Feminazi is winning. That is, we are allowing the sentiment behind that unfortunate portmanteau to win.

Feminazi: a brief history

When Rush Limbaugh popularized “feminazi” in 1992, he claimed that it described “the most obnoxious feminists,” or “any female who is intolerant of any point of view that challenges militant feminism.” In its original manifestation, “feminazi,” the conservative talk-radio host remarked, applied to “no more than 25" women.

Language is plastic, a fact evident in both in the production of this new term and the remarkably flexible application of it. When pressed on the use of “nazi” as a suffix, Limbaugh compared the pro-choice movement to the Holocaust, contending, “I do not think it is wise for a society to kill for convenience sake…A feminazi is a woman, a feminist, to whom the most important thing in her life is seeing to it that all abortions possible take place.” He later noted more broadly of the term, “It’s the way I look at the feminist movement.” In the months before the November 2012 presidential election, he referred, on the air, to “the feminazis and the far left” as “the Democrat voter base.”

Broadening: all the broads, and then some

In its relatively brief history, “feminazi” has slowly expanded to encompass far more than the 25 women Limbaugh originally claimed to target with the term. Linguists refer to this phenomenon, in which a word’s meaning evolves to become more inclusive, as “broadening.” In this case, “feminazi” has broadened sufficiently to encroach upon the linguistic territory of “feminist.”

And feminazi is winning. That is, we are allowing the sentiment behind that unfortunate portmanteau to win. Now a colloquial mainstay, “feminazi” functions as a forceful subset of “feminist”: we assume that some percentage of those who identify as feminists might further be classified as feminazis.

The rhetorical genius of “feminazi,” then, is that it puts anyone who self-identifies as feminist or believes in feminist principles on the defensive. The suffix’s connotations align passionate engagement on gender rights with violent hate crimes, a characterization that has contributed to the popular perception of feminism as de facto extremism.

As a result, people of either sex committed to equal rights for men and women—i.e., feminists—feel compelled to distinguish between their own, ostensibly reasonable perspective and another, implicitly militant stance: “I’m not a feminazi, but…” This splintering of feminist identity erodes belief in the egalitarian philosophical base of feminism, leading, as we have seen, to the denial of any “chip” on powerful female shoulders.

The splintering of “feminist” by “feminazi” has forced a re-evaluation of the movement. And, even if its impetus is insulting, re-evaluation is never a bad thing. There is talk of just owning the term, a move that ignores the opportunity for self-reflection presented by its invasive linguistic presence. In the wake of the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique—written before “sexism,” let alone “feminazi”—and in the midst of systemic progress for women in education and the workplace, feminism is due for an introspective overhaul.

After all, “feminazi,” as formulated by the right and rented by the left, belies male feminism. The greatest rebuff to the broadening of feminazi the slur would be the broadening of feminism the movement. Questions traditionally associated with women’s rights, including workplace and family issues, are better formulated from the perspective of human rights. Two decades after “feminazi” began its insidious creep into our discussions of gender, it’s not so much about taking “feminist” back as about opening it up.