It is International Women’s Day 2019, and the situation has never been better for women.
The 2018 midterms saw unprecedented numbers of women, including women of color, sworn into public office in January. The #MeToo movement has spread from Hollywood to the hallowed halls of the Vatican, taking down powerful abusers at every turn. The social toppling of R. Kelly vindicated black women and girls who have been speaking out against his sexual abuse for two decades. In February, a record fifteen women took home Academy Awards for a diverse range of films. On Wednesday, GOP Senator Martha McSally spoke out in a hearing on rape in the armed forces and the Chamber was visibly moved by her testimony. There’s never been a better time to be a woman in America.
While each of these milestones certainly is progress, the victories feel hollow in a shifting landscape that continues to be antagonistic towards women’s rights, perhaps even sliding further and further into old misogyny in some places. Every step forward can feel like it is marred by two steps back.
Despite the victories, 2019 has also already seen the Ohio and Tennessee heartbeat bills, which have the effect of banning nearly all abortion. The new addition of Justice Kavanaugh, an opponent of both a women’s right to choose and to not be raped (allegedly), to the Supreme Court last October cast a dark cloud over the legacy of Roe. Women’s spaces and hard-fought freedoms are being eroded. Online misogyny has been steadily on the rise, creating havens where Men’s Rights Activists, MGTOWs, and Incels find a community eager to spread hate and excuse violence against women.
"For every ounce of ground an oppressed people have gained, pushback is sure to follow."
But let us be under no illusion that these attacks are coming only from the right; men on the left are more than willing to jump on the misogyny bandwagon and throw women under the bus, both subtly and openly when politically convenient.
This pattern is one that may feel familiar to feminist historians. For every ounce of ground an oppressed people have gained, pushback is sure to follow. We are seeing a similar pattern play out with race in America right now, where white supremacists are actively recruiting the next generation in an attempt to stem the increased access and voice that people of color are starting to gain. These systems are, of course, deeply intertwined and it’s no surprise that similar patterns of progress and pushback are emerging across various social movements. Any threat to the status quo is met with fierce and swift resistance by those who have the most to lose. In this case, it is men. Yes, that includes liberal, leftist, and “progressive” men as well.
In 1970, leftist women were facing increased misogyny, violence, and oppression from within radical circles. Liberal, socialist, and Marxist men alike held (and still hold) little objection to fighting against the class-based oppression of the working man while ignoring (or outright abusing) the physical, emotional, domestic, and sexual labor of women. Women were being objectified in the very publications that claimed to fight for radical liberation, demanding women be available sexually for men at their beck and call: “Free grass, free food, free women, free acid, free clothes, etc.” (as John Sinclair is claimed to have said).
Rather than acquiesce to male interests, Robin Morgan and other women revolted, taking over the zine “Rat Subterranean News” by force to publish a radical feminist call to action against the misogyny of the left. She wrote in her now-famous essay “Goodbye to all that” (which truly ought to be read in its glorious entirety):
“A genuine Left doesn’t consider anyone’s suffering irrelevant or titillating; nor does it function as a microcosm of capitalist economy, with men competing for power and status at the top, and women doing all the work at the bottom (and functioning as objectified prizes or coin as well). Goodbye to all that. Run it all the way down.”
Yet, despite these women who attempted to resist male backlash and reclaim the revolution for themselves, women have long had the habit of responding to pushback by doing what we have been trained to do best — bowing our heads and catering to men’s needs. It’s not shocking that feminism has moved further and further away from anything resembling women’s independence and liberation when those who are tasked with fighting for it are still themselves victims of a Societal Stockholm Syndrome which keeps us desperate for male approval. It is an act of survival, short-term as it may be, in a system that aims to destroy women at every turn.
This is not the first time this has happened, either. Feminism has a long history of being shaped by men’s demands, both subtle and not. After the feminists of the 1890s fought against child sexual abuse and the buying and selling of women’s bodies for sex, the “sexual revolution” of the 1920s emerged as a clear backlash to such “puritan” ideals such as not raping women and girls. Documented in infuriating detail in Sheila Jeffrey’s “The Spinster and Her Enemies,” the sexual revolution was arguably manufactured by male “sexologists” and psychoanalysts as a means of curbing the era’s growing trend of female sexual independence. The backlash worked, and women enjoyed the benefits of a sexual revolution which gave them the liberty to be more sexually available to men in the exact ways men desired.
Over the past hundred years, feminism has slowly bent under male pressure from both the left and the right further and further, now catering nearly entirely to men’s desires. Despite more and more men now considering themselves “feminists,” these allies are only such because feminism has become watered-down to be palatable to them. The #HeForShe era of feminism, which somehow manages to put men first in a movement about women, is a direct result of each generation of feminists surrendering more and more ground to the inevitable pushback against their cause.
The disgraced Feminist Apparel CEO, Alan Martofel, is a prime example of the failure of modern feminism to separate itself from men’s interests. Martofel capitalized on the violence and oppression inflicted against women, while he was sexually abusing and harassing women himself. When his history as an abuser was discovered in July, he fired his entire female staff in an effort to cover up the scandal. How any man became so accepted and powerful in a feminist space should be seriously questioned. The monetization of feminism for male gain should have never been allowed.
As Audre Lorde said:
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
If women stand any chance of achieving liberation and independence from men, we must stop capitulating to their desires, capitalistic goals, and inevitable violence in a desperate attempt to curb the pushback. It does not gain us true allies. It does not create incremental change. It simply does not work. Rather, the women who have the least protection from proximity to the privilege of the white male ruling class suffer the most under these concessions. We are throwing our own under the bus.
This is not by accident. The patriarchy and those who benefit from it are desperate to prevent the arrival of class-consciousness to the modern women’s movement. Keeping women constantly on the defensive, falling over ourselves to give up more and more ground to gain male “allies,” prevents us from truly pausing to examine the long-term impact of our platform on women as a whole. In our push for more badass stiletto-wearing female CEOs, we have forgotten that these corporations themselves are built on oppression, and never mind the fact that empowerment dependent on your own objectification and dehumanization is not empowerment at all. Rather than fighting for women’s liberation, we are fighting for women’s acceptance into the patriarchy.
As Morgan wrote in 1970, “The backlash is upon us.” It was upon them then. It was upon them 50 years prior, in 1920. It is upon us again now, 50 years later.
If we ever want to see true progress, women need to stop accepting male visions of “equality” as the benchmark for success, and to respond to pushback with even greater vigor. Feminism which centers men and male ideals is not feminism at all. On this International Women’s Day 2019, let us not forget the goal of feminism: women’s liberation from male oppression.
And liberation will never be achieved by surrendering to our oppressors.