The dictionary definition is simple enough: "belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes."
But at the close of a century that has seen remarkable gains for American women - from winning the right to vote to flying space shuttles - the word "feminism" ricochets like a verbal bullet across the cultural landscape. It seems to defy any single meaning for women or men but still carries within it a world of profound social and political change.
Historian Helen Horowitz says feminism can be described as a "social movement for the advancement of women." Yet conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh deride feminism as a left-wing cause run by "femi-Nazis" who are "femi-nutsy."
Time magazine weighed in a few weeks ago with a cover story that focused on young women and included the headline, "Feminism: It's All About Me." But Molly McLeod, a young investment adviser in Boston, thinks feminism is about equal opportunity: "It's not all about me, it's all about everybody."
So it goes in the 1990s. Women and men today are negotiating their lives - and their relationships with each other - in a society that has been changed irrevocably by the feminist movement of the 1960s and '70s. The fact that the word "feminism" prompts such widely varying views - both among and between the sexes - is an indicator of the force and upheaval of the change played out in the workplace, at school, and at home.
"We are the freest generation of women in history," says Danielle Crittenden, editor of the Women's Quarterly, which is published by the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative group. "We have basically broken down every legal and economic barrier."
Some barriers remain, of course. Women have yet to crack the top ranks of Fortune 500 companies in significant numbers. And women's rights activists say that in social-policy areas like welfare reform, poor women still bear unfair burdens in terms of work and child care.
Still, the gains of the past 30 years are undeniable. Women's studies programs are now a fact of academic life at universities across the country; legal decisions have forced the walls of all-male bastions, such as clubs and schools, to come tumbling down; federal funding of girls' sports programs has changed the face of athletics on playgrounds across the country; and workplaces have been forced open by women workers entering virtually every profession, from politics and law to construction and the nation's space program.
Given the sweep of social change fostered by the women's movement of the 1960s, perhaps it's not surprising that at the close of the 20th century, feminism appears - in some ways - to have lost some of its early force and focus. Or that the social revolution it launched has given rise to a backlash among conservatives.
Today the voice of feminism - once embodied by groups like the National Organization for Women and publications like Ms. - has fractured into many voices. A whole cadre of women who think feminists went too far are speaking up - criticizing the early movement for creating an "us against them" mentality between women and men.
"We have had a women's movement obsessed with proving men are brutes, with exaggerating men's misbehavior," says Christina Hoff Sommers, author of "Who Stole Feminism?" and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "We need reconciliation. Men and women have to approach one another with respect and the spirit of friendship."
Women aren't the only ones who have criticized the early movement. Many men have lashed out at what they see as reverse discrimination - laws that they say unfairly favor women in situations involving things like child custody, and social policies that place more emphasis on women's health than on men's. Web sites like www.backlash.com feature articles with headlines like "When the bully is a babe."
"There was a period of time in which the movement was clearly gathering strength and had a very strong moral component behind it that shamed people to some extent and contributed to the gains of the 1970s and 80s," says historian Thomas Dublin, a self-described male feminist and author of "Transforming Women's Work: New England Lives in the Industrial Revolution."
"We're in a period now where some of that dynamism has given way to conflict over what feminism's goals are or should be," he says. "There's a profound conflict over how to proceed, over what the gains and losses have been. And opponents of the changes that have occurred, who are hoping to push the clock back, take advantage of that." But before jumping to conclusions about whether feminism is in trouble, historians like Mr. Dublin say it's important to consider a few facts. For one thing, they say splits in the movement are nothing new. Differences date back to the 1860s, when activists disagreed over how genteel the movement should be.
Historians also say that ridicule and resistance have always accompanied gains made by women, including the right to vote. And they say it's no surprise if feminism seems to be less of an active force in society, noting that the women's movement has been most successful when other social movements were flourishing - during the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, for instance.
Those are big-picture views that are often lost in today's dialogue about feminism. And many researchers and activists say the media should shoulder some of the blame for that. In today's world, where many newscasts are driven by sound bites, feminists say it's difficult for them to present issues to the public. "All you can do is keep trying to get your message out in a way that is not polarizing," says Kim Gandy, vice president of NOW. "It's a constant struggle to figure out how you go about getting the attention of the media for something that is not scandalous or horrifying."
Many observers say the media's focus on controversy has hurt the dialogue about feminism. "There's been this sort of shallow look at what feminism means," says Lisa Brush, an assistant professor in the women's studies program at the University of Pittsburgh. "What really good activist feminist research does is cross boundaries between issues of things like economics and violence, of pocketbook issues and body issues."
Women's studies programs and feminist research around the country are yielding insights into new areas. Many researchers, for instance, have begun to break down women's issues, examining them through the lenses of race and class to better understand the diversity and complexity of feminism - instead of critiques based solely on sex.
These new directions in research are leading to what some feminists call a welcome "dialogue" between the sexes. Some of their counterparts in men's studies programs, which have been springing up at universities around the country in recent years, say that dialogue may be the beginning of a new wave of social change. The new activism, they say, will involve both sexes and will tackle prickly issues such as child care and equal pay for equal work.
"Women have made enormous strides in areas where they exert individual autonomy, like the right to work," says Michael Kimmel, author of "Manhood in America." "Feminism hasn't been as successful in places where you need to take social transformation one step further.
"Women still have to cut a deal with a workplace that's not family friendly," says Mr. Kimmel, a leader in the men's studies field. "We see those things culturally as women's issues, but they're not. They're parents' issues. When men identify themselves as parents, they'll start to say, 'I want on-site child care, I want flex time.'
"When men and women want to get together," he says, "they'll get change at the national policy level."