When Time included the word “feminist” in its list of words to ban in 2015 – and then just as quickly issued an apology -- the outcry showed the extent to which feminism is a robust and contested term, a living word whose meaning was debated all year long.
There were women like actress Shailene Woodley and the writers of the "Women Against Feminism" Tumblr blog, who rejected the term, defining it as oppositional to men.
There were women who fought for “second wave” feminist concerns including reproductive rights, equality in the workplace – and on the Internet -- or who struggled against “rape culture.”
"Intersectional" or “third wave” feminists preached that there is no “one” feminism, and that feminism must be open enough to take into account the lived experiences of women of color, queer women and transgender women.
The message of 2014, in short, was: Feminism is dead. Long live feminism. Some touchstones from the year:
A Matter of Definition
The question of what feminism is, and whether one is a feminist, trickled down to celebrities this year, with mixed results.
Placing close to the bottom of a "celebrity feminist of the year" list (if there were such a thing) was "The Fault in Our Stars" actress Shailene Woodley, who was asked by Time if she was a feminist. "I'm not a feminist," she said, "because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.” To which Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams responded: “If you don’t want to identify as a feminist, that’s your business. But is it too much to ask that you understand what a feminist is first?”
One way might be to look it up in the dictionary, which, apparently, a lot of people did in 2014, because "feminism" was a runner-up for Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year.
Woodley’s sentiment echoed the Women Against Feminism Tumblr that popped up in 2014, with photos of women explaining why they're not feminists. “I’m not a feminist because I enjoy being feminine,” writes one anti-feminist. “I don’t need feminism because we live in a society of equal opportunity” writes another.
Men’s Rights Activist opponent David Futrelle created a parody response to Women Against Feminism's often spurious arguments: Confused Cats Against Feminism. He invited readers to post pictures of cats against feminism, to hilarious result. “I don’t need feminism because it’s not food,” reads the message that accompanies one indignant-looking cat. “Is it food? Where’s my food!” Another says, “I don’t need feminism because I have a cool mustache.”
"Harry Potter" actress Emma Watson became a celebrity feminist in 2014. As the United Nations Women's Goodwill Ambassador, Watson urged men around the world to take up the feminist cause: “Gender equality is not only a women’s issue," she said, "it is a human rights issue that requires my participation. I commit to take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls."
But maybe the most talked-about celebrity feminist moment was when Beyoncé performed “Flawless” at the Video Music Awards. She stood in front of a 12-feet high sign reading “FEMINIST,” and in the song, she sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on feminism that went viral. Although she backtracked into describing herself as a less controversial "humanist,” at least one person sees her influence as larger than her contradictory utterances: Kevin Allred, a Rutgers professor who teaches an entire class on Beyoncé titled “Politicizing Beyoncé: Black Feminism, U.S. Politics and Queen Bey” and who argues that her music challenges conventional ideas of gender, race and sexuality.
Winners and Losers
Malala Yousafzai risked her life to challenge gender expectations. The 17-year-old Pakistani girl who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating for the rights of girls and women to be educated in her country, was awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize in October.
"Despite her youth," the Nobel committee wrote, "Malala Yousafzai has already fought for several years for the right of girls to education, and has shown by example that children and young people, too, can contribute to improving their own situations. This she has done under the most dangerous circumstances. Through her heroic struggle she has become a leading spokesperson for girls' rights to education."
In June, meanwhile, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of craft store chain Hobby Lobby, a private company with around 500 stores and 13,000 full-time employees whose owners said they ran their business according to “Christian principles” and therefore did not want to have to pay for employees’ contraception as mandated under the Affordable Care Act. (Penalties would have been stiff for those who didn’t comply.)
The majority Supreme Court ruling argued that corporations owned by religious families do not have to pay for contraception for their female workers. Dissenting Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor strongly disagreed, with Ginsburg telling Katie Couric that the male justices have a "blind spot." “Contraceptive protection is something every woman must have access to, to control her own destiny,” Ginsburg said.
This year also saw the rollback of abortion rights in many states. Along with the Hobby Lobby ruling, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld Texas's HB2 (House Bill 2) law which mandated that Texas abortion clinics make prohibitively expensive upgrades or else be shut down. As a result, the number of abortion clinics serving the 6 million women of reproductive age in Texas dwindled to seven. The Supreme Court put the bill on hold in October, according to the Daily Texan, but the message was clear: abortion rights are vulnerable.
Gamergate exposed how vulnerable women were who ventured into the traditionally male territory of video games. Outraged (largely male) gamers threatened female players with death, rape and "doxxing" (i.e., revealing their personal information like addresses), driving some female gamers from the industry they loved. Game developer Zoe Quinn was the target of a vicious online mob, as was Anita Sarkeesian, a journalist who criticized the game world's anti-woman culture. The male players who harassed female ones got help from industry giants such as Intel, which removed their ads from game journals that were supportive of the female gamers and critical of the misogyny in the game community.
With allegations still surfacing from women accusing Bill Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them, and debate still raging about Rolling Stone’s disputed story of one rape survivor, the larger conversation about “rape culture” moved from women’s studies courses on campuses to op-ed pieces in mainstream papers.
Coined by feminists in the 1970s, the term rape culture generally seeks to describe how male sexual violence is normalized while victims of sexual assault are either ignored, not believed or blamed for their assaults. In Cosby’s case, stories of alleged sexual assaults had been around for decades, but it took comedian Hannibal Buress to make them go viral.
And although journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s faulty reporting in Rolling Stone has called into question key facts about “Jackie’s” alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, it's noteworthy that it took a journalist to seek justice for one survivor at a university where rapists – even those who confess – are not expelled. Earlier in the year, Columbia student Emily Sulkowicz decided to carry around a mattress to draw attention to the rape she says she endured as a sophomore and the way she believes the university mishandled her case.
Feminism has often been accused of being a movement whose leadership and representatives tend to be straight, affluent white women whose experience and advocacy doesn't always take into account the experience of poor women, women of color, queer women or transgender women. This year saw the rise of "intersectional" feminism, the kind that takes those other identities into account.
For example, the Hollaback "catcalling" video, 10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman, went viral, but many viewers noted that although it powerfully demonstrated what walking down the street is like for many women -- filled with harassment, come-ons and abuse -- why were almost all the men in the video either Latino or black? The Toast writer Roxane Gay tweeted, “The racial politics of the video are f----d up. Like, she didn’t walk through any white neighborhoods?”
Much of the discussion of intersectionality took place using the Twitter hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, which was created in 2013 by Mikki Kendall in response to what she told the Hairpin was the result of "looking at a lot of major issues that just go unreported in magazines that were theoretically by women, for women. Somehow the survival, safety and security of women of color (cis and trans), of poor women, of disabled women, of undocumented women, of anyone that wasn’t a white middle class/upper middle class woman felt unimportant relative to creature comforts and makeup choices."
Laverne Cox, the transgender breakout star of "Orange Is the New Black," was a 2014 feminist icon for her expansive ideas about identity. Asked by Time what she wanted people to know about transgender people, Cox responded: "I think what they need to understand is that not everybody who is born feels that their gender identity is in alignment with what they’re assigned at birth, based on their genitalia."
Will 2015 be the year when Time magazine (or somebody else) declares that we're in a post-feminist era? Probably -- but not without a lively argument in return.