I’m not sure when it became standard to blame feminists for the problems in society, but it seems to be the norm. Whether at a large state university or a small Christian college, when I ask college students if any would identify themselves as feminist, only a few raise their hands. Yet, when we discuss the meanings and definitions and variations in feminism, most all students agree that inequality among the sexes exists and that it should not exist. So why the refusal to accept the label of feminism?
Some of the most popular answers? Bring on the clichés:
I’m not a feminist because feminists are:
Have short, butchy haircuts.
Some feminists are angry and some hate men, but is that really limited to just the category of feminists? Some are lesbians, but many are not. As for the short butchy haircuts, all I can say is that the majority of women in every church I have been a member sport the short butchy haircut, so I’m not sure how that fits into this discussion. I’m guessing some are feminists, but not all. I’ve even had someone tell me that I didn’t “look like a feminist” which tells me that people have a very distinct image in their minds of what a feminist is or what a feminist looks like.
When I examine the ideas, literature, politics, speeches, authors, activists and print/media culture from the 1970s, I see the popularity and mainstream appeal of feminism. And when I examine the ideas, literature, politics, speeches, authors, activists, and print/media culture from the 1980s, I see a strong backlash against feminism. Most importantly, this backlash managed to thoroughly discredit feminism and turned the term feminist into an angry, unappealing label that people STILL fight to avoid, despite agreeing with the main tenants of feminism. How did the backlash achieve this astonishing victory against feminism? I don’t know that I can fully answer that question. It wasn’t necessarily the Right to Life movement. As Allison Vander Broek pointed out, the Religious Right began by fighting against desegregation before they began to mobilize against abortion.
I’ve been a fan of Margaret Atwood’s dystopic novel, The Handmaid’s Tale for quite some time. The original Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale, is a chilling adaptation of Atwood’s book (and, notably, Atwood is a consulting producer on the series). The series is set in the future, when the state of Gilead takes over the U.S. Atwood does not explain the origin of the issue, but infertility and sterility are rampant, leading to very low birthrates and very few healthy children that are successfully born. As a result, the few fertile women are rounded up and distributed as “handmaids” to the Gilead commanders so these handmaids can produce children for these women of high status that cannot conceive their own children. But Gilead is a “Christian” state, so the language is riddled with Biblical references. Most significant for the handmaids are the tales of patriarchs (as in Abraham and specifically Jacob) who “take” handmaids and use them to produce offspring. Because the novel and the series take place in the recent future, the changeover to the state of Gilead is still fresh. The Handmaids are women, most of whom had children before Gilead ruled the US. Gilead took away their children and redistributed them.
First, it is a bummer to once again see Christianity get a bad rap in the mainstream. I know we all despise hypocrites, especially those that browbeat others with moral superiority and then exhibit the same depraved behavior as everyone else. It’s an age old human frustration. But not exclusively in the Christian domain, despite the long history of Christians as hypocrites. I guess a hypocritical Christian never really gets outmoded as the villain. Sigh. But okay, I get it.
Second, I was fascinated to hear the press surrounding the series launch. Some interviews claimed the show wasn’t feminist. What? Atwood’s novel is written in the 1980s as a particularly salient response to the backlash against feminism. Atwood’s novel explores that very premise: if we blame feminism for all the problems in society, what would society look like if we exercised the opposite of feminism? If we eliminate all of women’s control over reproduction and parenting, what would society look like? If we placed men exclusively in charge, what would society look like? For Atwood, Gilead. For a historian, it’s called the first 4,000+ years of human history.
But it seems to me the main point is that the press tour did not want to pigeon hole the series as “feminist” because that’s a negative attribute. Mainstream people would not watch a show that is described as feminist, even if the entire novel, premise of the show, and virtually every plot line is feminist. Later, actress Elisabeth Moss and others corrected themselves that the show indeed included feminist ideas, but they still sort of avoided saying the “f-word” as much as possible.
We look back and laugh at the big frizzy permed hair and tight-rolled mom jeans of the 1980s as ridiculous and silly, yet seem to fully embrace the 1980s backlash that discredited feminism.
Does it make sense to blame feminism for all the problems in society? Is it women and men who thought equality was important that ruined society? Or was it ruined before? If feminists ruined society, then surely society should have been perfect or at least ideal in most of human history before feminism became mainstream.