Fighting Back Against Anti-Feminist Backlash: Women Can Win the Trump Era's New Culture War
Some things in life are unfortunately inevitable: Pet lives are short, people get miffed too easily on the internet, and you left someone off your holiday gift list and will be scrambling to get them something at the last minute. In this category, we must also include the inevitability of reactionary backlash to feminist progress. History makes it clear that when women surge ahead towards equality, conservative forces will rise up to slap them down, limiting and even, at times, rolling back the progress that was made.
It happened in the 1950s, when shift towards women in the workforce in the 1940s was met with the romanticization of housewifery and Marilyn Monroe-style female submissiveness. It happened famously in the 1980s, when Phyllis Schlafly and the religious right were able to stall a decade of feminist progress by killing off the Equal Rights Amendment and getting Ronald Reagan elected president. It happened in the early aughts, when third-wave feminism was met with an aggressive wave of culture warfare fueled by evangelical Christianity that made “abstinence-only” and “virginity pledges” into national trends, supported by the deeply sexist Bush administration.
Now it’s happening again, with the saucy feminism of the internet era giving way to a misogynistic Trumpian backlash.
“Before Nov. 8, it looked as if the arc of history was bending toward women,” Michelle Goldberg of Slate recently wrote in a depressing but persuasive article. “Trump’s victory has obliterated this narrative.”
Goldberg predicts we are on the precipice of an ’80s-style anti-feminist backlash, and reminds readers of how dark those times were.
“In a time of backlash, women will redouble their efforts to accommodate men, and the culture will celebrate their choice in making that accommodation,” she writes. “[Feminists will] try to maintain their morale, but living in total opposition to the zeitgeist is hard.”
I wish it weren’t so, but Goldberg is right. One of the surest signs that we’re about to enter a period of serious anti-feminist backlash is watching so many left-leaning men dig into feminism-shaming, writing self-serious bullshit about how the left needs to end “identity politics” (which is code for feminism and anti-racism) and dismissing those who believe in equal representation in politics as “vagina voters.” I’ve personally seen a bunch of supposedly liberal men harassing me online, claiming that my feminism must mean that I’m sexually prudish. That’s especially fun for me, since right-wingers are still fond of suggesting I’m a big ol’ slutty abortion lover.
So that’s the bad news. The good news is that the future has not yet been written, and feminists can do a lot to fight back, mitigating the damage and even rolling the ball forward in some areas.
It’s important to remember that history is a complicated beast and that we’re rarely, if ever, in a time of total backlash or total feminism. While women were under a great deal of pressure in the ’80s to take a back seat to men, many simply refused to play along. Women’s participation in the labor force steadily rose during that time. There was also a surge in the divorce rate, which, while sad, also suggests that women felt free to end unhappy marriages rather than put up with mistreatment from their husbands in that era of backlash.
Nowadays, feminists have even more advantages. Women are getting college educations and professional jobs at higher rates than ever before, and delaying marriage and childbirth at even greater rates. It’s unlikely that those gains will be lost, even if a bunch of loudmouth sexists feel empowered by Trump to tell women to get back in the kitchen. Women simply aren’t going to start dropping out of school or quitting their jobs en masse — and that matters, as the 80s and subsequent history shows.
We also have the advantage of social media. If there’s one thing the rise of the alt-right has shown, it’s that social media can make it easy for a handful of opinionated people to challenge hegemonic attitudes. In the past, backlashes were aided by a sudden drop of interest from editors and TV producers in sharing feminist content, but those gatekeepers have less power than ever before. They cannot unilaterally decide to treat feminism like it’s out of style, if women continue to use social media to promote it.
It is also true that a lot more of those gatekeepers are women than used to be true, which should make it a lot harder to shut feminist thought out of mainstream media.
The main thing for feminists to learn from the ascendency of Trump and the anti-feminist backlash is not to be afraid — and not to back down from a fight. The weapons that anti-feminists will roll out against feminism — social policing and shaming, trying to make it seem like it’s whiny or uncool to support women’s equality — can be used right back, if backed with passion and forthrightness.
Men who need women to be submissive and receding in order to feel good about themselves are, after all, whiny children No one could possibly illustrates this more perfectly than the incoming Whiner-In-Chief. As long as feminists don’t get skittish about pointing out the obvious, we don’t have to concede the culture to a bunch of childish misogynists.
And remember: Even when times are tough, our turn will come. The ’80s were a low point for feminists, but they kept on working and struggling and refusing to give in. Eventually, their stubbornness paid off, when the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill debacle put gender inequality in the spotlight again, and feminists were ready to seize the opportunity to reinvigorate a discussion about sexual harassment and abuse.
Women have leverage here. We have more women in Congress than ever before. Women’s workforce participation rates are sky-high. We are getting more college degrees. We control when and if we marry and, though conservatives are fighting us on this, when and if we have children. We still have free speech — and more opportunities than ever before to use it. Things are looking low, but if we seize the power we have, we can fight back.