How anti-feminism gets redefined as Real Feminism
Hullabaloo has been all over this excellent post by Dante Atkins, even though I have to disagree that we never see a positive argument for abortion rights. (One of the chapters in my book is titled “Only One Side of the Abortion Debates Wants You to Get Laid”.) But I do take Digby’s point seriously—the treatment of abortion as a necessary evil doesn’t seem to me to do very much in shoring up abortion rights. In my experience, the vast majority of pro-choice people are pro-choice because they buy into a larger cluster of beliefs about women’s basic value beyond being incubators, and because they think sexual liberation has been largely beneficial to the public. Which is a belief that tailors nicely to reality, as I note below.
Anyway, that’s not really the point of this post. I just want to discuss something tristero noticed about the rhetoric that stems from social conservatives as of late, especially female ones. It’s the “we’re the REAL feminists” gambit.
A fairly recent trend on the right has been a conscious effort to rebrand feminism and detach it from liberalism. I suppose their market research told them “feminism” has pretty robust positive connotations for most women…..
There’s now “feminism” and “Leftist Feminism.” That creepy accumulation of sibilants, so evocative of the hiss of snakes. And, of course, the SS. The term “Leftist feminism” is all of a piece with the efforts to rebrand the Great Alaskan Grifter (hereafter, GAG*) as some kind of female hero….
This is something that’s been going on since forever. I get at least two-three link backs a week from some ranting two bit conservative blog about how I’m a typical “left feminist” who is actually out to get women by denying them their god-given right to do the only thing women really want to do, which involves being a supplicant to conservative male desires. I don’t think it’s a talking point that came out of any market research. It’s just another manifestation of the weird wingnut dance they do with the liberal elite in their heads—they hate and envy the “liberal elite”, and vacillate between condemning them and aspiring to beat them at their own game. It’s a lot like the “liberals are the REAL racists” crap, or the tendency to demonstrate pride in ignorance and then flip around and insist they’re the real smarty-pants. It’s dizzying and really kind of pointless.
The grabbiness at the feminist label is particularly amusing, since when conservatives aren’t insisting they’re the Real Feminists, they’re doing everything in their power to denigrate the label so that women fear adopting it. But there’s basically two rationalizations in play that conservatives use to justify this nonsense. Sometimes they work in conjunction, and sometimes separately.
1) Misconceptions about who feminists are. The word “feminist” literally means someone who buys into the belief that men and women should be socially, politically, and economically equal. But the term “feminist” is often used to conjure up a very specific image of a very specific kind of woman—picture someone in a suit with pearls, taking on the world with a nanny and a housekeeper at home, and a husband who indulges her ambitions. Or a single woman who achieves because she’s not weighed down by familial obligations. Either way, the suit and pearls are the key to the image. This image is usually used by conservatives to imply to each other that feminists are emasculation machines, but more and more often, they have a need to actually project this image as a positive one. It’s not just because they have a sea of female politicians and pundits who fit it, but it’s also because they’ve discovered that these women are saleable. Men like to look at them and imagine fucking them, and women like the reassurance that just because they’re anti-feminist doesn’t mean they’re wimps.
In a sense, then, calling Sarah Palin a “feminist” is almost an innocent mistake. Someone might actually think “feminist” is a label you use to describe someone who doesn’t let being female get in the way of wearing a power suit. In reality, Sarah Palin cannot be a feminist by definition, since she doesn’t buy into the idea that men and women are equal, and instead promotes anti-feminist philosophies like forced childbirth. And she not only promotes anti-feminist policy positions, she does so for anti-feminist reasons. Check out this blog post I wrote at XX, where I explain how Palin automatically assumes that most women are too stupid to know what they want and are capable of.
2) Misconceptions about what feminists believe. This is a case of conservatives believing their own hype. They’ve been claiming that feminists are man-haters for so long, that they have started to assume that any policy or belief that will cause trouble for men is automatically feminist, and so they concern troll feminists by suggesting we’re not “real” feminists because we refuse to mindlessly support anything that will piss a lot of men off. You see the fingerprints of this mentality all over the quotes tristero pulls from the Ruth Institute publications. It’s beyond doubt that it wouldn’t be very popular with many men if women lost access to contraception and abortion and if no-fault divorce laws were repealed, making it incredibly difficult to get out of bad marriages. In fact, sexual liberation and the right to divorce are so popular with men you almost have to wonder why the patriarchy didn’t just have those features, until you remember that patriarchy (like most authoritarian ideologies) is a negative, joyless system that prioritizes control so much that hurting the people of privilege in order to keep the oppressed down is considered a reasonable price to pay.
Anyway, the logic seems to go like this:
A) Feminists hate men
B) But men have by and large benefited from feminism. The benefit that most obsesses wingnuts is the sexual benefit of being able to have more sex and more interesting sex—an obsession which tends to reaffirm suspicions that wingnuttery is the result of sexual deprivation due to acute assholery and self-centeredness, but we have to wait for the research to be sure—but it’s really more than that. Feminism has raised the standard of living for many households because of dual incomes, and then there’s the hard to measure effect of raising male expectations about what they can get from a romantic relationship in terms of emotional and intellectual stimulation. When faced with this evidence contradicting the “man-hater” stereotype, there’s only two conclusions.
C1) Feminists really don’t hate men and instead picture a world where women’s well-being improves the well-being of all or
C2) Feminists are too stupid to see what abject failures they are. Isn’t that just like women?
Conservatives obviously are choosing C2, though of course it has exactly zero evidence for it. A lot of this is just projection. They see politics as a game of “who gets screwed?” and assume that everyone else does, as well. And since the system they support, which is patriarchy, screws men in service of screwing women, they see feminism as simply the same thing but reversed, a system where women get screwed in service of screwing men. Therefore, the only Real Feminism is anti-feminism.
Yes, wingnut logic makes no sense at all. But it’s pretty much never about logic, and just about being mean-spirited and pushing people’s buttons. What I don’t understand is the mainstream media’s continued willingness to believe that there is such a thing as a conservative feminist, or that feminism can be separated from liberalism in any meaningful way. I mean, I get that some liberals are sexists, but as a philosophy, feminism is simply a branch of a larger liberal belief in the basic humanity of all people.
Also, I have to point out that I think of myself as a big time feminist, and I don’t own a single power suit.