The evolution of the F-word (feminist)

It was a manifesto. Then it verged on a slur. And now, the F-word is back, worn proudly by women across generations, and some men, too.

The word "feminist" has endured almost as much vitriol as the women's movement itself, starting with the 1963 release of Betty Friedan's "The Feminist Mystique," a book widely credited with spurring what was then called the Women's Liberation Movement. As the women's rights movement aged, so did the word – and it got cast as the cranky old woman of the equal rights battle.

SEE ALSO: The history of the women's rights movement in the US

Some women, especially younger women who were students and not veterans of the modern feminist wave, derided the word as divisive and indicative of hatred of men. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh referred to women's rights advocates as "Feminazis." Female celebrities started out sentences saying, "I'm not a feminist, but..." and suggested that equal rights had nothing to do with the word. "I think of myself as a humanist because I think it's less alienating to people who think of feminism as being a load of strident bitches and because you want everyone to have equal pay, equal rights, education, and health care," actress Susan Sarandon told The Guardian newspaper in 2013. "It's a bit of an old-fashioned word."

Indeed, a 2013 Huffington Post/YouGov poll showed that while 82 percent of Americans, men and women, believe the genders should be "social, political and economic equals," just 23 percent of women and 16 percent of men considered themselves "feminists."

"There is a robust, powerful status quo that tries to demonize and marginalize what the word means," says Jocelyn Frye, a senior fellow at the Center for American Politics. "It's been critiqued, shunned, mischaracterized and caricatured to the point where it became something people ran away from."

But now, Frye says, "a lot of people are embracing it." Beyonce struts onstage with the word "Feminist" in bright lights behind her. President Barack Obama attended the United States of Women conference last year and told the mostly-female crowd, "I may be a little grayer than I was eight years ago, but this is what a feminist looks like." As for Sarandon, she clarified her views on the word later in 2013, after her initial Guardian interview. "Really all feminism means is equality. I don't know why there was such a backlash against it for a while," she said.

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