The Roots Of The Word 'Feminism'

Mar 24, 2015

Feminist suffrage parade in New York City, 1912.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

By the end of the 20th century, the word "feminism" had acquired a definition and divisive reputation that, while historically inaccurate, spoke to the backlash against its simple, yet radical concept.

At its core, "feminism" means the advocacy and belief in women’s equality to men, including their ability to possess individual rights. While its origins are attributed to the French philosopher, Charles Fourier in 1832, it is a word and concept that is rooted in 18th-Century philosophical writings on women’s rights, and it grew synonymous with women’s public actions to acquire individual liberties in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

In the British colonies and, later, in the United States, the rise of an individual female identity was remarkably radical because it challenged the social belief that women were natural dependents of men, whose primary functions were as daughter, wife and mother. These socially proscribed roles were legally codified through coverture laws that protected women by declaring them as a permanent, dependent class of citizens. Without rights to own their own wages or property, to sign or negotiate contracts, or even to hold custodial rights to their own children—let alone to vote—the laws left women without a legally recognized individual identity, and wholly disconnected from society.

Dismantling the legal, political, economic, social and cultural infrastructures of coverture requires not only recognition of women’s equality to men, but also acknowledgement of women’s individual identities in all matters of life. So, as the laws in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries attempt to rectify gender inequity and to undo the legacy of coverture in American life, "feminism" really is the most appropriate word to define the process.