How to Survive an Anti-Feminist Backlash
The course of feminist progress never did run smooth. That may not be a comforting thing to acknowledge, in November of 2016—now that we’ve elected a white-supremacist beauty-pageant mogul with over a dozen outstanding sexual-assault allegations, and potentially handed the Supreme Court over to a conservative supermajority that could effectively erase most of the second wave’s gains—but it’s true. Every feminist stride forward has been accompanied by backlash; the forthcoming Trump administration is just one more dark period in a history where bursts of light have always been the exception. The question is how to keep the movement alive, or at least on life support, until real progress is possible again.
The pattern laid down by history is clear. The first major book of feminist theory in the West, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was shockingly popular when it was published in 1792. Key figures in American politics—John and Abigail Adams, Aaron Burr—studied it with care and reverence. If things had gone only a little differently, the United States might have been founded as an explicitly feminist nation. But Wollstonecraft died, and the posthumously revealed details of her sexual life and mental illness were used to conduct a campaign of character assassination, until feminism itself became tainted by association. That led to the 19th century and the Victorian era, whose institutionalized misogyny and sexual conservatism still comprise the backbone of most anti-feminist thinking today.
The cycle repeats. The 19th century did, eventually, give us the suffrage movement—but white women gaining the vote did not prevent the harshly enforced racist patriarchy of the early 20th century. By the 1960s, the Father Knows Best era had gotten unbearable enough to give us the second wave—which, after making rapid cultural and legislative progress throughout the ’70s, met the freeze-out of the 1980s through the 2000s. Throughout the 2000s, an independent women’s-media movement, facilitated by the rise of blogging, broke the taboo on talking about gender politics. It so effectively mainstreamed the feminist movement that, by the early 2010s, mainstream journalism and pop culture alike rode its coattails. Now, right on schedule, we have New York Times op-eds on why liberals should stop talking about “identity politics.”
Oh yeah, and Trump.
Granted, Trump’s more-than-flirtation with fascism will make this particular cycle worse. Some, like journalist and scholar of authoritarian regimes Sarah Kendzior, see no hope at all for feminist progress: “We need to prevent the Trump regime. There will be no organizing under it,” Kendzior told me. “If we go forward under his regime, it will be authoritarianism and there is a decent chance we will be jailed or killed.”
Yet “preventing” the Trump administration is likely impossible: There is no evidence that the Electoral College will swing to Clinton, or that evidence of Russian influence on the election will be investigated deeply enough or quickly enough to call his victory into question. If we believe that Trump will happen, the question then becomes how to slow him down, and how to keep organized and committed to that task.