshmen, so many of them have this foundational misunderstanding that feminism is somehow about elevating women above men or women hating men that I think it’s my responsibility to help them understand the definition a little bit more clearly.

This is important because in college, most students are going to encounter people who call themselves feminists, either in their classmates, professors, chapel speakers, assigned readings, or elsewhere. If the student is quick to assume that when that person says “feminist,” what they mean is “anti-Biblical man-hater,” then dialogue is going to be broken before it can ever take place.

This is an activity I have started using to help students remove prejudiced or preconceived associations with the word “feminist.”

  1. First, I put the word American on the board and ask them to define it. Almost always, a few students voice some descriptive concepts like, “Someone who is patriotic” or “a person born in America.” Through directed questions, I lead them to the conclusion that the actual definition of American is “someone who is an American citizen.” People can have lots of opinions about Americans, or have thoughts on what qualities an American should or should not have, but the definition itself is limited to something measurable and objective.
  2. I ask my students to list as many different types of Americans as possible. I try to make the list as diverse as it can possibly be. If there is any confusion, I specify that we are looking for descriptors that people would possibly use for themselves. My list on the board usually looks something like this: native-born, naturalized citizen, expatriate living abroad, Republicans, Democrats, moderates, independents, Libertarians, Communists, Socialists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, Mormons, Buddhists, Jews, middle-class, wealthy, people living below the poverty line, people with disabilities, educated, uneducated, children, adults, the elderly, retired folks, students, etc.
  3. Once we have a really good list on the board, I confirm that all of these folks fit the definition we described. “Even though some of these groups are quite different from people in other groups?” I ask. I ask what happens if people in one group dislike people in the other–if, say, a Libertarian really disliked a Mormon. “Could the Libertarian decide that they’re not an American, simply because they don’t like the qualities that another American has?” Of course not, comes the reply.
  4. My speech usually goes something like this. “There are lots of words that have very politicized associations attached to them, and it can be difficult to remember that the real definition of the word is separate from the connotations that come from whatever background we’ve heard it talked about. If we lived in a really anti-American community, we’d probably hear that Americans were all selfish, perverted, greedy jerks, and yet none of those things are part of the definition of American. I’m going to give you another word for which the same thing usually happens. Some of you might resist this, but I can assure you that I’m telling you the truth here. That word is feminism.”
  5. Making a parallel chart or list as the American list, I put FEMINISM on the board and explain that there is really only one foundational definition to feminist: someone who believes in the inherent equality of men and women. Because I know more than they do about this topic, I start listing different types of feminists who may disagree with each other on a lot of things, but who all hold that same basic truth of equality. I try to come up with some words or phrases that surprise them, or sound like oxymorons to them (and maybe to you, too): liberal feminists, moderate feminists, conservative feminists, Christian feminists, Muslim feminists, Jewish feminists, feminist activists, male feminists, female feminists, French feminists, first-wave, second-wave, third-wave, etc.
  6. I ask for responses and guide the conversation back to the earlier questions that we asked about Americans who possibly disagreed with each other. I remind them that just because you don’t like certain attributes of a sub-group of feminism, that doesn’t mean you have to dislike anyone who is a feminist. “In fact,” I often say, “if you believe that men and women are equal, you are a feminist whether you want to be one or not, just like holding American citizenship makes you an American, even if you don’t care for things that America does. And if you do believe in the equality of men and women but don’t want to call yourself a feminist, why is that? Are you really letting someone you don’t care for–who is probably a caricature of a person and not truly representative of what most feminists look like–tell you what you can or can’t call yourself?”

I am hopeful that this little activity will allow students to, at the very least, interact with feminists without making wild, stupid assumptions about what those feminists believe. Maybe instead of assuming that a feminist is a man-hating bitch, they’ll understand that by self-identifying as a feminist, a person is actually just claiming a very healthy, reasonable belief: that men and women are equal and should be treated so.