Twenty years ago, Amy Richards and I were shopping our proposal for a book about third-wave feminism. We met with all of the big houses, but once we got to each meeting, the main topic became some version of how to surgically remove feminism from the book. “The real issue is work-life balance,” one editor told us, helpfully. “Can you revise?” Other editors had their own pet issues, but most agreed that feminism was not a hot sell.
Nevertheless, we persisted. We were the children of the second wave and, while we shared goals with the feminists who came before us, we had different strategies and certainly a different starting point—points we had yet to see in a book. We were raised with Title IX, legal birth control and abortion, Free to Be... You and Me, and hearing that one of us could be the first female president. Feminism was in the water for us, we argued, and we were tired of being painted as too retrograde, girly, or myopic to advance the movement. The first chapter was called “What Is Feminism?” and in it we attempted to define and demystify the word. Behind the term—we believed—was a revolution: political, social, and economic equality for all people.
That book proposal became Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, edited by Denise Oswald (who “got it,” as we used to say). Released in 2000, Manifesta was a big hit, to the surprise of FSG, our publisher. Young people were hungry for a book that spoke to the feminism they saw in their lives and among their peers.
When we were writing our next book, Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism, there was some concern about using the word feminist in the subtitle: it was perceived as limiting (at best) and definitely alienating. We ultimately went with it—to magnetize our readership, even if it wasn’t a general readership.
But oy, such neurosis about the word! On the book tour, Amy and I heard from pained young people facing resistance from loved ones to their burgeoning feminist identity. Or they felt their mother was a feminist, but she said she hated feminists. Or they were directing The Vagina Monologues but worried that some cherished aspect of their life (Christianity, boyfriends, bikini waxes) undermined their right to call themselves feminists.
We’d sympathize. “Feminism is threatening to some people, because the word is calling for a profound change in how we treat all people,” we might offer. Claim it with pride, we’d counsel, but don’t get too hung up on a single term.
That was back when feminism was the other F word. In 2013, when I took the reins of the Feminist Press, I had a meeting with a prominent local politician to encourage her to support our mission and our books. “Well, the first thing you have to do,” she sniffed, “is change your name.” The word feminist was outdated, excluded men, radiated hostility—you know the rap.
Fast-forward to today. Open up any issue of Publishers Weekly from the past three years and you will be blasted by titles proclaiming the F word. There’s Feminist Fight Club, Bad Feminist, Full Frontal Feminism, The Feminist Porn Book, We Should All Be Feminists, and Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. For kids, there’s Franny’s Father Is a Feminist, Feminist Baby, and The Little Feminist Board Book Set. And these are just the bestsellers.
I credit several things with transforming this term from toxic to magnetic. Let’s start with Beyoncé and that moment during the 2014 Video Music Awards when she stands in front of giant sans serif “FEMINIST” sign, claiming the mantle in front of 12 million viewers. Second, the political atom bomb that was the 2016 presidential election. It was easy to be ambivalent about feminism in the Obama years. Now, there is outrage, activism, and, with that, a need for merchandise—like “The Future Is Female” T-shirts, pussy hats, baby onesies, and, of course, books.
It’s a double-edged sword, this popularity and commercialism. Now that you can shop on Amazon for four million “Feminist AF” T-shirts to wear to your next rally, the punch of that word is blunted. Still, though the actual societal changes have yet to occur, and we’re still waiting on that female president, I have to admit it’s cool that today’s students aren’t tying themselves into knots to avoid the term. And that goes double for today’s editors and publishers.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the author of Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, Abortion & Life and the publisher of Dottir Press.