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Stephanie Ruhle: How do you define the word feminism?

'If women understood what feminism means to our sisters across all ages, races and career ambitions, might we realize we’re not so different after all?'
Image: What does feminism meant to you?
The third installment of Stephanie Ruhle's podcast "Modern Ruhles" explores what feminism means to her guests, namely her mother. Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

This is Modern Ruhles, a podcast from Stephanie Ruhle that features compelling conversations for culturally complicated times. Listen to podcast, read the stories and share your own thoughts below.

My mother, Louise Ruhle, is the strongest woman I know. She is my champion. She raised me and my sister to always chase our dreams, no matter how big or small they were. Louise was a stay-at-home mom, and always considered herself more of a traditionalist. She winces when I leave the house in sweatpants, or accidentally let a curse word slip in her presence. In the 43 years I’ve been on this planet, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve dropped the F-bomb in front of her. “Ladies don’t talk like that,” she tells me.

When I first started interviewing guests for the feminism episode of my new podcast "Modern Ruhles", Louise was top of mind. Here is a mother, a sister, a daughter, who has such a strong, idealized vision of what a woman should be — yet, she does not consider herself a feminist. So I brought her into the studio to ask her why. Feminists, she told me, “seem to think they have to come in like a gangbuster. They seem to think they have to shove the fact that they’re women down everybody’s throats instead of being accomplished in their own right … they seem to think they have to push it, push it, push it. And you don’t have to push it.”

It occurred to me then that this word — feminist — carries a lot of baggage for many women who genuinely believe in the advancement of women and girls, but don’t feel like the movement includes them. But it also means a lot of different things for a lot of different people — even those who do identify with the term. To me, feminism is transcending the factors that define or limit my sex, and being the best anyway. My goal always is to present myself as the most capable person in the room, not the most capable woman.

But for Louise Ruhle, feminism is not an identity she associates with her womanhood. And that’s OK because there is no one answer or explanation for what feminism is or isn’t. But I have a hunch: If we women made an effort to better understand what the title means to our sisters across all ages, races and career ambitions, might we realize that we’re not so different, after all?

I think there’s a way for everyone to have a seat at the table. That’s why I’ve polled some of my favorite women — leaders and influencers across a variety of industries and job titles, ranging from banking to motherhood — to learn what “feminism” means to them. Here are some of their answers:

Feminism means that you finally stop looking around for validation from other people and realize that the only person you need to impress is yourself.

Lydia Fenet

Feminism means doing whatever you can to support women in all walks of life, even the most powerful, by helping to spread word of their successes.

Alexandra Lebenthal

To me, feminism means that women can do anything and everything — with the same access, opportunities, expectations as men and delivered with the humanity and care that the best of humanity is measured against.

Alexandra Trower

For more on my conversation with my mother, plus Shelley Zalis of the Female Quotient and comedian Michael Ian Black, listen to the latest episode of Modern Ruhles.

NBC News BETTER wants you to know what the word feminism means to you. We’ll be highlighting selected responses on our social channels without sharing your name.

Written with Julie Brown, an anchor producer for MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle

More from Stephanie Ruhle and Julie Brown

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