The "F" word has a lot of connotations attached to it... anger, bra burning, negativity, anti-family, etc.
To me, and to most true feminists, it means equality. It doesn't mean putting females above males, or giving them more privilege. It doesn't mean that women must become career driven and forget about staying home with their family. It also doesn't mean that men lose their rights, but simply that women gain theirs to share in the power and choices that men have, historically, had.
I also believe that part of feminism is the abolition of strict gender roles. If our society picks various roles for women, and men, from past time periods and cultures and makes rules (even if they are simply de facto) for both genders, then neither gender has the freedom to act, and be, individuals. For example, I would not enjoy being a housewife. I cannot imagine having no other outside work, and instead my job being to cook and clean for my family (which... if you know me.... should come as no surprise!). Now this does not mean that I look down upon those who choose to make their home their work. In fact, I think it is one of the hardest jobs a person could have and admire those who make that choice. It is just not one that would make me happy. David, on the other hand, has told me that he would be happy to be a stay at home dad, and I know that he'd be amazing at it. In our family, if we were forced to follow "traditional" gender roles, both of us would be unhappy, as neither David or I would be doing the things that we'd like. Feminism is simply about ensuring that all humans, regardless of gender, have the freedom to make such choices.
Feminism is also about respect. I believe that no matter what gender you are, each human being should have respect for others. This means not looking at the other sex as an object there for your enjoyment. The process of objectification is wrong, regardless of who is doing it. You may enjoy looking at someone because you find them attractive and there are certainly situations in which it is appropriate to verbalize that, but objectification happens when you only care about the body, and aren't bothered about the person inside of that body. This happens when someone drools over another person because they are "hot" or focuses on one particular body part that they think looks good. By doing this, the person becomes just a thing to look at, as the body becomes removed from the whole of that person. Their personality, hopes, dreams, intelligence, and emotions are removed and only the appearance remains, as an object for others to look at.
As I said before, this can happen to any gender, and by any gender, however the majority of women in our society can tell you that that it is common for men to look at women this way. The reason why feminism is so important is because the objectification of women is something that happens far too often. I could list the many stories that I have heard, or experienced, but instead I will tell you one story. The story that prompted this post.
Recently I was teaching a group of boys, and one of them got up to look out of the window. When I told him to sit back down, his response was, "No, there is a girl with a fit ass out there and so I'm going to look at it." When I told him off and mentioned that that kind of comment is objectifying that female, the student got angry and told me that I was wrong. That girls who look good are there for him to look at. The other boys agreed and backed him up.
This is just part of the conversation that we had, and many could argue that they are just silly teenaged boys who have hormones and like girls. The problem with that is that, regardless of their age, they were still objectifying the female, and didn't see a problem with that. Not only did they view her as something nice to look at, but their attitude suggested that they have the right to act this way. Indeed, they got angry and argumentative when I suggested that there was anything wrong with their actions.
I know they are just a few teenagers, but this incident worries me. It shows that there are still young people who see women as objects that they have the right to. These same beliefs and attitudes lead to disrespecting women (after all, we are not humans but objects to be used), and sexual assault, which are problems that plague our society. If you still don't believe me that these types of comments are common, or problematic, read this.
This is why feminism is not dead. This is why so many of us believe that more work needs to be done to make all humans equal. And this is why I am proud to call myself a feminist.
Note: The discussion of gender in this post focuses on binary gender roles (male and female). This is not to discount those who might not fit into those categories, but rather to simplify the discussion and to focus on the main issue of objectification between males and females.