Is ‘Feminist’ synonymous with ‘Person who believes that women and men have equal rights’?

Ansari quote

This is a joke. And a clever and telling one at that. Still, is it really true that the word ‘feminist’ has its meaning exhausted by person who believes that men and women have equal rights?  The term certainly has connotations, both positive and negative, that extend beyond that. So, if connotations are part of “meaning”, then ‘feminist’ means more than this. The words aren’t synonymous in that very strong sense. But do ‘feminist’ and ‘person who believes that men and women have equal rights’ even have the same extension — i.e., are they true of all and only the same people? Some questions to ponder when making up your mind. Could someone believe that women and men have equal rights but hold that MAN and WOMAN are essentially and genetically different kinds, rather than mere social constructs? Would such a person be a feminist? Could someone believe that women and men have equal rights but insist that this doesn’t entail equality of outcome, only equality of opportunity — so that, say, affirmative action policies are impermissible? Again, if so, would that person be a feminist? Does being a feminist entail political activism? Does believing that women and men have equal rights do so to the same degree? More radically, is it logically consistent to say “I believe that men and women have equal rights, but I think abortion should be illegal” in the way it seems an oxymoron to be a “pro-life feminist”?

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3 responses

  1. I thought of a degenerate case of someone who “believes that women and men have equal rights”: someone who thinks this because they don’t believe either has any rights! This might be someone who believes in rights, but not for individuals. An extreme totalitarian, say. Or it might be someone who is just a skeptic about rights generally: they are “nonsense on stilts”.

  2. Feminism is heterogenous indeed, and there should not be anything surprising about it. However, I do not think being a feminist is just being someone who believes that women and men have equal rights. I think that what makes someone a feminist is not a belief or set of beliefs, but a set of values. Thus, I think “feminist” is a dual-character concept, as defined by J. Knobe et. al. .

    • I think that’s right. ‘Feminist’, it seems to me, brings with it (not just the connotation but) the condition of activism — of not just embracing certain value-laden beliefs, but of changing the world in light of them.

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