"Euphemism treadmill" is a term coined by psychologist Steven Pinker to describe the life cycle of euphemistic terms designed to replace euphemisms that, in turn, fall into disrepute. For example, the offensive "crippled" was replaced by "handicapped", which then gave way to "disabled", and as that becomes politically incorrect as we speak, "challenged" gains favor. Working behind this phenomenon is the intention of increasingly distancing the names from the condition; a new word resets the meaning, drops its charge and rids itself of preconceived negative associations.
Whether we like it or not, feminism has long been on that same treadmill with the politically correct disability terms, losing favor when it picked up negative connotations if not in reality then at least in the minds and circles of a portion of people. But nothing’s come around to replace that term. Feminism has been propelled without the same historical unity and transparency in mission and has consequently become a threat to its own goals, ripe for attack by those who oppose its goals. If feminism is to succeed, what it needs is a rebranding a la Steven Pinker.
What better than the crystal clear renaming of “feminism” into “gender-equalism”?
This past year, you may have seen Emma Watson’s speech at the United Nations HeForShe campaign. There she extended the feminist olive branch and a formal invitation for men to join the cause, her solution for a uniting movement. While Emma isn’t the final word on feminism, she has been widely heard by men and women alike, and I haven’t seen any women harbor major disagreements with her stance. That is why I allow myself to bring her up with such significance.
With a few words, Emma tried to clarify feminism’s definition as a movement to bring equal rights and opportunities to men and women, but its effect is all but lost if it is still “synonymous with man-hating” to anyone who hasn’t heard her speech. Granted, "gender-equalism" stumbles rather than rolls off the tongue, but it does eliminate men's fears of supporting a cause contrary to their interests. It sets a real foundation for a uniting movement.
Gender-equalism is not an example of “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.
For anyone who has learned the term “feminism” naturally, who has not opened up a dictionary to narrow it down to its exact meaning, feminism can mean any number of things. Because women’s rights are fewer and sparser, feminism may imply a catch-up to men’s rights, a movement to bring women and men equal in socioeconomic and legal standing, which is, in fact, what Emma declares. “Feminine”, feminism’s closest English word, could imply a girls’ club and thus the man-hating Emma sought to correct; it does not trespass the linguistic boundaries of feminism, a view many men my age seem to share. This is a view many guys my age seem to share. Depending on where one has learned the term and come across it later on, feminism can support either definition before a dictionary is ever consulted.
“Gender-equalism”, on the other hand, is self-defining. A man-hater cannot hide behind the label of gender-equality, but because she is supporting a female movement, she may taint the entire movement’s name by calling herself a feminist. When men call themselves gender-equalists, they need not fear they are joining a women’s club because to do so would betray the very definition of the movement. Gender-equality is transparent in meaning; feminism is now foggy at best.
If men are to take a place in the gender equality movement as Emma urges and as women seem to agree on, then let's start using a term that places men alongside that mission, not outside it. Let's use an inclusive term, one that commits men. People are averse to movements which require they sacrifice their own interests; resisting equality, however, is the hallmark of a hater.
Like most things, ideas lose value over time if not maintained. Not to say that the line of reasoning involved is any less correct, but as ideas distance themselves from the zeitgeist and context of their inception, they lose support and thus social value. There’s no doubt Emma Watson moved people with her words. But as soon as she stepped off that podium, her message already started losing momentum. At any rate, HeForShe no longer sends out email blasts with the intensity it did the two months after Emma’s speech. With Emma’s message tucked into some corner of YouTube, all that will be left is a name and its connotations. Two years later, the same man enlightened by Emma Watson’s speech as to the true purpose of feminism, again surrounded and influenced by some possibly unsupportive opinions of male peers, may revert to his view of feminism as man-hating. For now, men may know they are invited to participate, but with only a speech on YouTube to extend it formally, feminism reverts to its old self. Unless the HeForShe campaign wiggles its way into lasting policy, what legacy will it have left?
The game-changer now needs to be more pragmatic, something that treats the underlying causes for incomplete gender participation. It needs to be a renewed mission statement reflected in a name. We cannot convince everyone of the societal value of feminism. The best we can do is to disarm, where we can, the ignorance of those who know no better. To that purpose, "gender-equality" is the message without a messenger.
How much can a word do by itself? Only when paired with a fundamental change in thought can it accomplish much; Orwell taught us that. With an inextricable change in thought, gender-equalism rather than feminism will get the ball rolling. It gets the muscle behind pushing: what was before its impediment can now play a part in the movement’s fighting force.
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Let’s not forget the power behind a single word. Let’s not be feminists. Let’s be gender equalists. If we’re ever to mark a new segment of the gender equality movement, then let’s have a new name to match.
Antoniu Chirnoaga is a Trinity sophomore. His column will run bi-weekly in the fall.