Feminism: The Word of the Year

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The Women's March on Washington D.C. in January 2017 led to in increase in searches for the word feminism on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary website. The site recently announced that feminism is its word of 2017.

The Women’s March on Washington in January 2017 caused an increase in online searches for the word feminism on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary website. The site recently announced that feminism is 2017’s Word of the Year.

Syzygy? Dotard? Recuse?

Do you know what these words mean? If not, you are not alone. These are three of the top ten words people looked up on Merriam-Webster Dictionary website in 2017. The most searched for word on Merriam-Webster’s site for 2017 is feminism. It made it to the top of the list after it was looked-up 70 percent more often than it was in 2016. Feminism, like the other words on the list, got a boost from current events.

For example, another popular word search in 2017 is hurricane. Since several of these deadly storms caused damage in the Caribbean and the southeastern U.S. this year, many people searched Merriam-Webster’s site for a definition. Another 2017 word is gaffe. A gaffe is a very noticeable mistake. In the Academy Awards ceremony last February, the movie La La Land was named the year’s best movie. However, Academy officials quickly discovered that the presenters had been given the wrong results. As the stars of La La Land celebrated onstage, the real winner, Moonlight, was announced. With millions of viewers, the Academy’s gaffe was very noticeable!

Feminism in the News

Searches for the word feminism were also linked to events in 2017. Look-ups for it first increased in January, after one-half million people participated in the Women’s March on Washington. The march, which was intended to raise awareness of issues affecting women, has been called the largest day of protest in U.S. history.

Searches for feminism increased again in February. At that time, Kellyanne Conway, who serves as Counselor to President Donald Trump, said that even though she is a woman in an important position, she does not consider herself a feminist. Searches spiked again in late May when the Wonder Woman movie opened in theaters.

Many of the people who searched for feminism already had an idea of what that word means. It isn’t a new word. Feminism was first included in an English-language dictionary in 1841. Back then, feminism meant “the qualities of females.” However, many people may consult a dictionary to see if the meaning of a word has changed. The current definition seems to have little in common with the old one. If you look up feminism on Merriam-Webster’s site, the word is defined as follows:

  • The theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.
  • Organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.
Defined, but Is It Understood?

Many people consult a dictionary to find a word’s meaning. However, a dictionary provides more information about a word than just a definition. A dictionary shows how a word is spelled and whether it is capitalized. It describes how a word is pronounced, and it can give examples of the word being used correctly in a sentence. Despite this information, you still may not understand the definition. One reason for this may be that the definition includes unfamiliar words.

Merriam-Webster’s definition of feminism uses words such as theory, political, economic, social, equality, rights, and interests. If you do not also know the meanings of these words and how they relate to feminism, you will not be able to understand what feminism means.

Understanding the First Meaning

According to Merriam-Webster, feminism can mean two things. In the first sense, feminism is a theory. A theory includes ideas that people have about something. Feminist theory is focused on the equality of men and women. However, equality of the sexes does not insist that women and men are biologically the same. Instead, feminists say that these physical differences should not affect or determine the roles men and women play in government, in the workplace, or in society.

The goals of feminist theory can change over time. For example, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, feminists were primarily focused on the idea of womans suffrage, or the right for women to vote. However, once that right was earned, feminists focused on new concerns. In the major wave of feminism that occurred in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, feminism was especially interested in women’s role in the workplace and within the family.

When something is political, it has to do with government. Feminism includes political beliefs about women’s role in society. A feminist might argue that men and women can play equal roles in government. For example, the first feminists said that women should have the same voting rights as men. Later feminists insisted that both women and men should be allowed to run for political office.

The word economic relates to the production, buying, and selling of goods or services. Economics relates to feminism in that many feminists think that certain jobs should not be limited to only men or only women. Other feminists might argue that when a man and a woman have the same skills and perform the same job, each should receive the same salary. Men and women should both be able to own property and businesses.

Things that are social relate to how people interact with one another. When men and women interact with one another in society, a feminist might say, they should not be treated differently because their bodies are physically different. In short, feminism holds that even though men and women are biologically different, in government, business, or society, they should be treated the same.

As defined by Merriam-Webster, one of meanings of feminism is "organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests." The first wave of American feminists fought for the right for women to vote. In this 1913 photo, a women's rights advocate makes speaks on the street about women's suffrage.

As defined by Merriam-Webster, one of the meanings of feminism is “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” The first wave of American feminists fought for the right for women to vote. In this 1913 photo, a women’s rights advocate speaks on the street about women’s suffrage.

The Second Definition

Merriam-Webster’s second definition says that feminism is an “organized activity.” In other words, feminism refers to more than just ideas about women. It also includes actions someone can take to support these ideas. Feminism is an activity done in an organized way.

For example, organizing the Women’s March on Washington required a lot of planning. Many different people working in different roles needed to cooperate with one another. Some activists organized groups of people to travel to Washington, D.C. Others helped by drawing attention to the march in blogs or on social media sites. Those with artistic skills helped by creating signs and banners for protesters to carry.

According to the second definition of feminism, people are organized to support both women’s rights and women’s interests.

A right is a power or privilege to which a person is entitled. Until the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1920, U.S. women did not have the right to vote. The right was granted only after many years of effort. Supporters of women’s right to vote sometimes met harsh opposition. Even though the amendment was first introduced to Congress in 1878, it took more than 40 years before the right to vote was granted to women.

An interest is something that benefits a particular person or group. According to feminism’s definition, feminism is concerned specifically with the interests of women, not men. However, many believe it would be beneficial for all of society, including men, if both sexes were treated equally.

Of course, as feminists accomplish their goals, women’s interests may change. Today, many feminists focus on the safety of women in the workplace and schools, as well as online on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. As new rights are granted to women, new interests may arise. We should expect the definition of feminism to continue to change. With new issues affecting women in the world being exposed, such as #MeToo, expect more people to look up—and to try to understand—what feminism means.

Additional Resources

Read more about how feminism and other words became Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Year at Merriam-Webster and the BBC.

Find images and documents related to women’s suffrage at the National Women’s History Museum.

Learn tips for using a dictionary at the Frankfort International School and the University of Alabama.

Images and Sources

Women’s March on Washington photo: MB298
Women’s March on Washington photo license: Creative Commons 2.0 

Women’s suffrage photo: Library of Congress
Women’s suffrage photo license: public domain.