Welcome to the backlash
The end of abortion rights are only one drop in an anti-feminist tsunami.
Less than a decade ago, I would have told you that feminism was ascendant. I’ve been writing about women’s rights in some capacity for almost 20 years, and in the early-to-mid-2010s, seemingly overnight, feminism went from marginal to mainstream. Feminist writers who had been relegated to feminist-focused blogs were popping up on the pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the New Yorker — not to mention writing about politics in Vanity Fair, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and just about every major American newspaper and magazine. Women were breaking into worlds long dominated by men, from electoral politics to tech. There was still a long way to go. But as Barack Obama wound down his second term, I was feeling optimistic enough to write a whole book on where the feminist movement should go next — how to move forward, what to shoot for. That felt like the natural next progression; things felt solid enough to start pressing on, asking for more.
That book came out in 2016 (whoops). Now, six years after Trump’s election, feminists are back on our heels, hoping to defend the tiniest scraps not of what we fought for, but what our mothers and grandmothers did more than fifty years ago.
We’re fighting for abortion rights, yes. But we’re also watching the gains of the #MeToo movement get swiftly walked back, as a high-profile celebrity trial turns into a carnival of misogyny. We’ve seen the legitimate critiques of #girlboss feminism devolve into an ambient hostility to and skepticism of any form of female ambition or success. And when a pandemic pushed so many women to the breaking point and out of the workforce, we saw those put in office by women offer… nothing.
It’s difficult to overstate just how thoroughly misogyny has re-infiltrated nearly every aspect of American life and American politics — including progressive communities and left politics.
As we prepare for the potential demise of abortion rights in the United States, there’s a lot of blame to go around, and most of it lies with the anti-abortion movement and the organized right wing. They have played the long game and used a variety of tactics, from training far-right legal scholars and law students and pushing them up the professional ladder no matter how paltry their qualifications and how febrile their minds, to embracing extreme violence to intimidate health workers out of providing abortions, to undermining democratic norms to allow the courts to become stacked with unqualified ideologues and reactionary political appointees. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for these efforts.
But we’re also in the midst of a broader anti-feminist backlash (all credit to Susan Faludi, whose book you must read if you haven’t). I think that’s part of the reason why we’re here now — and why so many of us feel so frustrated, scared, and close to defeat. That backlash comes primarily from the right. But the left is a part of it as well.
It started with Hillary Clinton. Or rather, this particular iteration of the feminist boom / antifeminist backlash cycle did.
I’m not going to defend every choice the Clinton campaign made, or claim that she was a perfect candidate. However: I think it’s undeniable that she would have made a much better president than Donald Trump, and that a male Hillary Clinton (ahem, her husband, or even Joe Biden) would have won. But for her femaleness, I believe Hillary Clinton would be president of the United States right now. Even if you personally dislike Clinton or believe someone else should have won the Democratic primary, it’s hard to deny that she faced rampant sexist abuse during the campaign (and long before and ever since), and that she was held to standards that a male candidate would not have been. It’s hard to deny that, four years after Clinton’s loss, Elizabeth Warren — whose progressive bona fides are as solid as they come, who was “a woman” in the claim made by so many of the progressives who hated Clinton when they said, “I would vote for a woman, just not that woman” — was also smeared and slammed for daring to compete with a man.
There was something about a woman seeking that kind of power — the power of the presidency — that really set people off (some of them women). There was something about women not just seeking power, but competing directly against men for power the broader public felt men were entitled to.
And there was something about the earnestness of Clinton’s and later Warren’s supporters that also set people off. Women being excited about the prospect of a woman in the White House? How uncool. How simple-minded. How typically female, to vote with your vagina and not your brain. And under the surface, I suspect, how threatening to realize that yes, women also want power, and yes, we think that something might change if a woman is president, and yes, we think that women sharing in power is important and not simply symbolic.
Also, Clinton supporters, and feminists broadly (many of whom did not support Clinton in the primary — that isn’t a feminist litmus test), cared. We really are emotionally attached to our cause. We don’t just want power for power’s sake. We see tremendous injustice around us. We experience rank unfairness at home, at work, on the street, everywhere we look. The anti-feminist backlash has come alongside a rising cynicism, a sense that being too invested is girlish, vaguely embarrassing, like donning a pink pussy hat to a lady-march.
The arc of feminism’s 2010s ascent peaked with a woman running for the presidency and nearly winning. That was too much: Feminism was quickly branded, even among people on the left, as deeply uncool, the political equivalent of a “live laugh love” sign.
On the right, the response to Clinton’s run was as crass, misogynist, and predictable as it had always been: the ball-buster Hillary nutcrackers, the “Trump that bitch” signs. What was shocking wasn’t the content, but the volume of it, and its broad appeal.
On the left, though, the antifeminist backlash was more subtle. For many leftist men (and some women), women who didn’t toe their particular political line became objects of mockery and scorn: bourgeois Karens, suburban wine moms, girlbosses, identity politics wokescolds. When Clinton lost, the mockery remained, this time directed at the middle-aged hysterics of the #resistance who were out marching, organizing in their communities, running for office, and working on campaigns, when everyone knows that the true work of revolutionary politics comes from all-male podcasting couches in Brooklyn. These middle-aged resistance hysterics were responsible for a bunch of midterm wins, but who cared? These are women who are definitionally uncool: Too old, too boring, too mom-ish, too earnest.
And besides, where were they before this? The same outlets and talking heads who applaud the political participation young people and members other groups who don’t turn out to vote in particular high numbers met the women who shaped 2018 with grudging recognition tinged with scorn and dismissal. It wasn’t enough that they turned out now, in this moment of crisis; they were marred by their lack of participation earlier (never mind that it’s not necessarily even true that they weren’t participating, or that the ones who were new to political engagement may have been busy working and raising their kids without much in the way of support). These women are not who men desire, and not who any girl is supposed to aspire to be. They are not young or cool or sexy or pliant; they haven’t heard of that band; they have unfashionable haircuts; they’re pushy and ambitious Tracy Flicks, or overly-emotional and shrill hysterics, or lecturing schoolmarms. They aren’t very good at performative cynicism or edgy jokes or cruel mockery of their opponents, which are among the most valuable currencies in the social media ecosystems political reporters and Very Online activists live in. Instead, they are either wholly invisible or easy objects of mockery from the cynical men who have deemed them unfuckable.
A bunch of people who were long vaguely uncomfortable with the goals of feminism but were willing to tolerate feminists when they were young, hot, and cool had now seen the danger in feminism’s ascendence: a successful feminist movement meant that women might get some more power, that more would be demanded of men, that men would not be the presumed leaders or winners of anything. And a bunch of those women wouldn’t be cool or hot or young, or otherwise worthy of speaking in public.
Conveniently for many men (and anti-feminist women), feminists did not break down male-dominated power structures, nor disabuse men and women alike of the notion that a woman’s value rests in her desirability and men’s approval of her. Male approval remains the metric by which women are judged, and women understand that gaining it pays dividends. With the men at the top of various power structures and subcultures suddenly far less reticent to express their distaste for feminists, and with feminists again branded as uncool and newly branded as neoliberal identity politics scolds, feminism became far less appealing, even to women who generally agree with the movement’s aims.
Feminism, in other words, is ok so long as it’s an aesthetic and not a genuine threat to male power and privilege.
At the same time that there was a broad disparagement of women’s political participation — particularly when that participation was focused on getting more women into office — there was a parallel rejection of women’s professional ambitions. What started out as legitimate critiques of women who claimed feminist principles to build businesses only to badly mistreat their female employees became a wholesale crusade against so-called “girlbosses” — a term that came to mean any woman who was professionally successful, and particularly any woman who found success starting her own business, whether she had ever claimed the mantle of feminist politics or not. A cottage industry emerged of investigations into what felt like any and every female-run company. Female founders who frankly didn’t behave all that differently than male ones were pilloried and made out to be catty, unpleasant, and incompetent. I truly cannot recall or even really imagine such a volume of pieces focusing on perceived personality defects and run-of-the-mill startup woes — conflicts with cofounders; company growing pains; overly-demanding and sometimes asshole bosses — coming out about male founders, and making their gender so central to their shortcomings. The message has been clear, though: Get too ambitious as a woman, and get too successful, and you’re a target. Female ambition and success are signs of both feminine moral failing and bad politics. You cannot be a person who is both dedicated to feminist and progressive causes and also be a woman who desires some modicum of personal and professional success.
Or, to put a finer point on it: There is a broad rejection of any feminism or female behavior that is seen as individualistic, while there is no parallel rejection of male individualism. There is a push on the left for a less individualistic and more interdependent culture — a push I support — without much of a recognition that the demands of interdependence are not made of men and fall most heavily on women, who make up the class of people who are and will be depended-upon.
At the same time as all of that, the right has embraced a kind of Franken-feminist who “has it all” — the Amy Coney Barretts of the world, who are professionally successful (thanks in part to the right-wing legal ladder) and who are also dedicated, traditional-minded mothers of many children. If Amy Coney Barrett can reject contraception and abortion and raise a half-dozen children and still become a Supreme Court justice, what’s stopping any other woman from doing the same? It’s certainly not any external force. Because one woman has it all, any woman can have it all. Those who don’t simply don’t want whatever “it all” might be.
The white nationalist and anti-feminist right has also found its female avatar in the “tradwife”: the (white) woman who rejects feminism and believes her purpose is to please her husband, stay home, and raise babies (and who is, historically, not particularly traditional). But the tradwife is also an object of faux-ironic appreciation in some quarters of the left, and particularly the small segment of the left that is sympathetic to religious and often Catholic anti-choice anti-feminist politics. Except it doesn’t feel much like a joke. God save any feminist who criticizes this misogynist nostalgia, because these are empowered women choosing their choice, or perhaps they’re the real socialists — the tradwife, after all, isn’t a racist antifeminist throwback; she’s simply a rejection of neoliberal capitalism, and who can really blame her? The tradwife, the woman who has it all — see? Women don’t want feminism. Women can choose whatever they wish, no liberation necessary.
Add onto that: a pandemic that shuttered schools and childcare facilities also pushed women out of work, or made their work feel untenable, or made their performance seem lacking. Add onto that: we’re in a moment of ambient rage — of bad behavior in public, of reckless driving, of rising homicides — and you can and should bet that much of this violence comes from men, and that it does not end when a man goes home, and that women are on the receiving end of all the rage you see expressed in public and then some. Add onto that: Women turned out in huge numbers to elect a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in Congress and yet Democrats can’t even get the most basic of bills passed that would still make the US one of the least supportive wealthy and developed nations when it comes to families and working mothers, but would at least inch us into the 21st century. Add onto that: After the heady years of #MeToo calling powerful men to account, powerful men are now suing the less-powerful women who speak out against them, using the courts to force their silence and their compliance.
The add-ons to this moment of misogynist backlash are unending. I’m sure I forgot a few.
These are the waters we are all now swimming in. The rollback of abortion rights has long been building. But it’s coming at a time when American culture has grown much more hostile to women in public, economic, and political life, and when women are destabilized, self-conscious, and exhausted by all of it. It’s coming at a time when America is particularly receptive to setting women back.
The question is how strong and lasting this antifeminist wave is, and how far back the clock is about to turn.