Feminism is a lot like a political party. Indeed, feminism is a political ideology. And just as there are “official” party lines for Democrats and Republicans, prominant feminists set certain rules for what feminists are supposed to believe. Of course, I can be a feminist without agreeing with everything leading feminists say, just as I can be a Democrat without believing everything the Democratic party wants me to. There’s wiggle room.
Feminism is seen as a dirty word by some people for the same reason that Republican is seen as a dirty word by others: extremists attempt to hijack the ideology and take it several steps farther than the majority would like.
For example, much has been said about the far right end of the political spectrum and how it hurts the Republican party. This is analogous to how extreme feminists hurt more mainstream feminism by making claims about how women are more moral than men, or how men all think with their penises, or how all men are potential rapists/abusers, etc. The basic tenant of mainstream feminism (“Hey, women have problems we should all be working to solve.”) gets lost in the sea of more outrageous ideas. The media, of course, give much more attention to outrageous, interesting stories than mundane ones such as, “Can’t we all just get along?”
Eventually, since this is the view of feminism most apparant to the majority of the people, the meaning of feminism shifts so that it reflects this view. When someone is asked if they are a feminist, they aren’t always sure if they should consider the classic or the newer meaning of the term.
I can see where this can be tricky; how do you let others know that you strongly support helping women but don’t think men are horrible demons? The best way, I think, is to say just that.
[steps upon soapbox]
On a slightly different note, feminism is not about helping everyone, no matter what some of it’s proponents say. It’s about helping women. That’s why it’s feminism, not humanism. Feminism, on it’s own, is incomplete. I feel strongly that in the recent past, women’s issues have sometimes been given more weight than men’s issues in certain circumstances. I am optimistic that society is becomming more fair-minded in this area.
[/steps down from soapbox]