The War on Words: What Feminism Means to Different Women

Say the word “feminism,” and you’re bound to produce a strong response in whomever is listening. To some, feminism’s gendered root betrays its humanistic meaning. To others, it’s about the power inherent in womanhood, a power some who prefer “traditional” gender roles might label as overbearing, used to alienate or emasculate men. Plenty of women, especially young ones, feel that the whole notion of feminism is played out, that it’s a leftover from a bygone era. Friends of mine who considered themselves feminists a decade ago have developed second thoughts about the feminist aim of “having it all” since becoming mothers.

Even if you’re proud to call yourself a feminist, feminism likely means something different to you than it does to the feminist next to you. To me, feminism is about equality. I think feminism is about dismantling patriarchy, which is the notion that men should have (and still do have) control of society. Feminism, as I cherish it, is about providing the opportunity for men and women alike to be more fully human, each sex embracing the positive attributes of masculinity and femininity. (Though I believe in LGBTQ rights as well, I don’t consider those feminist causes, though some people do.) Unlike the critics who say feminist values are tearing families apart, I believe the movement is about helping families stay together, because the goal of feminism is that every member of the family feel loved, fulfilled, needed and respected.

In honor of Women’s Equality Day (which commemorates the day women were granted the right to vote), and in an effort to grasp the vastness of feminism’s definition and implications, I asked friends and associates what feminism means to them. Here’s what they told me:

  • The War on Words: What Feminism Means to Different Women 1 of 17
    what feminism means
  • Desiree Burch 2 of 17
    what feminism means

    "Feminism is about work. It's about the right to work. It's about the right to work it. It's about the right to twerk it. It's about the right to be recognized and compensated for all that we do in this world. It's about the right to do nothing but be, and still be valued — not because of the babies we can pump out, or sacrifices we can make for the advancement of everyone else (although those things do reveal our strength). It's about the work we still have to do in the movement that dare not speak its name (for fear of being deemed unattractive or unlovable) to be in full possession of ourselves, and not define ourselves on the terms of money or man." 


    Desiree Burch is an actor, writer, comedian, solo performer and public speaker. Watch her TEDx talk.

    Photo credit: Jason Russo

  • Mandy Stadtmiller 3 of 17
    what feminism means

    "To me, feminism is about equal rights for all women. Feminism means listening to other women when they tell you if you have let them down. Feminism means working to hold myself more accountable as a woman fighting for equal rights for all."


    Mandy Stadtmiller is the Deputy Editor of xoJane and the host of the top-rated free comedy podcast "News Wh*re," which you can subscribe to free.

  • Carole Montgomery 4 of 17
    what feminism means

    "Feminism to me means that I have the ability to speak my mind without waiting for permission to do so. It means being a human being and not just a gender."


    Carole Montgomery is a writer/director who blogs for Huff/Post 50.

  • Miranda Norris 5 of 17
    what feminism means

    "I couldn't be a feminist and a housewife without a man supporting that notion. This man's paying my bills while I'm having his babies! It's a hell of an investment in feminism for both of us. It requires an extreme level of sophistication to allow for feminism, and when a society develops to a point that allows for feminism, and women are in charge of their reproductive freedom, most women choose to have fewer babies so they can do feminist things like seek advanced education and have a career. Reproductive freedom means having 0-5 kids instead of 5-10 kids. Having grown up in a feminist household where I was told I could do anything, the irony of having stayed home to have children is not lost on me, but feminism allows for that."


    Miranda Norris is a certified health coach. Her website is

  • Catie Lazarus 6 of 17
    what feminism means

    "Feminism is Pro-Women. Pro-Men. Pro-Humanity."


    Catie Lazarus hosts the Employee of the Month Show.

  • Jacquetta Szathmari 7 of 17
    what feminism means

    "I considered myself a feminist until I attended a fancy women's college in the '90s. I didn't read the required texts, attend the meetings, or wear the ethically produced organic cotton t-shirt of victimhood. Previously I had thought that all I had to do to be a feminist was be female, believe in myself, and get the job done with no excuses. Plus I am black so I already had that going on."


    Jacquetta Szathmari is a comedian and the host of the podcast Hey You Know It.

  • Selena Coppock 8 of 17
    what feminism means

    "Feminism means never having to say you're sorry (to someone who bumped into YOU on the subway or in line at the supermarket). I'm proud to call myself a feminist. It's a strong sisterhood that reminds me that I'm smart, capable, and kickass."


    Selena Coppock just published her first book, The New Rules for Blondes, with It Books/HarperCollins.

  • Lizz Winstead 9 of 17
    what feminism means

    "Feminism is a dedication to fighting for, defending and honoring the struggles for equality of all women and transgendered people. It also means understanding that we all come from different experiences so listening, learning and equally valuing the differences in the feminist experience as it pertains to WOC and trans women so we can be a united front seeking justice for all."


    Lizz Winstead is the subject of a documentary short called, "Smear Campaign" which follows her continuing comedy tour benefitting Planned Parenthood. It premieres August 22nd, available for download at the Reproductive Justice website,

  • Alice Clancy 10 of 17
    what feminism means

    "I want to stay home and like to stay home. I don't like the pressure from society to put my kids in daycare and get back to work. A lot of women are SHOCKED when they hear I stay home. "I couldn't do it. I would go crazy." You know what? I DO go crazy. On a daily basis. So they could totally do it. Like anything else it takes some getting used to. Feminism has allowed women to have children then go back to work. I'm sure the women who go back to work like feminism. Me? I think we should raise our kids."


    Alice Clancy lives in Long Island and is a mother of three boys.

  • Becca Blackwell 11 of 17
    what feminism means

    "The word feminism means a reaction to patriarchy. It wouldn't be necessary if being a woman or being feminine/female were not seen as "less than." I still struggle with my own misogyny, that I feel being a man or seen as a man is more powerful than as a woman. A masculine person with a vagina is terrifying to some. Because what's the value of a man if anyone can be one? It's a complicated issue because to truly see change we must break down all the walls. Are we ready for that? It will be a great change. One I believe for the good but it's a big cut that has attached itself to the band aid and it's gonna hurt like hell to rip off. But it has to be done in order to heal."


    Becca Blackwell is a muse and performer in New York City who recently appeared in Young Jean Lee's "Untitled Feminist Show."

  • Magda Pecsenye 12 of 17
    what feminism means

    "Feminism, to me, is fighting for myself and for all women, to be who we are, speak our truths, and live our best lives. Sometimes that means fighting for access for myself or others, sometimes that means holding boundaries, and sometimes that means being quiet and taking up less space so others can talk. But it always means sticking together, even when we don't have the same perspectives or endgames. Women are worth it."


    Magda Pecsenye writes the blog AskMoxie.

  • Susan Evans 13 of 17
    what feminism means

    "I am pissed off at the women who decided we could do it all, they obviously weren't all mothers. I still consider myself a feminist, but I would be really happy to stay home with my baby and volunteer or work part time doing what I really love to do, not just something that pays the bills. I can't be a good mother, wife, and employee all at the same time while staying sane. I also don't want to hand over my child to be raised by someone else. Even if I could afford full time daycare I wouldn't do it, I want to raise my baby. I don't see my belief that women are as capable as men being mutually exclusive of my belief that it is impossible to do both well."


    Susan Evans is a wife and mother living near Binghamton, NY.

  • Adrienne Truscott 14 of 17
    what feminism means

    "Feminism means that I go about my day, working, making art, socializing, exercising, shopping, eating, having sex, meeting people, sleeping etc. doing, saying and thinking what I need or want to do, without regard for how it is perceived by a male-dominated world - but knowing that every experience I have is in some way infused with my experience as a woman in this world. I am made aware most days, sometimes subtly and sometimes violently, that said world is fraught with inequality of gender and sex, and that that inequality is further influenced by issues of race and class."


    Adrienne Truscott is one half of the Wau Wau Sisters. She's finishing a run of her critically-acclaimed show "Asking for It" at the Edinburgh Fringe this month.

  • Carrie Heaphy 15 of 17
    what feminism means

    "I struggle with the sense that if you can't juggle working full time, being a good wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend ... you are a failure in the eyes of feminism. And we often judge and feel judged. However I do want to be able to handle all of it, the sacrifices just seem too great sometimes."


    Carrie Heaphy is a Registered Nurse, mother and wife from Central New York.

  • Twanna A. Hines 16 of 17
    what feminism means

    "Being a feminist means I don't just say I believe in equality, I act like it. I'm quite comfortable with my beliefs. So much so that my actions, not anyone's pre-packed titles, speak for themselves."


    Twanna A. Hines is an award-winning educator, sex columnist, and TV and radio commentator who has appeared on CNN, NPR, Sirius, and Paris Première. Visit her website, Funky Brown Chick.

    Photo credit: Bill Wadman

  • Biz Ellis 17 of 17
    what feminism means

    "To me, feminism has always been about having the right to make the decisions I want to make with confidence and to support other women to do the same. You want to run a company? Go you! You want to rock staying at home to take care of the house and the kids? High fives! You want to do both? I got your back! The moment we start deeming each other as "less than" for the choices we make, the quicker we become the people who have been trying to take control from women since the the start."


    Biz Ellis co-hosts the comedy podcast One Bad Mother.


Follow Carolyn Castiglia on TwitterFacebook and Pinterest.

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