Becca Emily is a writer and arts professional based in Edinburgh. She works as Communications & Events Officer with Scottish PEN, where she tweets about freedom of speech and amplifying marginalised voices. She also runs her own literary website called Big Words, which aims to make writing more accessible outside of academia. Becca has previously campaigned against harassment with Hollaback! Edinburgh and promoted multicultural theatre with Asylon Theatre.
You may have already heard about the petition calling for feminism to be classed as a terrorist group. Launched two years ago, it condemned feminism for spreading a hateful ideology against men and women. Feminism was seen as a tyrant that tried to control how people chose to live their lives. Despite this apparent egalitarian message, the petition specifically referred to violent tactics used against men in the name of misandry. One supporter called the movement a “war on men & boys”.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard feminists being reduced to man-hating warriors. One article on Return of the Kings, a website dedicated to men’s rights activism, delves into the issue further. For its writer, feminism is a terrorist organisation because it has “[e]ffectively pushed men down and turned them into second-rate citizens”. For using men as a scapegoat for their own problems, painting themselves as victims, and naming men the enemy to be destroyed, feminism stands accused of “threaten[ing] our existence”. No better than ISIS or the IRA, feminism spells the end for men. All this for naming and fighting rape culture, raising awareness about harassment, and promoting fluid gender identities.
While some of the issues named in the article are legitimate concerns and even endorsed by many feminists (namely paternity rights and the overarching system that oppresses both sexes), one theme constantly stands out. It harks back to ancient arguments made against increasing women’s rights. If women (and alternative gender identities for that matter) make gains in their rights, what does that mean for men? What is seen as a step forward for one marginalised party becomes a loss for others. Caitlin Moran recently quoted a study in the US that found that “in a mixed-gender group, when women talk 25 per cent of the time or less, it’s seen as being ‘equally balanced’”. When women speak 50% of the time, they are seen as dominating the conversation. Equality starts to look like an attack on the privileged. In a sort of Robin Hood style, feminism takes from the powerful and gives to the weak.
This viewpoint has echoes all the way through feminism’s history. Both world wars are often lauded as the point at which modern women started their journey towards equality. Conscripted and sent to fight in the trenches, male workers were absent from Britain’s industry and the workface noticeably fell. Women, who had already been working in the factories, were now employed in much higher numbers. The story of how women became the backbone of the home front is now famous. It is popular legend that women gained the vote in 1918 because they had shown their true worth.
At a closer look, things did not go as smoothly as all that. Male workers and their unions were at first concerned about the job insecurity that ushering women into the workforce could mean. It was customary for women to have lower pay, which would make them cheaper employees. Employers might prefer hiring women to the men they had replaced, leaving men out of a job. To ease fears, the government made equal pay a state policy and passed the 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act. Men would not be threatened by a cheaper labour force, and would be able to return to their jobs after the war. Despite women’s contribution to the war effort, they were forced out of their jobs at the end of it all to make way for their male predecessors. For all their gains, women’s progress was seen as a threat to men’s livelihood.
Even earlier than this, working and educated women were seen as dangerous on a much larger scale. The end of the 1800s saw some huge cultural shifts that would trigger the women’s movement far into the twentieth-century. As the middle-class grew in size, so the amount of funding available for women’s colleges grew too. More women in the higher classes were able to get an education than ever before, and many went on to find work. Women were criticising their position in society more than ever and defending their right to be seen as equals to men.
Not everyone agreed. Anti-feminist researchers in the USA published a number of articles showing that the population was in decline. Women who were educated, it was shown, were having fewer children or not getting married at all. Worse, the women who had stopped having children were wealthy and white. Women were exercising more control over their own bodies, choosing to hold back on motherhood in favour of developing their own minds, but all at the expense of the cream of society’s crop. “Race suicide” was widely discussed at the time, made popular by the likes of President Roosevelt who wanted to preserve the woman’s place in the home. He and many others feared that if white families kept declining, whilst families of colour kept producing children at the normal rate, then the marginalised classes would outnumber and eventually take over their oppressors. Female liberation was made secondary to a racist white agenda. It was even seen to be the end of it, with critics imagining some sort of racially motivated apocalypse. Women who sought equality were heavily criticised for their selfishness, as their independence would get in the way of the vested interests of the white supremacist powerful.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the famous Anita Hill controversy of the 90s. For those of you who don’t know (or who haven’t watched the TV dramatisation Confirmation), Anita Hill marked a crucial point in history for attitudes towards workplace harassment. In 1991, the first African-American man appointed to the United States Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement. Marshall had achieved an enormous amount for the Civil Rights movement, campaigning against racial segregation in schools on top of rising to prominence in the USA’s legal system. When he retired, George H. Bush was presiding over a Republican government. Bush decided to replace Thurgood Marshall with Clarence Thomas, a decidedly more conservative candidate who was also a man of colour. By employing Thomas, Bush could maintain the appearance of racial diversity whilst pushing a more Republican agenda into the Supreme Court.
Unfortunately for Bush, an exclusive interview between Anita Hill and the FBI was leaked to the press. Hill was called to publicly testify a claim she had made about Thomas’s character. According to Hill, she had worked under Thomas when he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. During this time he had shown himself to be a prolific sexual harasser. Hill reported that after having asked her out socially a few times (and being spurned by her each time), Thomas started steering office talk to sexual topics: “He spoke about such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes”.
What followed was a systematic attempt to discredit Hill’s claims. Four women who reportedly could have backed up Anita Hill’s claims were, for tenuous reasons, not called forward. One writer, David Brock, who authored The Real Anita Hill, later admitted that he had warped facts to “protect the conservative political agenda”. He sought out biographical information that he could use to tarnish Hill’s reputation, collecting “virtually every derogatory and often contradictory allegation I had collected on Hill into the vituperative mix”. In his review of Strange Justice, a documentary about the proceedings, Brock ”consciously lied” about his knowledge of Thomas’s consumption of pornography. To conservative supporters, Hill was lying about a woman’s problem and had put herself in the way of the Republican agenda. Rather than listen to her concerns, she was to be taken down.
Thomas meanwhile, in a moment that would later be recalled by bell hooks as a monumental piece of black feminist history, called the whole controversy a “hi-tech lynching”. He was referring to his oppression as a man-of-colour, implying that he was being stereotyped as a sexual aggressor because of his race. Anita Hill was as good as killing his identity with her accusations. What this statement conveniently forgot was that Hill was also an African-American. Her own racial oppression was wiped away to prioritise the man’s experience. In spite of lie detectors leaning towards Hill’s testimony Thomas would eventually win the case, and was instated in the Supreme Court. Many black feminists have used this moment to show how, as women of colour, their liberation always comes second to African-American men.
The release of Confirmation is a reminder to us all of what happens to people who challenge the status quo. Labelled dangerous, viewed as a threat, women who speak out against their inferior place in the world are seen as bullies taking the powerful’s toys. Many men’s rights commenters show themselves to be insecure, bemoaning the death of chivalry because women do not want doors held open for them any more. Feminism becomes a personal attack on the traditional male’s beliefs about politeness, eradicating men’s ability to flirt with women and to demean “weaker” men as “beta males”. Jobs for women means unemployment for men, childcare uses up men’s well-earned taxes, and female empowerment means a crisis of identity for “real men”. In some cases, women’s liberation could spell disaster for the reigning ideology (even if, in many cases, mainstream feminism is actually complicit in marginalising other identities).
There is a wilful blindness to the fact that feminism, which has historically wanted more women in work and equal domestic roles, might actually be in favour of increased paternity rights and creating more lucrative employment for everyone. In essence, feminists are considered dangerous when the powerful become afraid that they might take their stuff.
“A Feminist Challenge: Must We Call Every Woman A Sister?” in Black Looks: race and representation by bell hooks.
“Excluding Women” in Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas C. Leonard.