If I were to tell you that the New York Times had published something that skirted the line between outright misogyny and paternalistic smugness, you’d probably yawn. If I told you that Ross Douthat had said something mock-controversial about women, you’d probably note that I had come up with an observation of the same erudition that rain is wet and litterboxes stink. (I know. The litterbox thing seemed like a natural metaphor for a Ross Douthat column to me too.)
But ladies–and those few poor gentlemen in the room–I have news for you! Because according to Mr. Douthat, the long war of the sexes is finally over! And FEMINISM WON! YES! IT’S V-F DAY! YOU LADIES HAVE FINALLY DONE IT!
And how does Mr. Douthat know this? Because a teabagger candidate won a primary in Nevada. While female.
She was not alone, you know! It seems that conservative women have been winning all sorts of races lately. In California we will have an all-lady race for the position of Senator, and a woman running for the unenviable position of rubber-stamping the latest ruinous rounds of tax-immunity voter initiatives, while trying to find a buyer for Catalina Island. (I have an ex who is a Californian, and the tales of California state government that came with the relationship were the only time I’ve felt nostalgic about New York State’s government.)
It seems that because of this, as Mr. Douthat — or, as I like to call him, Mr. Soon-To-Be-Faceless-Cog-In-The-Matriarchy — has decided that… well, let me allow him to say it, because I don’t think my brain cells are capable of firing independently in this particular order: “When historians set out to date the moment when the women’s movement of the 1970s officially consolidated its gains, they could do worse than settle on last Tuesday’s primaries.”
Uh. Huh. Now, this is the point when I rattle off any number of statistics that you know, starting with the 70-cents-on-the-dollar thing (and oooh, don’t I know all about that one) and winding up with some sexual assault statistics that MRAs will flock to like flies to… a litterbox. Now, I really don’t have the energy to deal with all that, so let’s take it as posited that I did my due diligence, the webcrawlers will crawl elsewhere, and we can both move on to something like a conclusion here.
Because I have a point, a bigger one than that Ross Douthat is a douche. (I mean, seriously, I hardly need a thousand words for that.) The point I want to make is about this new idea being peddled around, in the latest edition of Backlash Lies Your Grandfather Told You — the idea that feminism is over because it has allowed anti-feminist women to rise to power.
I’ll let you chew that one over for a bit.
Let’s ignore, for a second, the amount of tokenism that has often played out when minorities (or, you know, disprivileged majorities) make deals with groups bent on defending the existing power structure. Let’s ignore, for a bit — ’cause Cthulu knows Douthat does — how even in these super-duper empowerful races, the female candidates were the victims of double-standards. (Let’s slut shame Nikki Haley! Remember, if a man says a woman has bad hair, he’s mean, but Carly Fiorina is a bitch!) Let’s get to the meat of Douthat’s argument, which seems to consist of the following major points:
- First wave feminists in the U.S. were fractious, and held views that were socially conservative.
- Sarah Palin said something.
On the first point, Douthat quotes Nikki Haley Kerry Howley on Victorian women: “She might well support free love but think condoms a tool of the sex-mad patriarchy; she might want to socialize housework or smash the state.” The fact that women disagree about things now, Douthat says, is a “sign that feminism may be returning to its fractious, ideologically unpredictable roots.” This only follows if you a) decide to learn nothing about United States history from 1850 to 1920 and b) are willfully obtuse. Seriously.
It sounds harsh, but that’s because you really have to work in order to somehow miss, despite the literally tons of documents that discuss it, that the first wave feminists — despite their positions on various issues such as marriage, sex, contraception, and hell, the abolition of slavery — were pretty much united behind the idea that women deserved the right to vote. That was the issue that drove almost all of their activism. Even things that are reprehensible in hindsight — say, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s opposition to the 14th and 15th amendments — can be understood in the light of their single-minded commitment to suffrage. (Their position was that the amendments shouldn’t be passed unless they included the rights of women to vote within them; short-sighted, given the conditions of the post-Civil War South, but not something this veteran of the inclusive ENDA fight doesn’t understand the motivations for.) As for the socially conservative part of this formula, well. Hell. It was the nineteenth century; even some of the suffragists weren’t exactly forward-looking when it came to, say, the rights of women to work outside the home.
But. We are also talking about an era when women wearing pants was about as scandalous as gay marriage is today. You have to judge people by the mores of their era if you want to play the relativism game, and by any measure, most of the first wave feminists were about a cut below bomb-throwing anarchists, especially in the contemporary imagination. Even the most trumpeted idea of the new conservative “feminism” — that Susan B. Anthony and other first wavers opposed abortion — has to also acknowledge that for most of their lives, abortion wasn’t even illegal. That, and that it’s a fucking lie:
The bits of information circulating on the Web always cite “Marriage and Maternity,” an article in a newspaper owned for several years after the Civil War by Susan B. Anthony. In it, the writer deplores “the horrible crime of child-murder,” and signs it simply, “A.” Although no data exists that Anthony wrote it, or ever used that shorthand for herself, she is imagined to be its author. The anti-abortion forces also ignore the paragraph in which the anonymous author vigorously opposes “demanding a law for its suppression.” In other words, the article opposes the criminalization of abortion and was written by someone other then Anthony. Untold? Unproven.
So okay, on to the second argument! Sarah Palin called the new conservative “feminists” “mama grizzlies!” This is supposed to be evidence of some deep cultural change, “that America is now a country where social conservatives are as comfortable as liberals with the idea of women in high office.” Well, sure–just so long as she is exceptional in every way, including her determination to defend a social system that routinely stomps on the rights of other women, poor people, people of color, gays and lesbians, trans folks (hi!) and basically anybody who wasn’t in the script of a “Leave it to Beaver” episode. In other words, Douthat’s reasonable social conservatives are willing to accept as their champion… female people who tell them that they’re not doing anything wrong.
But among the many, ah, interesting ideas that Douthat posits (Hilary Clinton is now “many conservatives’ favorite liberal?” In what dimension, and may I move there soon?), his most dangerous ones are the idea that Sarah Palin is a feminist, and that the attacks of the left on her are misogynistic.
Second point first: well, some of the things said about her were sexist. But just as many feminists stood up against those attacks. At the same time that they criticized Palin’s positions. Because she’s the beneficiary of feminism. Not a feminist. A woman who opposes the autonomy of other women over their bodies (while loudly trumpeting her own daughter’s triumph in making a choice her mother wants her to not have had the right to make in the first place); who charged the women of her town for their own rape kits; she can never be a feminist, not as we understand it today, not without defining the word out of any meaningful existence.
And that’s the danger. That’s why I’ve spent way too much time talking about Column Number Infinity in the Ross Douthat Douchebaggery Collection (coming soon on adorable plates from the Franklin Mint). Because this stuff is dangerous, much more dangerous than the “empowerful” faux-feminism of the Spice Girls years — because at least then you had women doing things that challenged the social order, like talking about sex on television or proving there’s a vast market for books by women. This is different. This is an attempt to make feminism mean nothing by making it mean anything. It’s about setting up the enemies of feminism as people who are presumed to speak for feminism.
And it’s bullshit. Just being a woman has never been the only requirement for being a feminist. (Trust a trans person on that one.) Being a feminist has been about fighting for women, all women, and our understanding of just what that means has expanded even as some of the first few battles were finally won. Feminism long ago ceased to only be about the rights of a select group of women; it isn’t even always about women anymore, but has become much more like bell hooks’ vision of a struggle against all forms of oppression — imperfectly, always in need of more, more dedication, more commitment, more willingness to fight.
Straw-feminist builders like Douthat always miss that, always miss the deep connection that feminism has to have with progressive struggles, because they want to reduce it down to a few mansplained talking points — see, women in the workplace! Running for office! Sexism is over — ignore the fact that Congress is 83% male.
But this is the backlash, and this is one of its most dangerous weapons: Taking the voice of women away from them, telling us what we are saying, defining for us what our movement is, smiling patronizingly and telling us the fight is over and we should go home and be taken care of.
Well, fuck that.