Kiyomi Appleton Gaines
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SHRM-CP, Nonprofit Culture, Writer, Storyteller

The question of definitions is one that often comes up around the word “feminist,” with many women still shying away from it. Though it's been said that everyone has their own understanding and personal definition of what feminism means, and certainly there's room for nuance, the dictionary says this: "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes."

Sounds like a perspective we should all be on board with, right? Different forms of feminisms highlight or focus on working to change or challenge different gendered struggles, some specific and some overlapping, and the differences in the generational waves of feminism have each drawn their own supporters and critics. Feminist philosophers coalesce around a central concern with gender, and justice for women, which may take on different forms depending on the specific form of feminism.

For example, “womanism,” coined by Angela Davis, seeks to bring more attention to the specific experiences of black women, and women of color, in feminism; liberal feminists emphasize a woman's freedom of choice in her actions as key, and radical feminists focus more on dismantling patriarchal systems. You can read more about A Brief History of Feminist Theory and Practice in the United States here. Still despite the differences, and even strengthened by intersectional perspectives, all feminism works to bring about greater equality, and change the old patriarchal forms of oppression.

Many point to the first Women's Rights Convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York as the birth of American feminism, and the beginning of first wave feminism. The goal of the convention, following the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840, was to argue for women's equality to men, and there was some debate whether or not to even include suffrage in their Declaration of Sentiments. Yet, alternative “definitions” of feminism, shaped by long history and storied politics, as man-hating, or female chauvinism still carry weight even in 2018. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel, arguably the world's most powerful woman, has still declined to call herself a feminist. Even so, last spring she did agree with Queen Maxima of the Netherland's definition: '...that all women have freedom of choice and opportunities that they can grab and be happy and proud of themselves. 

Merkel agreed: 'If that is a feminist, I am a feminist.'

While the beliefs, experiences, and unique perspectives that shape our feminism may be very personal, equality is always at its heart. The history of feminism and feminist theology is storied. In the earliest days in the 1840s, feminism was closely tied with the abolitionist movement, and the legal protection of the fundamental equality of all people. Feminist women and men both want to see a world built on greater equity, including equal access to resources like education, health care, and jobs, fair pay, and the individual freedom to make decisions for oneself, for everyone. Here's how ten of the world's most powerful female leaders, feminist theorists and influencers have talked about feminism, equality for women, intersectional feminism, women's leadership, feminist politics, feminist theology and gender equality.

1. Michelle Obama, former First Lady of the U.S.: A 2017 poll by PerryUndem, a nonpartisan research organization, identified the former First Lady as the Face of Feminism! She stated at the State Department Women of Courage Awards in 2009: “The women we honor today teach us three very important lessons. One, that as women, we must stand up for ourselves. The second, as women, we must stand up for each other. And finally, as women, we must stand up for justice for all.” And, “No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens,” at the Summit of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders in 2014.

2. Beyonce Knowles-Carter, singer-songwriter: In her memorable essay for the 2014 Shriver Report, Gender Equality is a Myth!, the Millennial feminist icon wrote,Humanity requires both men and women, and we are equally important and need one another...We have to teach our boys the rules of equality and respect, so that as they grow up, gender equality becomes a natural way of life. And we have to teach our girls that they can reach as high as humanly possible.”

3. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice: The Notorious RBG has always been vocal about the essential and obvious importance of women's equality to men, but sums it up in this quote: "I think the simplest explanation, and one that captures the idea, is a song that Marlo Thomas sang, 'Free to be You and Me.' Free to be, if you were a girl—doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Anything you want to be. And if you’re a boy, and you like teaching, you like nursing, you would like to have a doll, that’s okay too. That notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers." — from USA Today

4. Melinda Gates, philanthropist and co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – published a piece in Time Magazine sharing that among her proudest accomplishments is raising a feminist son; she's also been a longtime advocate for gender equality, women's access to birth control, and work supporting women in Malawi. In an interview published on Huffington Post with journalist Marianne Schnall she said, “I think people need to remember that empowering women to determine their future should not be controversial, no matter where you are.”

5. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook: “I embrace the word ‘feminism.’ I didn’t do it earlier in my career and I talk about why in the book [Lean In], but I embrace it now because what feminism is, is a belief that the world should be equal, that men and women should have equal opportunity,” Sandberg said, “If you understand that definition, it’s incumbent upon all of us to be feminists — men and women.”

6. Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Laureate and activist: “I just looked more into it and I realized that feminism is just another word for equality — it means equality and no one would object equality, no one should object equality and it just means that women should have equal rights as men," she said at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “If you speak about women's rights, you become feminist, even if you embrace it or not.”

7. Christine Legarde, Managing Director, International Monetary Fund, doesn't let anyone off the hook! In her marvelous keynote speech, The Economic Power of Women’s Empowerment, delivered in Japan, she said, “The lesson is clear: if we want a strong and bright economic future, then we need strong and bright women to help drive it. That means all strands of society need to embrace inclusion,” and concluded, “To sum it up: we know what it takes to reach a more gender-inclusive global economy. We know the benefit it yields. So let’s do it. In an interview with CNNMoney Lagarde said, "I've heard so many leaders say, 'Oh, I'm a feminist'...To all those who have declared themselves feminists - and I applaud them and I continue to applaud them - let's make sure that we hold them to account and that they actually demonstrate what they preach."

8. Susan Wojcicki, CEO, YouTube, says simply, “Hire more women.Wojcicki makes the case for breaking up boys' clubs: “There is a solution that has been proved to address gender discrimination in all its forms, both implicit and explicit: hiring more women. Employing more women at all levels of a company, from new hires to senior leaders, creates a virtuous cycle. Companies become more attuned to the needs of their female employees, improving workplace culture while lowering attrition. They escape a cycle of men mostly hiring men. And study after study has shown that greater diversity leads to better outcomes, more innovative solutions, less groupthink, better stock performance and G.D.P. growth.”

9. Michelle Bachelet, former President, Chile: The first woman president of Chile said, “Equality helps to improve the lives of the entire family....We all know that it’s extremely hard when [as a woman] you have to make sacrifices, when we are exposed to violence, and we know all too well that it’s one thing to talk about freedom and equality and another thing to propose initiatives,” Bachelet said.” In 2015 Bachelet’s New Majority governing coalition moved to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape, non-viability of the fetus, and risks to the mother’s health. Chile’s electoral law also now requires parties to present candidate lists that are at least 40 percent women.

10. Tarana Burke, Senior Director of Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity, and creator of #MeToo: “If we are not representing marginalised voices then it's all for nothing,” she said inn Elle, talking about #MeToo. “You have to keep examining and disrupting the power dynamics.”

A bonus powerful, philosophical leader, and champion for feminist women:

11. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Senator: The tireless advocate for women's rights, and the woman who gave us #ShePersisted, has said, “If you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu,” adding, “Nobody's just going to say 'women have arrived and let's just move over.' We have a chance but we have to fight for it."

The history of feminism dates back wave after wave, as women and society have been pushing for women's empowerment through forms of feminisms for centuries. Every woman has a different perspective of the feminist definition and different forms of feminism affect us all differently. That's because feminist politics, forms of oppression and gendered politics affect us all uniquely, too. There are many philosophers and feminist theorists pushing for the same goals, however: intersectional feminism, women's empowerment, women's leadership and equality for women.