The slang term ratchet first emerged in the hip hop community in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1999 with the release of the song "Do the Ratchet" by Anthony Mandigo. The term made its way into the mainstream through popular 2000s hip hop songs such as Lil Boosie's 2004 remix of "Do tha Ratchet." The term was often used to describe the lifestyles of black, inner city youth. The term ratchet became a popular term for women who were deemed hood, ghetto, or loud. In 2017, University of Georgia professor Bettina L. Love wrote that the word was "messy, meaning it has no straightforward definition; it is contradictory, fluid, precarious, agentive, and oftentimes intentionally inappropriate."
Ratchet feminism, ratchet womanism, ratchet radicalism, and even hood feminism began to appear in the scholarship of hip hop feminist scholars in the early 2000s. Ratchet feminism comes out of the black feminist/womanist tradition and is closely related to hip hop feminism and hood feminism. Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper describes it as "a refusal of female vulnerability." In 2020, the Journal of Hip Hop Studies published a special issue titled Twenty-First Century B.I.T.C.H. Frameworks: Hip Hop Feminism Comes of Age. The editors and contributors of the issue theorize ratchet feminism and provide an outline of the scholarly conversations around ratchet feminism. According to Elizabeth Fielder, ratchet feminism (radicalism) is a form of activism that may often be seen as inappropriate or "over the top.": 18–19
Several scholars have argued that ratchet as an empowering practice for poor women of color reveals a "shadowy" underground feminism in creating an alternative performance space for black women. There is still a negative meaning attached for many black women, as the term mainly targets them. "There's an emotional violence and meanness attached to being ratchet, particularly pertaining to women of color," says Vibe editor Michaela Angela Davis.
Although the term ratchet has had a negative connotation for many decades, in recent years the term has been reclaimed and its meaning recast by not only African-American people, but specifically African-American women. It has been used in songs such as "Savage" by Megan Thee Stallion and "Rumors" by Lizzo and Cardi B. The word ratchet has been used by celebrity women of color globally. These artists include Megan Thee Stallion, Lizzo, Cardi B, City Girls, Taraji P. Henson, and Spain's La Zowi. In reference to Tamar Braxton's reality show, Theri A. Pickens says that "ratchet" has also been seen as "a performative strategy that secures a liberatory space for black women."
As of 2021 the term ratchet had many different definitions, and there was ongoing debate on what is considered ratchet. For some people, the word symbolizes empowerment among women. Rapper and TV personality Cardi B is often cited as an example of a celebrity criticized for being too "ratchet" but who chose to embrace the term.
The term was also discussed during an episode of the PBS web series A Seat at the Table titled "Bougie, Ghetto and Ratchet? Stereotypes of Black Women." At the University of Texas, Austin, Christen Smith from the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies created the blog "Redefining Ratchet" with students to encourage conversation on the term. One goal of the project was "to redefine the meaning, implication, and power of the term 'ratchet'".