Rise of the Anti-Feminism Backlash

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Image by _Marion from Pixabay

My guilty pleasure on the July 4 weekend was attending the annual book sale on Lummi Island. The FOIL (Friends of Island Library) sale is so popular that off-islanders have been known to park on the mainland, board the 22-car Whatcom Chief on foot, walk across to the library and return with book treasures on the next sailing. 

Among my finds this year: Gloria Steinem’s The Truth Will Make You Free; But First It Will Piss You Off. Although Gloria’s 2019 book pre-dated the Roe overturn, it remains timely in a year of anti-feminism. The Truth is filled with Gloria-speak and with quotes from feminist friends like the late bell hooks, who said: “Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power – not because they don’t see it — but because they see it and don’t want it to exist.”

The book’s quotes provide a measure of comfort in days when there are signs of raw misogyny everywhere. Justice Alito’s Roe decision – the ripping away of rights in force for half a century – told us what to expect next. In his text, Alito reached all the way back to the 17th Century English Jurist Matthew Hale. Hale participated in witch trials, executed two women accused of witchcraft and is known for his advice telling juries to disregard women’s speech.

The Roe overturn led almost instantly to dozens of states adopting ever more draconian anti-choice measures. States that decisively passed abortion bans — most without exception for rape or incest – are now passing legislation to criminalize those who aid or assist abortion. Some states are even keen to ban any pro-choice speech. The lawmakers’ goal is to silence women.

Other instances of anti-feminist backlash are widespread. Consider the parade of candidates – nine by last count — who are running for high office despite accusations of violence against women. Prominent among them are Herschel Walker, the Georgia GOP senate candidate, who has acknowledged abusive behavior toward an ex-wife; and former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, now running for Senate. Greitens’ wife accused him of inflicting physical abuse on her and their children. Such abuse revelations have not deterred alleged perps from running; it’s almost as if abuse were some sort of subliminal trophy.

Adding to such assaults on women’s equality is the recent counter-attack against the #MeToo movement. Following the sordid Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial with its pro-guy verdict, pundits have been quick to declare #MeToo over and feminism dead. It seems absurd to base that viewpoint on a literal public washing of dirty linen; but it does illustrate the trend toward toxic machismo.

Sadly, the rise of a crushing patriarchy is not the only problem besetting feminism. There also is the fatigue factor. It’s almost inevitable that trends that soar during one decade will grow less gripping in the next decade. That’s obvious when you look at the ups and downs of the quest for women’s equality starting in the last half of the 19th century. In The New York Times, columnist Michelle Goldberg noted that feminism is prone to “cycles of matricide.” She wrote: “What is liberating to one generation is often mortifying to the next.” 

One sees that pattern operating back in the 1970s when the Equal Rights Amendment gained Congressional approval, looked headed for ratification by the states and then stumbled in the backlash of the Reagan years. That backlash – the one that many believe fueled the anti-Roe crusade – is still attacking the dream of gender equality.

Perhaps even more heart-breaking for feminists is watching the movement experience self-inflicted wounds. Even Planned Parenthood has been credibly accused of both pregnancy discrimination and mistreating Black employees. 

Another example is the Women’s March that erupted on the day after the 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump. The successful march, judged the nation’s largest single day protest, afterwards suffered damage from charges that it was primarily a white, cis-gendered movement. Three leaders stepped down over accusations of anti-semitism. Since then, the organization developed its second wind and now is leading pro-choice rallies at the White House and the Supreme Court. 

Some pundits insist the feminist movement is in trouble –  beset by backlash, deserted by the disillusioned younger generation and lacking optimism. Michelle Goldberg declared that “The Future Isn’t Female Anymore.” She observed that “this is a fearful, hopeless and even nihilistic time.” 

It was in that gloomy frame of mind – bereft over the overturn of Roe and the virulent cultural backlash – that I picked up the Steinem book at the island book sale. Reading Steinem’s thoughts on life, love, and rebellion has given me glimmers of hope. She argues for using ridicule (“it’s what men fear most from women”) and laughter (“an orgasm of the mind”) and even tells how best to use the f-word in speech.

Steinem also emphasizes the power of marches and random street-quotes mantras, noting Obama’s “Yes, we can” and taglines such as “Make love not war,” “Love is Love,” “Women’s Rights are Human Rights,” and “Bans Off My Body.” As she concludes: “Words can travel through crowds at the speed of sound, unify disparate people and encourage us to act together. Now that we have the Internet we have faster ways to get words out there and give street quotes another life online. Now that we know how to take back the streets, words and votes are following.” I hope Steinem is right.

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Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later for the Seattle Times. In 2003, she quit to run for Seattle City Council where she served 12 years. She now writes for Westside Seattle and has been a co-host on The Bridge, aired on community radio station KMGP. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Feminists & feminist organizations may make mistakes etc because …duh… they are human.

    Feminism? Not even remotely showing any signs of fatigue.

    Right-wing weaklings would prefer otherwise but they are whistling past their own graveyard.

  2. And I don’t mean to suggest that there are no challenges.

    But the attacks on feminism (ie women) are also attacks on western culture generally, which unfortunately is also joined by many progressives. (So woke progressives like Jayapal et al are not in the long run going to be much help to overcome these serious challenges.)

    • “So woke progressives like Jayapal et al are not in the long run going to be much help to overcome these serious challenges.”

      That’s a curious comment, at best. Do you mean to imply that Jayapal is an enemy of western culture? I’d be interested to see how you would defend such an argument.

  3. Jack — thanks so much for your kind words and for sharing the essay that you wrote on the 50th anniversary of Ms. It was so heartwarming to read your tributes to writer and bookstore owner Ann Patchett, to architect Jeanne Gang and most especially to read about your partner Julie McCleery, a UW professor who coached for the U.S. National Rowing Team and the Pocock Rowing Center. It’s so refreshing to read about her work teaching about coaching youth sports.

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