By Michelle Goldberg – Opinion Columnist – NY Times
“The Drift, a buzzy literary journal founded by Kiara Barrow and Rebecca Panovka, left-leaning women in their late 20s, published a series of short essays earlier this year under the rubric, “What to Do About Feminism.” “For a long time now, we’ve had the sense that feminism is in trouble,” Barrow and Panovka wrote in the introduction. They described an ambient feeling that feminism has been sapped of cultural vitality, even as an anti-feminist backlash is gathering momentum, and that young people especially were turning against the movement.
Of the eight essays they commissioned to try to make sense of this moment of “profound malaise” in feminism, four used the word “cringe.” Though the pieces came from different angles, there seemed a general agreement that mainstream feminism had grown stale and somewhat embarrassing, that it failed to speak to the realities of many women’s lives, and that it lacked a vision of a better world.
“Much of contemporary feminism, like my adolescent self, relies on a defensive posture, its energy driven toward negation. (Save Roe!),” wrote Elisa Gonzalez. Describing her mother, a home health aide and special education teacher, she continued, “My mother’s life is hard, much harder than it needs to be, and when I take stock of feminism’s current offerings, I see little that would actually ease it.” The writers don’t reject feminism outright. They just don’t have much faith in it, at least as it exists today.
Barrow and Panovka both consider themselves feminists; neither of them takes any pleasure in dissecting what they see as the movement’s stasis. “We’re quite alarmed to see that the people around us, who are our age, are by and large quite disaffected and maybe considered themselves feminists five years ago, but now don’t want to anymore,” said Panovka.
You can extrapolate only so much about broader trends from the mores of up-and-coming intellectuals, though they can be a leading indicator. (Brooklyn literary circles nurtured a millennial socialism years before the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.) Still, several signs — scattered and preliminary, but worrying — suggest that weariness with feminism goes beyond their particular milieu. And this weariness is making it harder to fight back against growing anti-feminist hostility.
Recently the Southern Poverty Law Center and Tulchin Research commissioned a poll of 1,500 Americans to measure belief in various reactionary sentiments, including the “great replacement” conspiracy theory and the idea that trans people are a threat to children. Because misogyny is so ubiquitous in far-right spaces, Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the S.P.L.C., decided to add a question about feminism.
Predictably, most young Republicans agree with the statement, “Feminism has done more harm than good.” What was astonishing was how many young Democrats agreed as well. While only 4 percent of Democratic men over 50 thought feminism was harmful, 46 percent of Democratic men under 50 did. Nearly a quarter of Democratic women under 50 agreed, compared with only 10 percent of those 50 and older.
“In a poll of a lot of really shocking and disappointing findings, people’s responses to feminism and gender roles was the most shocking and disheartening,” said Miller. “I just didn’t expect to see those numbers.”
One manifestation of this relatively youthful anti-feminism was the frenzy of hatred for the actress Amber Heard during the successful defamation lawsuit brought against her by her ex-husband, Johnny Depp. For years, we’ve been hearing about the doctrinaire wokeness of the young; now here were countless members of Gen Z mockingly re-enacting testimony about domestic violence on TikTok.
Even if, like the jury, you think Heard was lying — I don’t — that alone doesn’t explain the scale and intensity of her excoriation. It went far beyond the hatred heaped on convicted rapists like Harvey Weinstein. There’s a gleeful, witch-burning intensity to the way she’s been demonized, suggestive of some subterranean current of feeling suddenly loosed. During the trial, Heard described being raped with a liquor bottle. A sex toy company briefly marketed a liquor-bottle shaped dildo called “Amber’s Mark.”
As the backlash gains steam, a lot of feminism feels enervated. There had been a desperate hope, among reproductive rights activists and Democratic strategists alike, that the end of Roe v. Wade would lead to an explosive feminist mobilization, that people committed to women’s equality would take to the streets and recommit themselves to politics. But after the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, it’s far from clear whether a political groundswell will materialize.
Certainly, most Americans believe abortion should be legal, and a recent Gallup poll showed that pro-choice sentiment is at a near record high. There could still be a tidal wave of public outrage when the actual Dobbs decision is handed down and if clinics start closing en masse.
So far, however, there hasn’t been. Polls continue to show a likely Republican romp in the midterms. The most anti-abortion Democrat in the House, Henry Cuellar of Texas, appears to have won his May primary against an opponent who foregrounded abortion rights. Coordinated pro-choice marches across the country last month were lively but not huge; The New York Times estimated that 5,000 people turned out in Los Angeles, compared with well upward of 100,000 at the city’s first Women’s March.
“I don’t know that I’ve seen a new influx of energy,” said Samhita Mukhopadhyay, co-editor of “Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America” and the former executive editor of Teen Vogue. “It’s surprising. There were marches, but it wasn’t the level of activism that we saw a couple of years ago with Black Lives Matter or even the Women’s March.”
After four years of Donald Trump, more than two years of a pandemic, and an unending right-wing onslaught, a lot of people with feminist sympathies are numb and exhausted. “People deep in reproductive justice struggles feel burned out and taken for granted,” wrote Arielle Angel, editor in chief of the left-wing magazine Jewish Currents. “People who have long organized direct action campaigns in response to every other political emergency have no faith in the capacity for mass movement while the left is so weak.”
Before she worked at Teen Vogue, Mukhopadhyay was the executive editor of the blog Feministing, which was once part of a vital feminist publishing scene. That scene is now mostly gone. Feministing closed a couple of years ago, and one of the last holdouts, Bitch Magazine, a publication devoted to feminist pop-culture criticism, is shuttering this month. Independent feminist publications, said Mukhopadhyay, are difficult to sustain financially, but that’s not the only reason so many have disappeared. “That type of earnest, identity-focused feminism has also grown out of style,” she said.
A T-shirt often seen in bourgeois neighborhoods in the months before the election of Donald Trump proclaimed: “The Future Is Female.” It was an expression of a cheerfully complacent moment in American politics. Barack Obama had been president for seven years and Hillary Clinton was expected to succeed him. Rage against elites was simmering but had not yet become the dominant feature of our national life. As long as the idea of meritocracy retained its legitimacy, diversifying that meritocracy seemed a valid liberal project.
“There are slightly more women than men in the world — about 52 percent of the world’s population is female — but most of the positions of power and prestige are occupied by men,” the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her 2012 TED talk, “We Should All Be Feminists.”
Beyoncé would sample that talk in her song “Flawless,” and in 2014 she performed at the Video Music Awards in front of a giant screen emblazoned “Feminist.” A feminism that valorized the quest for power and prestige suddenly had cultural currency. Taylor Swift, who’d distanced herself from feminism in 2012, embraced it in 2014, with the help of the then it-girl Lena Dunham.
Teen Vogue’s transformation into an explicitly feminist publication was an indication of the movement’s glamour. So was the fact that corporate America sought to appropriate its cachet: Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” came out in 2013, and the next year the fashion entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso published the memoir “#Girlboss.”
It is perhaps inevitable that a movement that was the height of fashion in the last decade would start to seem passé in this one. That’s how style works; the young and innovative distinguish themselves by breaking with the conventions of their predecessors. Feminism is particularly given to cycles of matricide; what is liberating to one generation is often mortifying to the next.
Indeed, it could be that when mainstream culture transforms the urgent demand for women’s equality into a trend like any other, it ensures that trend’s eventual obsolescence. In her classic 1991 book “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women,” Susan Faludi described how, in the mid-1970s, media and advertising turned feminism into a lifestyle, a move that served to “neutralize and commercialize” it. Hanes hired a former National Organization for Women officer to help sell “liberating” pantyhose. A jewelry advertisement proclaimed, “She’s Free. She’s Career. She’s Confident.” Business Week enthused, without much evidence, that “more women than ever are within striking distance of the top.” Returning to Faludi’s book this spring, I scrawled “Girlboss!” in the margins.
When the country swung to the right in the 1980s, wrote Faludi, the media defaced the poster girls it had created. Astonishingly, even Ms. magazine backed away from the term “feminist.” Faludi quotes an article in Ms. by Shana Alexander: “As for the women’s movement, I often think we may have opened Pandora’s box. We wanted to be equal,” but forgot “that we are different from men; we are other.”
Recently I emailed Faludi to ask how this moment of backlash compares to the one she chronicled more than three decades ago. In part, she replied, there’s more raw misogyny now. You can see it in the number of accused — and, in the case of the Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker, admitted — domestic abusers whom Republicans have nominated, and the wave of new abortion bans that lack exemptions for rape, incest and the health of the woman.
The “triumphal right,” said Faludi, “has taken the gloves off and is pursuing a scorched-earth campaign against women’s most fundamental rights. No more faux hand-wringing about saving women from spinsterhood or ‘post-abortion syndrome.’ This is just ‘Lock her up!’”
At the same time, Faludi, who is working on a new book about the headwinds feminism is facing, suggested that the movement itself has grown sectarian and insular. She described a “disputatious feminist factionalism, with so many feminists aiming their ire at other feminists over everything from neoliberal co-option to identitarian pecking orders.” These critiques aren’t necessarily wrong, she said, and “introspection behooves a movement,” but not at the price of “leaving its gains unachieved and undefended.”
Obviously, the second-wave feminism of the ’60s and ’70s could be pretty factional as well; there were vicious internal fights over issues like lesbianism and pornography, as well as over white feminists’ blind spots about race. As the activist Ti-Grace Atkinson put it: “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.”
Social media, though, strengthens the forces of entropy. It magnifies anger, rewards trolls, and encourages conflicts to spiral. Second-wave feminism was, of necessity, based on face-to-face organizing. In her forthcoming book “Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure and an Unfinished Revolution,” Nona Willis Aronowitz writes that her mother, the great second-wave writer Ellen Willis, met with the same women’s group for 15 years. Such groups can keep people tied to a movement, and to one another, through disagreements and lulls in political action. Without them, activism becomes more evanescent; people gather during emergencies and then disperse.
There are still, of course, plenty of women doing vital feminist work in the real world, volunteering for abortion funds, rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters. But much of feminism right now fits into two broad categories: discourse and NGOs. Both are in bad shape, for related reasons.
When feminism is most alive, it helps women articulate things they’d been unable to say and makes them feel less alone. Think of consciousness-raising meetings in the 1970s, zines in the 1990s, or #MeToo just a few years ago. As feminism grows more powerful, though, it creates its own taboos. When feminism itself becomes an impediment to women talking about the truth of their lives, it goes into decline.
For Ellen Willis, feminism was an antidote to guilt and shame. For her daughter — still a committed feminist — it often seems a source of guilt and shame. Again and again in her book, Aronowitz castigates herself for not living up to some illusory liberated ideal. She’s ashamed of being in an unsatisfying marriage, and ashamed of her fear of leaving it. “What kind of self-sufficient feminist was petrified of being single?” she asks. She reproaches herself when, after hiring an erotic massage therapist, she finds the experience underwhelming: “What did it say about me that my pleasure was tied to whether the man was having a good time?”
I think the question is: What does it say about popular feminism when it makes women feel bad about their desires? “The new feminism of the 1990s and 2000s was simply to embrace whatever the patriarchy had already deemed valuable — sex on demand, lack of emotion, a quick climb up the economic ladder — and then make it the property of women instead of just men,” wrote the Washington Post columnist Christine Emba in her recent book “Rethinking Sex: A Provocation.” If women are experiencing feminism this way, it’s not surprising some of them will find relief in casting it off.
There’s a flip side to the libertine imperative in the bedroom: a self-sabotaging demand for political purity outside of it. Loretta Ross, a pioneering reproductive justice activist and an associate professor at Smith College, is writing a book about “call-out culture,” a dogmatic and merciless approach to small transgressions and disagreements among one’s political allies.
“The call-out culture spends much more time critiquing people on the same side than they do critiquing people who are actually opponents,” said Ross. She added, “It’s far easier to critique people who are accessible to you than to critique people who, not only can you not reach them, but you have reason to believe that they will fight back.”
The culture Ross describes — which she points out plagues much of the left, not just feminism — is demoralizing for individuals, but it’s also paralyzing for institutions. This week, The Intercept’s Ryan Grim published a long investigation into progressive groups that have essentially ceased to function because they are caught up in internal turmoil, often blending labor disputes with fights over identity. In the last days of Roe v. Wade, reproductive health groups including Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America have been locked in what Grim calls “knock-down, drag-out fights between competing factions of their organizations.”
Some of this turning inward is an understandable response to deep frustration and impotence. If you don’t feel that you can save democracy, preserve a path to racial and gender equality, or stave off environmental calamity, at least you can decolonize your office. Besides, plenty of the employee complaints are surely legitimate: in recent years Planned Parenthood has been credibly accused of both pregnancy discrimination and of mistreating Black employees. Still, if it seems no one is leading the resistance to the coming widespread criminalization of abortion, it could be because so many seasoned activists are mired in workplace reckonings.
In 1972, Karen Durbin, a writer at The Village Voice, published an essay about dropping out of the radical feminist movement. “A year or so ago, so much seemed possible, and even if it didn’t seem possible, the try itself was worth making,” she wrote. “New worlds were going to be forged. New men, new women, free of sex roles and competition, free of all the sexual levers that a sick, aggressive, macho society had manipulated us with.” But even though plenty of advances were ahead — Roe would be decided the next year — the revolution didn’t arrive. To Durbin at the time, politics, “straight or raving-radical,” had come to seem empty.
We’ve arrived at a similar moment of despair, the brutal comedown after a season when social transformation appeared possible. Speaking to Barrow and Panovka, I said I was trying to understand how the iconography of the Women’s March came to seem, to some of their contributors, deeply pathetic, even grotesque.
“A lot of it comes down to feeling like it didn’t do anything,” Barrow said of the Women’s March. “It’s cringe to have tried really hard at something that kind of failed.”
Faludi finds this discourse frustrating. “There’s something cringeworthy about feminism even needing to be hip,” she said. “These ‘feminisms’ that are reacting against each other and the feminists who came before, are ignoring the central question of feminism, which is: Are women materially and politically disadvantaged and how to correct that? If that question is judged to be unhip, we’re in trouble.”
It’s true: We’re in trouble. One thing backlashes do is transform a culture’s common sense and horizons of possibility. A backlash isn’t just a political formation. It’s also a new structure of feeling that makes utopian social projects seem ridiculous. The left, feminism very much included, needs people to be optimistic and confident about change. It needs to be able to paint a picture of a better world and enlist people in the adventure of trying to create it.
But this is a fearful, hopeless and even nihilistic time. Retrenchment is, perhaps, to be expected. That doesn’t make it any easier to bear.”