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The Revolution Will Be Mansplained: Ross Douthat Trumpets The Triumph of Feminism

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:

  1. First wave feminists in the U.S. were fractious, and held views that were socially conservative.
  2. 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.

Because Hilary, and Sonia, and maybe Elena. Because Sweden. Because Gaga — a little bit. Because, damnit, Clarence Thomas didn’t end racism and Sarah Palin sure the fuck hasn’t ended sexism.

35 Comments

  1. Bernadette wrote:

    Having never heard of him before, I kept thinking “Ross Douthat” was a bit of misspelled mockery and you really meant to type “Ross Douchehat.” Imagine my disappointment to find that his douchery is not emblazoned upon his writings and various legal documents for all the world to see and so be warned in advance.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  2. Crito wrote:

    Ahh, the sweet, sweet sound of hegemony co-opting and neutering the terminology of its dissenters.

    It would be damned poetic if it weren’t so horrifyingly effective.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  3. tsam wrote:

    Male perspective)

    Nice beatdown!

    Typical misogynist asshole, making some silly claim that if feminists aren’t united in every aspect of culture and politics, that they’re whole movement is unworthy of credibility. Regardless of the political leanings of women who actually manage to get somewhere in politics (against the odds), trying to measure them with the male’s perspective of a feminist yardstick is nothing more than an insidious attempt to discredit them. Ross says feminism has ended because he really really really wants it to have ended.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  4. snobographer wrote:

    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.

    And feminists were blamed for all the vitriol aimed at her, not the dudebros on DKos or CNN or hosting late-night talk shows.
    http://www.wikio.com/video/rick-davis-feminists-hate-palin-attractive-531488

    And there was just as much sexism from Palin’s own side

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_uzZicyTPk

    http://vpilf.com/

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  5. emjaybee wrote:

    Douthat remains true to form, I see; a slightly more literate version of your average knuckledragging sexist. Nothing he says stands up to any scrutiny, which tells you all you need to know about the NYTimes’ perception of what kinds of serious discourse belongs on their editorial pages.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  6. fshk wrote:

    Great essay! Also, I read recently—and this may have no bearing on your actual argument, but it kind of blew my mind a little bit—that women getting the vote may not even have really been a triumph of feminism. Some of the first wavers abandoned the (as they saw it, futile) cause and instead became a part of the Temperance movement. Women’s involvement in a movement to curtail rights actually kinda makes sense if you consider that a) pubs were the exclusive domain of men, and b) women were getting sick of their husbands going out to get hammered then coming home and beating the crap out of them. Ultimately, the 19th Amendment is, of course, borne of 100 years worth of work by the women’s movement, but it was also a triumph for the Prohibition movement—those in the pro-Prohibition camp wanted women to have the right to vote because they knew they’d vote overwhelmingly in favor of Prohibition.

    I feel like there are some parallels to Douthat’s argument, though: Republicans are bolstering women and supporting their success to achieve their own ends. You put a woman in office so you can say, “La la, shut up, Liberals, your agenda won!” but still push through conservative politics. So not much has changed.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  7. Courtney wrote:

    That argument makes no sense. I didn’t read your whole blog post, but this equation just doesn’t work: Women + Conservative = Feminism is Over.

    Listen, as far as I’m concerned, women can be just as bigoted, if not more bigoted, than men. I heard Gloria Steinem say once on Condelezza Rice, “Just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean she supports the interests of women.”

    What a shock.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  8. casey wrote:

    “Just because he/she is a human being doesn’t mean he/she supports the interests of humankind.”

    Is that less bigoted to your ears? Because that sounds like a pretty good description of Condi Rice to me.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  9. Samantha b. wrote:

    Oh but Emjaybee, we have Maureen Dowd and Gail “Women Are Afraid to Write Opinion” Collins representing the lady types! Fair and balanced, it ain’t just for Fox News anymore.

    @OP, this was fabulous. Thanks, C.L. I will only add that there is a possibility that a litter box smell fresh and new, if only for one fine fleeting moment. Fucking Douthat will unrelentingly be fucking Douthat.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  10. snobographer wrote:

    Ultimately, the 19th Amendment is, of course, borne of 100 years worth of work by the women’s movement, but it was also a triumph for the Prohibition movement—those in the pro-Prohibition camp wanted women to have the right to vote because they knew they’d vote overwhelmingly in favor of Prohibition.

    You mean it wasn’t that note that one guy got from his mother and a personal crisis of conscience? You mean men in power didn’t decide to bestow rights out of the goodness of their precious little hearts?

    Next thing you’re going to tell me white northerners didn’t advocate for abolition of slavery for purely altruistic principles.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink
  11. Victoria wrote:

    Redefining language has been a core function of the contemporary conservative movement for a while, and to me, one of the most upsetting.

    Bush legally redefined “child,” allegedly so that the unborn could be insured and considered second victims in violent crimes against pregnant women (though we all know what this was really about); he redefined “detainee” so he could torture; there are other examples that I’m too frustrated to recall, but the above were both accomplished by executive order and left completely unexamined by mainstream voters.

    So redefining “feminism,” taking our language and handing it back to us in unrecognizable form, is part and parcel of the work the GOP has devoted itself to.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  12. lizardbreath wrote:

    It has been absolutely infuriating to listen to the main stream news outlet characterize theses victories by conservative woman as some sort of major victory for women everywhere.

    A woman who is elected and will actively work to deny autonomy to other women is no different from a man who is elected and does the same thing. Both are enemies of the feminist cause. Birth accompanied by a vagina doesn’t come with the feminist membership card.

    Nailed it, Sady. I just with our news outlets weren’t so fucking willfully dense, and wouldn’t characterize the elevation of any vagina-holder as a feminist victory.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  13. JfC wrote:

    If Mary Daly can be called a feminist then why not Sarah Palin?

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink
  14. snobographer wrote:

    If Ronald Reagan can be called a conservative, why not Barack Obama?

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  15. JfC wrote:

    You’re missing the point. Palin’s anti-woman policies are actually anti-marginalized woman policies. She can afford to be anti-choice and force women to pay for their own rape kits because she’s privileged enough to provide for babies or pay for her own rape kit should the need arise. Mary Daly used her platform to put down trans women over and over and over, because of her own privilege. If it’s ok for one person to use feminism to only support the type of women they find acceptable (and who happens to be part of the spectrum of acceptable women), why not another?

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  16. JfC wrote:

    Renee has written more eloquently than me on this, I suggest you check out womanist musings today.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Permalink
  17. queen emily wrote:

    @JFC I think the difference – and I should point out that as a trans woman I have literally NO fondness for Daly or anyone defending her – is that Daly has some measure of critique of male power. ie in God the Father she critiques the compulsory figuring of God as male in Christianity. That doesn’t make up for her numerous problems as a writer, of course.

    Whereas I think that Sarah Palin’s critique is less of male power (in any form, really) than a bogstandard libertarian critique of “centralised government” married with a neo-fascist invocation of “the people” whose birthright is being stolen (by liberals, by elites, by immigrants, by gays etc etc).

    So I think there are some meaningful differences between the two.

    Renee’s right to point out the continuities between Palin and the liberal feminists up in arms about her, but I think that the difference between explicit and implicit isn’t negligible. During the 2008 elections, I saw the crowds of angry white folks Palin was whipping up with and I said to my wife that if McCain wins we’d be moving to Australia. Cos she genuinely scares me, I truly think she’s a fascist, and certainly could foresee her putting in Arizona style laws nationally if given the chance..

    @Snobographer I would argue that Obama is as conservative economically, actually. It’s just that the Republicans have gone so far right that a dyed-in-the-wool neo-liberal like Obama seems relatively ok.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Permalink
  18. snobographer wrote:

    @Queen Emily – I’d argue that Obama’s pretty socially conservative too.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  19. C.L. Minou wrote:

    @Lizardbreath: Actually, CL, though as always I’m honored when people confuse my writing with Sady’s. Even if that means I have to pull extra pencil sharpening duty.

    As for your point, believe me I’m aware that the presence or absence of a vagina at birth is no predictor of future feminism :)

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  20. JfC wrote:

    I identify as a feminist, and I would hate to see Sarah Palin share a label with me, but I already hate to see Mary Daly share it. I dunno, I’m frustrated with people calling out Palin’s privilege as a motive for excluding her from taking on the name of feminist without owning the history of privilege we have to bear. I’m just arguing that that’s not enough to EXCLUDE someone, if we accept other privileged people. I do agree that for inclusion, sincerely fighting patriarchy is necessary.

    I think Sarah Palin (shallowly) played on taking on the good ol’ boys network, and she tends to use quips to take symbolic swipes at male power, saying “My own mantra is that behind every good, productive man stands a very surprised woman”, and invoking Margeret Thatcher to say “In politics, if you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.” She’s trying to take on the image of fighting male power a bit, though she doesn’t really follow through.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  21. JfC wrote:

    @Snobgrapher Sorry, I thought you were being facetious. Can we be friends?

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink
  22. snobographer wrote:

    @JFC – I don’t see why not.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink
  23. snobographer wrote:

    @JFC – I actually hadn’t heard of Mary Daly until she died. It sounds like she made some good points, which she canceled out with some very bad points. And for what I read, it was disturbing to see as many tributes to her as I did, as heavily qualified as those tributes were.
    It’s the same kind of disturbing as people now arguing that Palin is a feminist. Which, actually, is about as disturbing as people arguing that Obama is a feminist. Does anybody know what a feminist is anymore?

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 5:21 pm | Permalink
  24. JfC wrote:

    Sometimes I don’t really know what a feminist is.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Permalink
  25. of making many books wrote:

    hi, i just wanted to gently point out that Douthat was quoting Kerry Howley from Bookforum, not Nikki Haley (both H names that end in the “-y” sound), in that quote about Victorian feminists. Also can we make a joke that goes something like “is Ross not a douche? I’d Douthat” (get it?)

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Permalink
  26. C.L. Minou wrote:

    @Of Making Many Books: OOOPS! My bad; one should not write essays wrapped around an order of yummy nachos. Correction forthcoming.

    Also, I’d like to point out one of the many reasons Ross Douthat undeniably is a douche is that in the original op-ed, he links to the Howley quote–which is behind a pay wall. Niiice.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink
  27. Johnny Pez wrote:

    not without defining the word out of any meaningful existence

    As Victoria points out, this is now a standard weapon in the wingnut aresenal. One obvious example is of course the Pantload’s startling redefinition of fascism as “stuff I don’t like”.

    Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 12:45 am | Permalink
  28. Lee Brimmicombe-Wood wrote:

    Thanks for the Sweden reference. As an Englishman living in Sweden the daddy leave seemed quite bizarre when I first encountered it. But I’ve seen guys in my office go on long paternity leave of six months or more and it’s great! In the day care centres you see almost as many guys attending as women–something not true of UK day care. And the daycare provision is designed to get both parents back to work.

    Sweden is the country where they don’t just talk about caring for the family, they actually back it with cash and care. The child support I get from the state here is incredible. It is allowing my wife to go on an intensive Swedish course with the aim of finding a job. This should be the model for all first-world states.

    Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  29. snobographer wrote:

    Sweden’s got some issues.

    http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/ACT77/001/2010/en

    Just sayin’

    Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  30. Melinda wrote:

    So, I totes agree with the sentiments about the general op-ed writers of the NYTimes, but I have to put my word in for Nicholas Kristof. He’s adorable. He writes about things that I think most people at the NY Times are happy ignoring when it comes to the third world.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/magazine/23Women-t.html?_r=1&ref=nicholasdkristof

    Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  31. nothing to add except that this was awesome! as always!

    Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink
  32. anotheramanda wrote:

    I second Brimmicombe-Wood’s (awesome name btw) thanks regarding the Sweden link. I am perpetually confused how, here in the US, placing value on the family does not seem to translate to improving the quality of life of children and their caretakers. Maybe this is why we only rank 28th on the 2010 Mother’s Index?

    I find it interesting that conservabros such as these will even touch the f-word, and portray it as a good thing. I have encountered (read: dated) people who think that feminism is a matriarchal crusade to enforce the superiority of women and subjugate all men as our sex slaves. No joke. It’s a very charged label, and frequently a misunderstood one. But you all know that. I have to wonder what kind of effect conservatives like Palin and Doucheface will have on the public’s view of feminism now that they are (mis)applying that label to themselves.

    Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 8:01 pm | Permalink
  33. anotheramanda wrote:

    Yeah so C.L. definitely already made the point that the conservafeminists are altering the public’s perception of feminism and therefore removing it of it’s power, I just meant I wonder if it will get rid of the negative association that some non-Beatdown readers have with the movement.

    Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Permalink
  34. Lee Brimmicombe-Wood wrote:

    Snobographer, thanks for the link. Very interesting reading. The Swedes like to think of themselves as one of the most progressive nations on Earth but it’s clear there’s areas where there’s a very long way to go. At least I’ll credit them with trying to address the issue and intentions at legislative level are, on the whole, good. The efficacy of solutions is another matter.

    One thing: Sweden is a country with an immigrant population of around 9%. (Though admittedly a large chunk of those immigrants are Danes, Finns, etc.) The high rate of rape against minorities is telling and may be linked, especially here in Skåne, to racism. Outside of the cities there are some pretty backward attitudes to non-whites.

    Thursday, June 17, 2010 at 1:02 am | Permalink
  35. snobographer wrote:

    Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

    The Swedish immigration issue keeps coming up with the rape issue, but there’s no link. The courts dismiss rape cases, police “lose” reports and for the same stupid bullshit reasons they do right here in the U.S. of A. Most rapes are committed by intimate partners and acquaintances of the victim, who strongly tend to be of the same ethnicity or nationality as the victim. It’s normalized and rationalized by a patriarchal judicial system that’s very eager to maintain the status quo. Just like here.

    Thursday, June 17, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

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