How To Build A Gender Equality Movement
Reclaiming true equality, freedom, and fairness for both sexes
This was originally written for Heat Street at the time of its launch in 2016 (where it was published on March 14, 2016 with some edits). Since Heat Street recently folded with no past issues kept online, the article has vanished except for archive sites, and I thought I would share it here. While it’s not quite up-to-date, given the Donald Trump phenomenon and the feminist resistance, I think much of it still applies, so I’m reposting as is.
Feminism is all the rage right now — on college campuses across America and Europe, on the Internet, in the mainstream media, and even on celebrity circuit. “All the rage” in more ways than one, since rage seems to be feminism’s current dominant mode. It can be over anything: a scientist wearing a shirt with images of sexy babes; women having to shoulder the burden of holiday gift-wrapping; a college hosting the wrong kind of feminist speaker; men sitting with their legs apart on public transit. It’s almost as if, at a time of unprecedented female freedom and opportunity, many feminists were looking for reasons to feel aggrieved.
Small wonder that most Americans and Britons say they support equal rights but do not identify as feminists, or that some of the best and brightest young women shun the label. Barnard College sophomore Toni Airaksinen, a first-generation student from a poor family, feels she “should be a feminist”; but she also sees modern feminism as “a cult of victimhood” that “panders to women’s traumas and teaches them that they have been victimized solely because they are female” while promoting male-bashing and “intolerance of dissent.”
That intolerance is sadly familiar to those of us advocating for a saner, more inclusive feminism. Leading feminist pundit Amanda Marcotte’s list of “women working tirelessly to attack equal rights for women” is topped by “equity feminism” proponent Christina Hoff Sommers, with me in the №2 spot. (One of my offenses: challenging claims that women are routinely terrorized on the Internet.) And, after The Washington Post published my essay critical of attempts to redefine many ambiguous sexual experiences as rape, a feminist editor at the online magazine Quartz tweeted that “we must stop” the Post from “publishing this horrendous, damaging rape apologist.”
Many critics of modern feminism believe that we should give up on the “f-word” and replace it with a gender-neutral term such as “egalitarianism.” Others, such as Sommers, argue that feminism is still needed. But regardless of terminology, how do we reclaim a movement for true equality, freedom, and fairness for both sexes? Here are a few basic guideposts.
Pitch a big tent. If some people are pro-equality but won’t call themselves feminists, chiding them or explaining that they are “really” feminists can only further put them off. Feminists, humanists, egalitarians and yes, men’s rights activists — shared goals and values are important, labels are not. Nor should there be ideological litmus tests beyond the core principles of human rights and equal treatment regardless of gender. Support for those principles doesn’t require any particular position on gun control, national security, or economic regulation. Intellectual diversity is strength.
Stand against the thought police. Particularly in the universities, we are seeing a major assault on speech in the name of “progressive” goals including feminism. Heretical words and ideas — questioning claims of a college rape epidemic, suggesting some sex differences are innate — have been redefined as attacks on “safety.” After Christina Hoff Sommers spoke at Georgetown University, the student paper, The Hoya, blasted the group that invited her for promoting “harmful conversation.” Feminist lawyer and writer Wendy Kaminer warns that such “soft authoritarianism” has pernicious consequences outside academe: “Instead of advancing equality, it’s teaching future generations of leaders the ‘virtues’ of autocracy.”
Humanism, yes; oppression Olympics, no. Current feminist politics stress “intersectionality” — the complex dynamics of various inequities based on race, gender, religion, disability, and so forth. In theory, this approach could make feminism more flexible and help move past simplistic woman-as-victim, man-as-oppressor stereotypes. In practice, it usually turns into a hierarchy of labels in which people are judged on their identities and white “cisgender” males are always the bad guys.
More than 35 years ago, British philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards wrote, “No feminist whose concern for women stems from a concern for justice in general can ever legitimately allow her only interest to be the advantage of women.” This is an essential principle; but “intersectional feminism” is not the way to honor it. What’s needed is a feminism that treats people as individuals and makes no assumptions about power or privilege based on identity.
Reject cultural excuses for misogyny. Most outrageously, identity politics often betray women who need feminism most: victims of real patriarchal oppression. Since Muslims are included in the progressive martyrology of the “marginalized,” fear of “Islamophobia” can cause feminists to back Islamists over female critics of religious misogyny. At Goldsmiths College, University of London last December, the Islamic Society tried to block, and then repeatedly disrupted, a supposedly “hateful” speech by Iranian-born ex-Muslim feminist Maryam Namazie — with support from the Goldsmith Feminist Society.
Stop battling the ghosts of patriarchy past. The same feminists who get tongue-tied about criticizing the worst patriarchal cultures rail against “patriarchy” in the West, where women today command massive voting power, run businesses, earn more college degrees than men, have full legal rights, and can control their own lives without being subject to male authority. Blaming “the patriarchy” for women’s choices in free societies is an affront to female moral agency.
Do some gender-based biases and stereotypes remain? Yes, but they largely cut both ways and are perpetuated by both sexes. Women may often get less support for pursuing high-paying careers, but men have less social freedom to choose fulfilling, lower-paying work. Women may be unfairly stereotyped as emotional; men, as violent. Despite dramatic assertions that our culture “hates women,” researchers such as renowned feminist psychologist Alice Eagly find that both sexes tend to view women more positively than men.
Show equal concern for men and boys. If feminism is a gender equality movement, it must give equal time to disadvantages affecting males — be it boys’ academic underachievement, disregard of male domestic violence victims, or blatant gender bias in enforcement of campus sexual assault policies. Despite occasional claims by feminists such as former Jezebel editor Lindy West that feminism is working to address male issues, there is far more evidence of feminist activists, writers and academics belittling, denying or downplaying these problems and promoting women-as-victims, men-as-bad-guys narratives.
The principle of equal justice also applies to individual cases. Too often, modern feminism takes its cue from radical law professor Catharine MacKinnon’s 30-year-old dictum that “feminism is built on believing women’s accounts of sexual use and abuse by men.” While there is a real history of sexism toward women reporting intimate violence, charges that hinge on complex and conflicting accounts will always be difficult to resolve, given the presumption of innocence. It is the epitome of sexism to choose sides on the basis of gender, or insist that women are entitled to belief.
The personal is not always political — and wrongdoing knows no gender. There is a strong feminist case for politicizing the personal when the mistreatment of women has social and institutional support (for instance, when law and public opinion supports a husband’s right to “chastise” his wife or force her to have sex). But not every female injury at the hands of a man is a gender issue. Neither sex has a monopoly on manipulation, dishonesty, bullying — or deadly violence. If crimes such as fatal stabbing of Connecticut high school student Maren Sanchez by a boy she had rejected are the result of patriarchal entitlement, as feminists assert, how do we explain Arizona teenager Dorothy Dutiel’s shooting of her girlfriend Mary Kieu, who was about to break up with her?
Stick to the facts. From “women earn 77 cents to a man’s dollar for the same work” to “one in five college women are sexually assaulted by graduation,” a number of feminist statistics have crumbled under scrutiny. So have some alleged misogynist outrages — from the University of Virginia gang rape trumpeted by Rolling Stone in 2014 to the more recent scandal over Nobel prize-winning biologist Tim Hunt supposedly mocking “girls in the lab” as lovelorn crybabies. Too often, the feminist response to such debunkings has amount to declarations that the big picture of sexism matters more than specific facts, or efforts to shoehorn new facts into the old narrative. That way lies loss of credibility.
Make “work-life balance” a top priority. Whatever role discrimination may play in gender disparities in the workplace, women’s caregiving roles at home are a major factor. Even women who are largely satisfied with these trade-offs often feel the conflict acutely; increasingly, so do men. In a recent Pew poll, 56% of working mothers said it was it difficult to balance work and parenthood — but so did 50% of working fathers. There is a legitimate debate to be had on the role of government versus the marketplace in finding the answers. But this is the sort of debate from which the feminist outrage machine is a distraction.
Don’t shoot the messenger bearing good news. While much unfinished business remains, women have much to celebrate, collectively and individually. Yet feminists tend to be surprisingly resistant to good news. A 2013 study demonstrating that female political candidates are not judged more negatively than their male counterparts was met with feminist derision. Crime surveys showing low rates of rape on campus have been dismissed as “a sideshow.” Female technology leaders who say they have not experienced sexism in the industry, such as researcher and designer Meredith Patterson, have been disparaged as gender traitors. Yet claims that misogyny remains intractable are as likely to discourage women as they are to inspire action.
In societies where feminism has had the freedom to flourish, it has made remarkable gains — and will continue to do so if it stops being its own worst enemy.