Every semester I tell my history students the same bad joke: fundamentalism and feminism are actually a lot alike—they are both f-words that we hurl at our political enemies depending on which side of the spectrum we’re on. Which is to say that for the average American these words function not according to some dictionary definition but rather as a catch-all insult for someone too far to the right or the left, respectively.
In fact, my informal polls of students, friends, and random people who will answer my questions indicate that there is no widely agreed upon definition of either word in common parlance. I am one of those relatively rare Americans who runs in both blue and red circles, so while my polls aren’t scientific, they do actually capture a bit of the breadth of perspectives on these concepts. So I’ve learned that when teaching my feminist-leaning students about fundamentalism or my fundamentalist-leaning students about feminism, I first have to cut through a great deal of highly charged emotion. A few different approaches have proved fruitful.
First is simply helping students become aware of the functional definitions of these words that they are carrying around in their heads. For example, I will ask my classes for their associations with the word “feminism.” I get a lot of answers similar to the ones Kristin Kobes Du Mez enumerated in a recent blog post on common misconceptions about feminism. Most associations are negative, with “man-hating” leading the pack.
I then share with students some of the reforms that have been advocated by women and men who have identified as feminists and that I suspect students would all support—things like women’s suffrage and equal pay for equal work. (Most are shocked to learn that employers have only been required to pay men and women the same for the same work since 1963!) We talk about the fact that feminism itself is a wide spectrum encompassing many different viewpoints and attitudes. As Du Mez points out, there is as much variation among those who own the word “feminist” as among those who own the word “Christian.”