09/02/2013 03:27 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2013

Giving Feminism Meaning

Progress in gender equality is constipated by our inability to define what we are arguing about. Is feminism only for white women? Does the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen create a voice for women of color? Does Miley Cyrus's performance at the VMAs advance or delay the women's movement, or was it a step forward for white women at the cost of black women's empowerment?

Answers to questions like these depend on what we mean when we say "feminism" and "woman." That is, in order to answer them, we need to understand to what our categories refer and whether those categories suffice to convey what we intend. Present arguments that purport to make claims about "feminism" lack substance when they fail to define this term. Instead, they assume the reader knows what it means. But, because such a diversity of definitions and connotations for the word exists, it behooves those making claims about feminism to define the terms they use. At the point in which we realize that feminism has no inherent meaning, it becomes up to us to define it.

What is "feminism"?

Most articles using the word "feminism" assume its referent to be universally understood. However, feminism -- its goals, its methods, and its proponents -- changes meaning depending on which time period you ask about: the first wave feminism of the 1920s lacks the racial inclusivity of the second wave of the '60s, and both precedents fell short of accounting for the international scope of women's voices. In effect, the word is devoid of any static definition.

To ask "What is feminism?" is not to ask a metaphysical question about what the word feminism inherently denotes. Rather, that there exists such a term and concept "feminism" -- and why this question is important at all -- is only possible given women's history. Our shared history of women's oppression and gender discrimination gives rise to feminism and this apparatus of debate today. Thus, its definition is historically contingent. To understand its meaning is to understand the history of the women's movement and the political and temporal contexts in which it has been used. Further, to say that the meaning of feminism is a genealogical one is to render its definition malleable. What feminism means just is what has happened and what happens under its name. As a result, how we use the word feminism becomes how the word is defined.

What are we doing wrong?

That the definition of feminism escapes any single, complete definition makes it a hard word to use, let alone use correctly. Articles that purport to be on "the subject of feminism" often use the word and characterize what it does (e.g. that it ignores women of color) without providing for it a definition. What is Yahoo! CEO Marisa Mayer denying when she claims she doesn't consider herself a feminist? If no positive definition is provided, than no rejection of the term is possible. For this reason, it is ineffective to use feminism without also stating what it denotes.

Recently, critics of "mainstream feminism" have called it out on its elitism, framing it as a luxury for white women on the basis that white women in the Western world have it better than women of color in both the first and third world. This argument suggests that race plays a greater part than gender in shaping privileges. Advocates of intersectionality -- the view that one's race, gender, and class concurrently shape how an individual experiences privilege or oppression -- find fault with this view on the basis that they deny any hierarchy of oppression.

If we were to concede the claims that these articles make about feminism, then a feminist is someone who cannot be ambitious at the same time that she must be and all the while as she alienates women of color and women in low-income brackets. There is no convergence over whether feminism is in itself is ostracizing precisely because nobody knows what the word means. An argument that is supposed to be about the content of gender equality becomes about a term's definition.

The bottom line is this: Given that there is no salient definition of the word, what we do in the name of feminism now matters to what the future of women's experiences will be.

What should we do?

There is a distinction between what one does and what one calls oneself. Being proud of your pubic hair and going Dutch on a date do not automatically make you a feminist. Identifying as a feminist need not bind you to these qualities either. All this is not to argue that we should do away with the term feminism in our arguments for gender equality and, with the interconnectedness of social justice issues, social equality in general. Categories are important for individuals seeking self-actualization and for uniting people under a shared identity; the fact that something has value because we have given it value doesn't make it fundamentally valueless.

Instead, in order to further the conversation on women's empowerment, we need to be cognizant of debating the word "feminism" and the content of social justice. For example, we need to say what feminism means before we say if its only for white women. We must actively redefine the term by being intentional about what we do under its name. We must remind ourselves that feminism, while it is in part theory and ideas, also deals most fundamentally with the everyday lived experiences of individuals. Whether or not you call yourself a feminist will matter less than what you do about social injustices and how you treat those with whom you interact.