Do American women still need feminism? A controversial social media movement called Women Against Feminism features women explaining — mostly in “selfies” with handwritten signs — why they do not. Feminist responses have ranged from bafflement to vitriol or mockery to arguments that these women don’t know what feminism is. But while this new movement has its silly aspects, it raises some much-needed questions about feminism’s present and future state — and, in the weeks since it first attracted notice, many prominent feminists have helped validate some of the criticisms.
One might assume that Women Against Feminism is a traditionalist backlash against gender equality. Yet many of the women say they reject feminism precisely because they are pro-equality. A blogger who goes by AstrokidNJ has analyzed a week’s worth of posts on Women Against Feminism and found that 46 percent were egalitarian, 19 percent endorsed men’s issues, and 12 percent criticized feminist intolerance toward dissent. Only 23 percent reflected traditionalist views such as support for distinct sex roles, chivalry, or full-time motherhood.
Some commentators suggest that pro-equality women who reject feminism are misguided. After all, the dictionary defines feminism as belief in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes. But these women usually know that (and often sarcastically stress that they do). They simply think that real-life feminism has come to mean something else: vilification of men, support for female privilege, and a demeaning view of women as victims rather than free agents.
Are they wrong? Well, one of Women Against Feminism’s harshest critics, leading feminist pundit Jessica Valenti, makes it clear that being a feminist means believing that women in America and other modern liberal democracies are “a victimized class.” They are “systematically discriminated against in school, work, and politics,” “objectified,” and “harassed, attacked, and sexually assaulted.” This, Valenti asserts, is “not a matter of politics, but of truth.”
But contributors to Women Against Feminism disagree. They note that many studies show the pay gap to be largely due to women’s choices of more family-friendly — and life-friendly — jobs. (As for school, American women have long outpaced men in educational attainment, currently earning about 60 percent of college degrees.) They take issue with rape statistics that lump alcohol-fueled, judgment-impaired sex with sexual assault. They argue that men face their own negative stereotypes. They point out that men are at higher risk than women for most violent crimes — and may be far more likely than previously thought to experience domestic violence and sexual coercion. They say that in many areas, from divorce to mental health to workplace safety, it’s men who have it worse.
These arguments need to be engaged, not dismissed and ridiculed. Yet many feminists have responded with nastiness that would normally be called misogynist: In the New York Observer, Nina Burleigh focused on a few photos showing too much skin or black-polished fingernails to sneer that the women were “dressed and posed like ads for DIY escort services.”
Meanwhile, even as feminists deplore accusations of male-bashing, many are embracing “ironic misandry” (hatred of men). Valenti recently tweeted a picture of herself in a t-shirt declaring “I bathe in male tears.” Other examples include the mottoes “Ban Men” and “Kill All Men” and Internet jokes that turn book titles into castration one-liners. Feminist commentators such as Slate.com’s Amanda Hess defend this practice as a cool in-joke that annoys sexists and mocks the idea that feminists are anti-male.
But aside from the fact that cliquish in-jokes are off-putting and “ironic” hate can still sound pretty hateful, the “misandry” joke falls flat because there are too many real-life examples of feminist anti-male bias. The National Organization for Women has fought against more rights for divorced fathers, often suggesting that men who advocate for such rights are abusers. Feminist groups urging stronger enforcement of domestic violence laws have cried foul when such tough policies have led to more arrests of women. Anti-rape activists have championed campus rules that brand the man an attacker and the woman a victim if they have sex while equally intoxicated.
Women Against Feminism is largely a reaction against this mindset. The anti-feminist egalitarians believe that, whatever feminism’s positive past gains, its dominant modern version is hostile to men and demeaning to women. They are right.
I don’t like the “anti-feminism” label because of its common meaning of “anti-woman” or “anti-equality.” But, call it reformed feminism or egalitarianism, we need a movement for true equality — against both old-fashioned sexism and new gender polarization.
Cathy Young is a columnist at Newsday and RealClearPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CathyYoung63.