Feminism 101: Feminist Terms and Definitions

Hey friends. Welcome back to Feminism 101! Last week we talked about what feminism really means–the bare bones. Today we’re going to talk about many of the phrases and terms associated with feminism that people in the movement use frequently. Understanding these feminist terms and definitions is an important aspect of becoming part of the conversation.

feminist terms

However, I know there are quite a few terms and their meanings can get muddled. Today I’m going to talk about the ones that get thrown around in many feminist conversations I’ve been a part of. There are a lot of them so I hope I don’t lose you! But they all revolve around issues that are very important to understand and central to feminist discourse. Here are a bunch of feminist terms and their definitions. Enjoy!

(Some) Feminist Terms and Definitions:

Affirmative Consent

In response to “no means no,” affirmative consent is consent on a “yes means yes” basis. Both partners should consent enthusiastically to any sexual activity. A lack of a “no” is not sufficient.


Acronym meaning “Assigned Male At Birth.” This term is usually used when an individual’s gender identity does not coincide with the male sex.


Acronym meaning “Assigned Female At Birth.” This term is usually used when an individual’s gender identity does not coincide with the female sex.

Bodily Autonomy

The belief that people should have control over what happens to their own body.

Cisgender or Cis

This term relates to those whose gender identity and sex assigned at birth match. So, someone who is assigned female at birth and identifies as female is cisgender or cis.


To give permission. In a feminist context, this term is usually used to refer to consent for sexual activity/contact.

Date Rape

A type of acquaintance rape. Date rape is when someone is sexually assaulted and the perpetrator is someone with whom they’ve gone on a date or someone with whom they have a sexual/romantic history. Just because someone agrees to go on a date does not mean they are consenting to sex. You cannot consent now for sexual activity in the future. That is not consent. One must also consent at the time of sexual contact. This type of rape is common on university campuses.


Treating someone unfairly based on something like their sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, creed, race, age, etc.

Equal Representation

The idea that all people should be represented fairly, esp. in politics and entertainment. This term is often used in relation to governing bodies, but in feminist conversations this idea has extended to all areas. For example, in film today, POC, women, LGBTQ+ individuals are not represented equally. Straight cis white men are represented significantly more–disproportionately so. When groups are not represented equally, their experiences and needs are not given equal weight or light.

Gender Binary

The idea that there are two genders that have set characteristics. The gender binary assumes that your gender identity, sexuality, and feminine or masculine characteristics correlate with your genitals. So, if you are assigned female at birth, the gender binary assumes that you will appear and act feminine and be attracted to men.

Gender Roles

The roles society assigns to men and women based on the gender binary. These are roles and behaviors that are deemed acceptable based on your gender. For example, the idea that all women should be mothers and caregivers that stay in the home.

Glass Ceiling

The invisible barrier that keeps women and minorities from advancing. The Glass Ceiling is expressed in informal obstacles that keep women and minorities from climbing the ranks, getting promotions, pay raises, etc. Some people may not even be aware of this barrier until they hit it.

Internalized Sexism

Sexism that occurs on the individual level even when an oppressor is not present. This is sexist attitudes that people hold internally and exert against themselves and other people of their own gender. For example, a woman who does not believe another woman about rape because the man involved is more “trustworthy.”


A term coined by Kimberly Crenshaw that has changed/expanded in definition. Generally speaking, it is the idea that there are different power systems that impact marginalized groups. Some people are impacted by multiple power systems at the same time (ex. class, race, age, gender, disability, sexuality). These elements intersect to cause different layers of discrimination and oppression. These elements do not exist on their own and cannot be separated from one another. For example, a black woman experiences both racism and sexism. Both of those elements are related in a complex way and cannot be fully understood independently from one another. In fact, it has it’s own term: misogynoir. This term has become controversial in Black Feminism as it has been appropriated and moved away from its original meaning which was specific to Black people.

Male Chauvinism

The belief that men are superior to women and feminine-presenting people. Those who hold this belief may be referred to as male chauvinist pigs.

Male Gaze

When women and feminine-presenting people are depicted through a masculine and heterosexual perspective, generally in art, literature, and film. Through this perspective, women are seen as passive objects that exist for male enjoyment and pleasure.


When a cisgender man assumes he knows more about a subject than a woman or feminine-presenting person and then explains it to them in a condescending manner without being asked.


When a man (often white and cis) unnecessarily interrupts and talks over a woman feminine-presenting person, especially in the workplace. They are significantly more likely to be interrupted than cisgender men.


A movement to end sexual harassment and assault by making the magnitude of the problem visible and inescapable online. The term was first used in 2006 by activist Tanara Burke. The term went viral in the fall of 2017 after the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandal broke. The hashtag is used on social media, generally by women, to share stories and experiences of sexual harassment and assault.


A smaller group of people, esp. those who are often discriminated against. For example, racial or ethnic minority groups or religious minority groups.


The hatred, dislike, and mistrust of women. This is often an ingrained prejudice against women and can come from both men and women.

Non binary

A gender identity. A person who is non binary does not fit within the gender binary. Gender is a spectrum and is not prescriptive. Those who are non binary often have they/them pronouns.


The state of being treated unfairly, unjustly, and with prejudice for a long period time. This is usually between two groups who are otherwise equal, but where there is an imbalance of power in favour of one of them. This power is used to inflict mistreatment and control.


A type of society or system in which men hold the power. Men hold most, if not all, positions of power in a patriarchy. They have more societal and political privilege and power. Women and feminine-presenting people are generally excluded and experience oppression. Although it’s not as overt as it has been in the past or is in other cultures, feminists hold that today we are still living in a patriarchy. Hence popular feminist slogans such as “Smash the patriarchy!”


An advantage that a group or individual has that others do not. Privilege is not inherently good or bad. It does not hold a moral value. What matters is that we acknowledge the privileges we have and don’t use them to harm others.


Pro-choice is the belief that a person should have control over what happens to their own body, specifically in relation to reproduction. The Pro-Choice movement asserts that contraception, emergency contraception, and abortion should and need to be legal and safe. This is not necessarily connected to personal moral beliefs about abortion itself. Pro-choice and pro-abortion are not synonymous, but one can be both pro-choice and pro-abortion.


This work many of us learned in grade school. But it has taken on new importance now. A person’s pronouns cannot be assumed by looking at them.  Examples of pronouns: she/her, he/him, they/them, ze/zer, xe/xim. There are all kinds! If you don’t know what someone’s pronouns are, ask them! It’s okay to do that. So long as you don’t phrase it as their “preferred” pronoun. It’s just their pronoun!

Purity Culture

Purity culture comes largely from conservative Christian beliefs. This is a culture that enforces a hetero-normative lifestyle, heavily and unequally focused on female modesty and sexual abstinence. In this culture, any sexual activity outside a heterosexual marriage is not accepted, especially for people assigned female at birth.  This is generally policed through church morals. Abstinence-only sex education is encouraged.  Shame and spiritual consequences are associated with failure to meet these expectations–not only in practice but in ones thoughts as well.


Sexual assault in the form of forced or coerced sex–they have not given their express consent. This does not mean the person assaulted simply did not say “no.” If someone is too intoxicated to say no, they cannot legally consent to sex. If someone is coerced into having sex, they are not consenting. If you’re not sure if you have consent, ask for it. See “Affirmative Consent” at the top of this list.  Acquaintance rape is the most common form of rape. 98.1% of female rape victims reported cisgender male perpetrators.  92.5% of female victims of other sexual violence reported cisgender male perpetrators. 93.3% of male victims reported cisgender male perpetrators. Statistics vary for other forms of sexual violence against men.

Rape Culture

A term brought to us in the ’70s by the feminist movement. It refers to a society in which sexual violence and aggression are normalized. Author Emilie Buchwald defines rape culture like this:

[It is] a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm . . . In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable . . . However . . . much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.

Sexual Harassment

The use of pressure or intimidation by means of unwelcome sexual advances.

Sex Positivity

The belief that consensual sex is healthy and gratifying. Sex positivity is meant to take the shame and stigma out of sexuality and encourage sexual expression. In the context of feminism, sex positivity is often used through the lens of women’s sexual freedom and liberation.


When women and feminine-presenting people are criticized for their sexuality, sexual practices, and/or the way they dress. This stems from regressive beliefs about what is acceptable for women to do, wear, or say.


An acronym meaning “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist.” This is a term for those transphobic people who would leave our trans sisters out of the movement. This is not a slur. It is a term that was created by TERFs themselves.

Toxic Masculinity

Masculine attitudes and actions that stem from a toxic societal view of the gender binary. It’s the adherence to traditional gender roles in a harmful way. Masculinity is not inherently toxic, and toxic masculinity doesn’t just negatively affect women and feminine presenting people. The idea that men don’t cry is an example of toxic masculinity.


A gender identity. A person is transgender when their gender doesn’t match the gender they were assigned at birth.


Including trans and gender non-conforming individuals and their experiences in the movement.


The hate of, or bias/prejudice against, transgender people.

Unconscious bias

When our own personal, societal, and cultural experiences come together to influence our thoughts and form stereotypes without us being aware of it. Everyone has unconscious biases. A person is far more likely to have an unconscious bias than a conscious one. And that unconscious bias might be completely against our conscious beliefs.


When a victim of a crime or of mistreatment is blamed for what happened to them. In the context of feminism, this term is often used to describe the way that women and feminine-presenting people are treated when they report sexual assault.

Wage Gap

Also known as the gender pay gap. This refers to the very real difference between what men and women earn in the workplace.

White Feminism

A narrow type of feminism focusing on the ways in which white women have experienced oppression while failing to include the experiences of women and feminine-presenting people of other races/marginalized groups. This is due to white privilege and is in opposition to intersectionality.

White Supremacy

The racist idea that white people are superior to other races and should therefore be in positions of power over those races. This belief has some roots in pseudo-science.


A term from AAVE, or African American Vernacular English, meaning to have perceived social and political awareness, particularly in the areas of social and racial justice.

Waves of Feminism:

  • First Wave: During the late 19th and early 20th century when women’s issues were coming into focus around the world. Much feminist thought at this time revolved around women getting the right to vote (also known as suffrage).
  • Second Wave: A Time of feminist thought and activity that began in the 1960s. This wave focused on getting women more rights that just the right to vote. It brought up more issues such as sexuality, domestic and employment inequality, and reproductive rights.
  • Third Wave: This wave of feminism began in the early 1990s. After the second wave made civil rights advances, the third wave became more diverse and individualistic. During this time intersectionality became a part of the conversation.
  • Fourth Wave: Beginning around 2012 and tied to social media, the fourth wave marks a resurgence of interest in feminism. Some of the main issues focuses on street/workplace harassment and rape culture (esp. campus assault).

What do you think of these feminist terms and definitions? Think I missed something or got something wrong? HMU in the comments! I’m always learning and welcome feedback!