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I’ve never been afraid of an argument. If I feel passionate about an issue and think your opinion is “misguided,” I am always happy to debate.

So when a student in my high-school freshman history class said he thought we should just “nuke Iraq off the planet,” I took the bait. I outlined — albeit not very calmly — all the reasons why his comment was disrespectful of human life and ignorant of the political issues at hand.

His response stunned my 14-year-old self into silence for a good 30 seconds (no small feat).

“You’re such a feminist,” he said with a sneer.

More than seven years later, I still remember that moment with remarkable clarity. I had never been called a feminist before — positively or negatively. It was just not a word I would have used to describe myself.

Like most women at Penn, I was raised knowing I was the exact equal of the men in my life. My successes (and failures) would be measured by my intelligence and dedication, not my gender. And, while I understood and cared about important women’s issues, they weren’t constantly on my brain.

Why, then, was I so taken aback by the comment? In part, I was angry because it was the first time someone had ever implied that my opinion could be dismissed because I am a woman.

More importantly, I realized that day that I was guilty of having a narrow definition of feminism — one that was neither positive nor negative. Growing up, the word “feminism” was intrinsically tied to women who burn their bras and proclaim female superiority.

Being called a feminist like it were a bad thing forced me to recognize the flexibility of the term. For some inexplicable reason, that high-school history class made me accept the title and want to define it for myself.

This week, the Penn Consortium of Undergraduate Women is asking students, “What does a feminist look like?” If there’s anything I have learned since that day in high school, it’s that there’s no single answer to that question. Every feminist looks different, acts differently and defines feminism in her (or his) own way.

For some, it’s an important part of their lives. For others, it’s just a word they identify with. For one person, being a feminist is about international rights. For another, it’s about the income gap.

I have spent the past seven years defining my brand of feminism. More than anything else, my feminism means I will never accept someone thinking my opinion is less valuable because I am a woman. It means I will never be intimidated by a male-dominant workplace. It means that I do not accept unequal treatment of women anywhere. It also means that when someone tries to insult my friend by calling her a feminist because she cut her hair short, I will probably challenge their definition of “feminism” (and their ability to deliver a decent insult).

Since the age of 14, I have called myself a feminist. But the word doesn’t define me. I would first call myself an editor, a political fanatic, a reporter, a friend … Over a dozen words would come before the word “feminist” in my personal bio. But it’s there. I greatly admire the women who fight for women’s rights around the world and within the U.S. But feminism doesn’t have to define you, and it certainly shouldn’t have the negative connotations so many people give it.

I credit that student in high school with helping me to define my feminism. By trying to insult me with the word, he forced me to think about it. What I found is that the great thing about feminism is you can make of it what you want.

Juliette Mullin is a College senior from Portland, Ore. She is the former Executive Editor of the DP, and editor of The Report Card. She is also, apparently, a feminist. Her e-mail address is In Case You Missed Me appears on Tuesdays.

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