Brace yourself. I'm going to use a word that offends folks. I'm talking the F-word.
This woman sent me an e-mail Monday and it got me thinking. See, in describing herself, she assured me she was not a "women's libber" - the late 1960s equivalent of feminist. She also said she was retired from the Navy. There was, it seemed to me, a disconnect there: She doesn't believe in women's liberation, yet she is retired from a position that liberation made possible.
Intrigued, I asked my 17-year-old daughter if she considers herself a feminist. She responded with a mildly horrified no. This is the daughter who is currently pondering possible college majors including political science, psychology and ... women's studies. I asked her to define feminist.
There began a halting explanation that seemed to suggest shrillness wrapped around obnoxiousness. Abruptly, she stopped. "It's hard to explain," she said.
Actually, it's not. Jessica Valenti, author of Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters, calls it the I'm-Not-A-Feminist-But syndrome. As in the woman who says, "I'm not a feminist," but then "goes on to espouse completely feminist values. I think most women believe in access to birth control, they want equal pay for equal work, they want to fight against rape and violence against women."
Feminist, it seems, has ended up in the same syntactical purgatory as another once-useful, now-reviled term: liberal. Most people endorse what that word has historically stood for - integration, child labor laws, product safety - yet they treat the word itself like anthrax.
Similarly, while it's hard to imagine any young woman really wants to return to the days of barefoot, pregnant and making meatloaf, many now disdain the banner under which their gender fought for freedom. They scorn feminism even as they feast at a table feminism prepared.
Says Ms. Valenti, "The word has been so effectively misused and so effectively mischaracterized by conservatives for so long that women are afraid to identify with it. They'll say everything under the sun that's feminist, but they won't identify with it because they've been taught feminists are anti-men, feminists are ugly."
Deborah Tannen agrees. She is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. "The reason, I believe, is that meanings of words come from how they're used," she says. "And since the word feminist is used as a negative term rather than a positive one, people don't want to be associated with it."
With apologies to Malcolm X, they've been had, they've been hoodwinked, they've been bamboozled. And it's sad. I've lost track of how many times, visiting high schools or teaching college classes, I have met bright girls juggling options and freedoms that would've been unthinkable a generation ago - yet if you use the F-word, they recoil.
We have, I think, lost collective memory of how things were before the F-word. Of the casual beatings. Of casual rape. Of words such as "old maid" and "spinster." Of abortion by coat hanger. Of going to school to find a man. Of getting an allowance and needing a husband's permission. Of taking all your spirit, all your dreams, all your ambition, aspiration, creativity, and pounding them down until they fit a space no larger than a casserole dish.
"I'm not a feminist, but ...?" That's a fraud. It's intellectually dishonest. And it's a slap to the feminists who prepared the table at which today's young women sup.
So for the record, I am a feminist. My daughter is, too. She doesn't know it yet.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is email@example.com.