In her speech of September 20th 2014, Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women and ex-witch Emma Watson spoke about a word: “feminism.” Why has it “become such an uncomfortable one?” Women who identify as feminists are perceived as “too strong, too aggressive, isolating, and anti-men,” she said. “Unattractive, even.” But, said Watson, it doesn’t matter “if you still hate the word,” because “it is not the word that is important. It’s the idea and the ambition behind it.” Everybody was terribly pleased. The episode has sort of faded away in our memories—a year is a long time, these days—but there are some indigestible problems here that I keep thinking about, all these months later.
Can Watson be right? Can a word and its meanings be so easily separated, dusted off, and rearranged? Feminist thinkers (Luce Irigaray in Je, Tu, Nous, let’s say) have of course long engaged with problems of language, analysing the relationship between the words we use and the gender rubrics we live by. But Watson was saying something quite particular and unusual, I think. Is the word truly not important? Which word, anyway—which meaning of which word?
“Feminism” isn’t an ‘originally’ English word (whatever that might mean). Like so many in English, the word is borrowed from the French, féminisme. Feminine has been part of English since the mid fourteenth century, a straightforward adjective ultimately derived from Latin femina, meaning “woman.” I am no expert in nineteenth-century gender, but from my amateur research it seems that the political term feminism entered English in 1895, some years after it had been coined in French by Charles Fourier, in 1837. Fourier worked to advance women’s positions in society, but did not advocate equality. There are some recorded usages of “feminism” in English prior to its political manifestation in the very late Victorian period, but in those cases it just meant the state of being female, often in a medical sense. Indeed, in the Oxford English Dictionary only the third entry matches the meaning of feminism that Watson and the rest of us use: “Advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex; the movement associated with this.”
So, the wobbly range of meaning contained within feminism would appear in some sense support Watson’s case. When the meaning of words change so fast, should we even bother reclaiming them from stigma? Well, yes. Probably? It doesn’t matter if you “hate the word,” Watson says: your hatred cannot touch the meaning hidden behind the word itself. I don’t think this is how meaning works. I don’t think that, even when one is trying to convert people who disagree with you on meaning, you can recruit them to your side by announcing that their disagreement doesn’t count. When someone like Watson uncouples words from political conscience in this way, I think it’s just going to confuse people. It’s like some reverse-engineered anti-stigma semantic operation, designed to burrow into the broader psychological category marked “gender” and rewire its victims.
Watson’s speech as a public act of theorising language that touched in unexpected way upon many academic spheres: women’s history, semantic change, Anglo-French intellectual exchange, the history of speechifying, international relations, and a lot more. I don’t have any conclusions, in particular, I just think it was interesting.