Feminist Terminology

Feminist conversations commonly include words that don’t always have an obvious meaning. Let’s start with some select definitions.


A sociopolitical movement with the central goal of ending sexism and dismantling gender-based oppression.

“Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. This was a definition of feminism I offered in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center more than 10 years ago. It was my hope at the time that it would become a common definition everyone would use. I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy. By naming sexism as the problem it went directly to the heart of the matter. Practically, it is a definition which implies that all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult. It is also broad enough to include an understanding of systemic institutionalized sexism. As a definition it is open-ended. To understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism.”  – bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody
“The soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination.” – bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody


A system of society in which men hold exclusive power.

“Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.” – bell hooks, The Will to Change
“Like all social systems, patriarchy is difficult to change because it is complex and its roots run deep. It is like a tree rooted in core principles of control, male dominance, male identification, and male centeredness. Its trunk is the major institutional patterns of social life as shaped by the roots – family, economy, politics, religion, education, music and the arts. The branches – first the larger and then the progressively smaller – are the actual communities, organizations, groups, and other systems in which we live our lives, from cities and towns to corporations, parishes, marriages, and families. And in all of this, individuals are the leaves who both make possible the life of the tree and draw their form and life from it.” – Allan G. Johnson, The Gender Knot


A situation where people are subject to unjust domination, control, or treatment, or cruel exercise of power.

“Institutional Oppression is the systematic mistreatment of people within a social identity group, supported and enforced by the society and its institutions, solely based on the person’s membership in the social identity group. Institutional Oppression occurs when established laws, customs, and practices systematically reflect and produce inequities based on one’s membership in targeted social identity groups. If oppressive consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs, or practices, the institution is oppressive whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have oppressive intentions. Institutional Oppression creates a system of invisible barriers limiting people based on their membership in unfavored social identity groups. The barriers are only invisible to those ‘seemingly’ unaffected by it. The practice of institutionalized oppression is based on the belief in inherent superiority or inferiority. Institutionalized oppression is a matter of result regardless of intent.” – Tools for Diversity, Institutional Oppression


Any advantage that is unearned, exclusive, and socially conferred.

“The concept of privilege refers to any advantage that is unearned, exclusive, and socially conferred. For example, white people are generally assumed to be law-abiding until they show some sign that they are not, while people of color are routinely assumed to be criminals or potential criminals until they show they’re not. …It’s important to note that privilege does not guarantee good outcomes for the privileged group or bad outcomes for everyone else. A white person, for example, can work hard and have little to show for it, can be mistreated by the police without cause, be denied a job they’re qualified for. What privilege does is load the odds one way or the other so that the chance of bad things happening to white people as a category of people is much lower than for everyone else, and the chance of good things happening is much higher. Privilege is not something a person can have, like a possession, as in ‘Where’s mine?’ Instead, it is a characteristic of the social system—like a rule in a game—in which everyone participates” – Allan G. Johnson, Privilege, Power, and Difference


The theory or belief that social identities overlap with one another, and so too do their related privileges and oppressive forces. In becoming aware of identity categories such as race, sex, gender, economic class, social status, ability, religion, education, age, etc., we deepen our understanding of the ways we are affected by structures of domination.

“When we don’t pay attention to the margins, when we don’t acknowledge the intersection, where the places of power overlap, we not only fail to see the women who fall between our movements, sometimes we pit our movements against each other.” – Kimberle Crenshaw
  • More on intersectional feminism here

More Terminology

This list is not exclusive or exhaustive; each of these terms often serve as an umbrella for subsets of feminist culture. Here are more resources that help explain definitions of feminist vocabulary:

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