“However you define feminism, read this book. McKeon’s chronicle of our collective Conditions of Persistence reveals the ravages of exclusion, organized opposition, and denial. This compassionate airing of our failings clears the ways forward. Race, privilege, gender, sexuality; the work to be done, your invitation to the conversation, is here.” — Karen Walton, screenwriter, Orphan Black
“Lauren McKeon’s F-Bomb is the antidote to feeling at a loss for examples of why intersectional feminism is so very urgently needed now. With a journalist’s attention to research and context, an activist’s drive for meaningful action and policy-change, and a memoirist’s craft, McKeon has written a necessary call to action.” — Erin Wunker, author, Notes from a Feminist Killjoy
“F-Bomb is a wonderfully uncomfortable peek into the lives and perspectives of folks who need to be seen, heard, and understood for the good of the feminist movement. McKeon mixes deep introspection with a s#!tload of research to bring us a much-needed commentary that will both anger and inspire you.” — Rachel Ricketts, founder, lossandfoundxo.com
More than twenty-five years after Susan Faludi anatomized it, the backlash against women is still going strong. Everywhere we turn, women are abandoning feminism, with the unlikeliest suspects detonating anti-feminist bombs. Whether pop icons or working mothers, it’s women who are often leading the charge to send feminism to its grave: supporting anti-feminist politicians, backing lawsuits to silence the victims of campus rape, participating in the vitriolic anti-women-in-technology movement, and serving on the frontlines of the fight to end reproductive rights.
F-Bomb takes readers on a witty, insightful, and deeply fascinating journey into today’s anti-feminist universe. Visiting the frontlines of the new gender wars, Lauren McKeon explores generational attitudes, debates over inclusiveness, and differing views on the intersections of race, class, and gender. If women aren’t connecting with feminism, what’s wrong with it? And what will it take for gender equality to prevail?
How feminism became today’s dirtiest word
1 We’ve got a long way to go, baby: Confronting the dangerous myth that we’ve made it
2 Feminists eat their young: The fourth wave, a fractured sisterhood, and the cataclysmic divide between feminist generations
3 F-bomb generation: Empowerment, millennial women, and the “I’m not a feminist, but…” choir
On the frontlines of the new women-on-women gender wars
4 How a feMRA is made: In conversation with the leaders of today’s rising women-led anti-feminist movement
5 The domestic wife: The problem with retro revival, the new motherhood, and the glamorization of pre-feminist gender roles
6 One at the top, five million at the bottom: How we sold ourselves the equal opportunity lie and grew the violent push to keep women out of the workforce
7 It’s your fault: How anti-feminists narrowed the definition of rape and revived the deadly, viral culture of slut shaming and victim blaming
8 Teen spirit: Clinic closures, access attacks, and the pro-woman rebranding of today’s anti-abortion activists
The future is feminist
9 Reason for hope: The young women and girls who are giving misogyny the middle finger
10 Defining the new feminism: How we can harness the discord and create a better feminism for the future
How feminism became today’s dirtiest word
We’ve got a long way to go, baby: Confronting the dangerous myth that we’ve made it
One of the greatest lies of the twenty-first century is that women have made it. “It” being some magical place: a Gloria Steinem-esque take on Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland, where aspiring and talented girls and women flock to rides like Equal Pay Mountain and Mission to CEO Country. I imagine them munching on Get Out of the Kitchen Funnel Cakes, riding the Reproduction Rights Monorail, or studying on the Safe Campus Voyage. Don’t forget the Violence-Free Zone, the Carousel of Greatly Lucrative Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math Jobs, or Adventures Thru Respecting You as a Person. Feminist Tomorrowland gift shops sell Wear Whatever the Hell You Want T-shirts and Anti-Slut-Shaming Hats. It’s the best place on earth. But it’s all as ridiculous as it sounds.
I was twenty-four and nearly a year into my first big-name magazine gig when I realized Feminist Tomorrowland was very far away indeed. By then, I’d already decided I was a feminist. I discovered feminism in my high school gender studies class, slipping into the label as easily as I did my favorite pair of jeans. I’d read the word before in books, of course, and on some cellular level the concept called to me. I mean, I signed up for the elective even though I knew most of the school considered it an easy pass. I joined idealistic young teens like me as well as a hulking dude who had a seemingly endless wardrobe of camouflage, at least three stoners who so rarely showed up that I was always surprised when I saw them, and our school’s lone Jehovah’s Witness, who grimaced through the entire unit on gender and religion. Our teacher was a stalwart, gnomish man whom, at the time, I pegged as eighty, but who was very likely closer to a grizzled sixty. He had a doctorate — he was not Mr. Porter but Dr. Porter — and even at sixteen I wondered why he chose to put up with high school kids.
For an old white man, Porter’s introduction to feminism was admirable. I learned about the history of feminism and sampled the smorgasbord of core feminist theory: impossible beauty standards and the male gaze, the wage gap, the prevalence and cultural normalization of rape and violence against women, and the importance of reproductive rights. My introduction was wicked old skool — as I’m only slightly ashamed to admit I would have called it back then — and, I now realize, absent of today’s hallmark intersectionality, a term coined by American law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s. Today’s feminists use intersectionality to examine and acknowledge the interplay between systems of discrimination and oppression — and as a powerful antidote to “white girl” feminism. Growing up in a sleepy and not particularly progressive Ontario suburb, I had never even heard the word “transgender.” For all the course’s flaws, though, it set me on the right path, and by university I was already starting to find my own way through the movement, its theories, and its causes. Today, I can’t just point to one moment that defines my choice, but many.
Even when I was twenty-four, being a feminist wasn’t a popular pick. I knew firsthand that (according to my demographic, at least) cool feminists were a rarity. I’d been to many booze-fueled parties where intellectual men and women expounded on the troubles in Afghanistan and the silliness of George Bush but received my thoughts on feminism like a fart in the room. A couple of years earlier, I’d even published an article about these observations in Chatelaine, a Canadian women’s magazine. I argued the single most unattractive thing for a young woman to be was a feminist, akin to gaining twenty pounds overnight. This wishy-washy belief in women’s rights, I wrote, was setting us up for a dangerous backslide. Not everybody agreed with me. One woman wrote a letter to the editor that said, in part, “I have a traditional role in my home, but I don’t see things as unequal — I see them as how it is. How will you reach your utopian ‘equality’ if you are born a woman and someone else is born a man? It’s your estrogen against his testosterone. It’s biology, baby. McKeon needs to grow up, experience life, and get the chip off her shoulder. I’m proud to say I’m not a feminist.”
And yet it wasn’t until this job at a big-name national business magazine — my first one in my chosen field — that I discovered how much being a woman mattered. The magazine’s senior editor didn't seem to like me very much. He was uniformly unimpressed with my writing and never assigned me anything, and whenever I entered his messy office to discuss a story, he demanded I bend over and fetch a stapled report off a stack of teetering paper. He made comments about my shirt, my hair, my shoes, calling my sartorial choices “interesting” and “nice” in a tone that heavily implied the contrary. I convinced myself I just needed to work harder to win him over. I was a newbie, after all, and that’s how initiation worked. I was a feminist but also a desperate overachiever. I wanted to believe in equality of opportunity. I wanted to believe that girl power meant showing the old curmudgeon he was wrong about me. And so I ignored the lunchtime comments about cunnilingus. I silently recycled the photocopied articles about weight loss, laser eye surgery, and birth control left on my desk each morning.
Then one night at the pub, during a celebration of our recent round of awards nominations (including one for an investigative feature of mine not, unsurprisingly, written for the magazine in question), I finally saw that no amount of trying would get me ahead. The table was crowded and sticky with spilled beer. During a lull in the conversation, the editor turned toward me, the broad slabs of his ruddy cheeks hitched up in a smile. “I bet you spend your days crying in a corner, writing poetry nobody will ever read,” he said. “You should quit now because you’ll never make it in journalism.” As far as insults go it was a weird one, but the message was clear: get out. He laughed and my colleagues laughed while my mouth did its best impression of a Cheerio. He never spoke to me again; it was like I’d become a ghost. I quit a few months after that.
Attraction name: The Young Woman Who Hit a Very Low Glass Ceiling.
As far as encounters with the Old Boys’ Club go, my experience was depressingly normal. In the several years since, I’ve had at least a dozen similar ones and, in interviews with other women, heard about hundreds more. Yet what truly scared me as I grew up (as the Chatelaine letter writer so helpfully suggested) wasn’t the entrenched patriarchy but just how many women were convinced feminism had won, and a long time ago, too. Everywhere I turned, it seemed more and more women were proudly proclaiming, “I’m not a feminist.” They treated the women’s movement as a quaint 1960s relic. And why not? The surface gains women have made in my lifetime have allowed us to spin a dangerously sweet bedtime story of success and equal opportunity. It tells us we’ve already reached our happily ever after, and it’s easy and seductive enough to believe.
After all, in recent years, gender equality awareness has surged across North America. We are saturated with tampon, soap, and food commercials that proclaim girl power. Brazen, feel-good feminists like Malala Yousafzai, FEMEN, and Pussy Riot are household names. In every industry is one famous woman who has made it, allowing everybody to believe we all have — as if women are dolls on a paper chain. But painting feminism as triumphant poses an insidious risk. At best, this post-feminist lie means buying into the rebranding of the status quo as sexy, fun, and free. At worst, it means accepting the status quo as the best we can do. Such victory blindness can freeze us in second place and threaten to send us rocketing backward. What would happen then? The more women I met who snubbed feminism, the more I craved answers and the more I kept writing about them. Soon, I couldn’t help but see these stories as connecting pieces of a bigger picture.
In 2013 I published a profile of a young and prominent anti-abortion activist in Canada’s biggest city magazine, Toronto Life. My mother and grandmother couldn’t finish reading the article. My granny, a former union head who’d fought for equal rights in the workplace, had put her husband through school and kept working even after he earned enough to support the family, just because she liked her job. As for my mom, she’d always told me that being a mother was a woman’s choice, not her duty. She ensured that both my sister and I were on birth control as soon as we were old enough to have sex, which was something she believed we should do with pleasure. That any woman could fight to end reproductive rights was unfathomable to either of them. “Why write about this girl, Lauren? She could ruin everything!” They had a point: why her indeed?
As I delved deeper into the anti-feminist movement and continued interviewing women who appeared to advocate against their own rights, I often encountered the argument that I’d be a better feminist if I left them alone. By paying attention, my critics (and loved ones) argued, I legitimized them. I understand the concern. We hope that if we don’t pay attention to people whose ideas we find repugnant, they will disappear, silently slinking away until — poof! They have no public platform and, thus, no power. This unfortunately ignores the fact that online communities and social media enable the viral dissemination of ideas without any help at all from mainstream media. We should ignore scary movements that are so far on the fringe they might as well be dusty 1970s macramé, but the anti-feminists aren’t hiding in a dark cave, quietly talking to their three trollish BFFs. Why would they, when they can connect with and broadcast to thousands? As a journalist, I’ve always believed the real danger comes in ignoring and dismissing, particularly when we don’t like what we uncover. If we ignore these ideas we don’t like, they don’t go away; they fester unchecked. We can’t engage with something, critically or otherwise, if we pretend it doesn’t exist.
Perhaps if I interviewed enough anti-feminist women, I thought, I could understand them. If I only knew why they’d abandoned feminism, I could convince them they were wrong. I also hoped the interviews would prove me wrong: they’d show I’d overreacted, that things weren’t so bad. If only. Every time I interviewed one — from a young anti-abortion activist to a self-styled trophy girlfriend to a woman re-embracing housewifery — I asked the question, “What about feminism?” More often than not, I received a variation of the same shrug: What about feminism?
I knew we were really in trouble when the Women Against Feminism campaign went viral in August 2014. It featured selfies of women holding up signs on which they’d written reasons why they were against feminism. Full pages, Post-it notes, giant Bristol boards, even paper plates, detailed their beefs. The same themes emerged: feminism is a hateful and violent force, one that exponentially exaggerates women’s oppression, dwells too much on small personal slights, devalues traditional roles, turns all women into victims, and dresses men up in villains’ costumes while simultaneously ignoring their issues. It is petty, constrictive, probably racist, totally useless, and 100 per cent irrelevant in the modern Western world. Here is just a small sampling of what you would have found on the movement’s Tumblr and Facebook sites:
“I don’t need feminism because equality of opportunity already exists.”
“I don’t need feminism because I don’t see women as weak and pathetic victims of a non-existent patriarchy.”
“I reject feminism because being a wife and mother is the greatest joy in my life.”
“This isn’t 1920. We’re not fighting for anything anymore. Women have freedom!”
“I don’t need feminism because I love men. All my friends are men. They’re way nicer and less dramatic than women — especially feminists.”
“I don’t need feminism because your vaginas can’t silence my voice.”
When the movement’s memes went viral, many feminists rushed to poke holes in the anti-feminist argument. The campaign had feminism so wrong, they said. It was as if those other women had taken the definition of feminism from a dictionary published on another planet: Mars, maybe. Headline after headline blared smug sentiments such as “Actually, women, you do need feminism.”
Others cheered the anti-feminists. Some felt we’d already won: feminism was beating a dead horse. Perhaps capital-F feminism, the movement as monolith, deserved questioning? It had become tone-deaf, too turned-in on — and against — itself. “These arguments need to be engaged, not dismissed and ridiculed,” wrote Cathy Young, a Boston Globe journalist who frequently and critically tackles gender issues, often sympathizing with the rhetoric of men’s rights. “The anti-feminist egalitarians,” she wrote, “believe that, whatever feminism’s positive past gains, its dominant modern version is hostile to men and demeaning to women. They are right.”
Even a self-proclaimed diehard feminist like me could see feminism was constricting on itself like a snake, squeezing out criticism. The result was a broken sisterhood, its fault lines both varied and numerous: race, class, age, sexual orientation — it went on and on. White women, especially, were guilty of pancaking all women’s experiences together, flattening out differences and erroneously adopting a skewed Musketeers all-for-one mentality.
Patricia Arquette unwittingly revealed the privilege problem during her 2015 acceptance speech for the Oscar for best supporting actress. “It’s time for all the women in America,” she said, “and all the men who love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve fought for, to fight for us now.” She stuck to her statement, even as other feminists, particularly Roxane Gay, wondered at the implications: did Arquette think racism was a thing of the past or that all those groups were mutually exclusive?
This myopic view isn’t limited to the rich and famous. Women of color repeatedly report being relegated to the sidelines of the movement. Many give up and are pushed out entirely. A handful of them have even become vocal anti-feminists. They’re not the only women the movement is hemorrhaging. From the start, feminism has been notoriously unkind to transgender women. Even today, one of feminism’s grandmothers, Germaine Greer, has repeatedly, publicly, said transgender women are “not women” but men.
She’s not alone. In response to the increasing advocacy around transgender rights, a whole branch of anti-trans feminism has sprung up, calling itself trans-exclusionary radical feminism. The TERFs, as they’ve dubbed themselves, have derided any attempt to include transgender women in the movement, barring them from their own feminist events and bullying them at others. When I organized a “We need more feminism” speaker series in March 2015, one transgender speaker almost bowed out because she was so afraid of the TERFs; they were already targeting the event, calling it a celebration of fake feminism and fake women. While she ultimately went on stage, she admitted she wasn’t sure if feminism still had a place for her. I heard the same painful uncertainty from the women of color who spoke at the event. Women with disabilities, women in the sex trade, those on the LGBTQ spectrum — anybody, really, who doesn’t neatly fit into the binary of what we like to deem normal — echoed it.
It occurred to me that night, and not for the first time, that for all its dedication to equality, feminism suffered from institutionalized exclusion, and it wasn’t doing much for its bad image, not to mention the women who felt abandoned. This wasn’t a case of respectfully arguing over what direction Battleship Feminism should steer, or what issues it should focus its missiles on. A war was brewing within the movement, between women who believed feminism already included everyone it needed and those who knew it did not. No wonder the anti-feminists were gaining traction: we were handing out ammunition like free candy and helpfully showing them where to point the gun.
In October 2014, with the shaky state of feminism heavy on my mind, I went to Canada’s national Women’s Forum des Femmes in Ottawa, the nation’s capital. More than one hundred women of all ages filled an auditorium with laughter and hisses, cheers and boos. My thoughts were on the recent criticism of the movement, its discord, and the high stakes of it all: our lives. As feminism publicly crumbled, and the undercurrents of anti-feminism spilled over, we were already losing ground at home, at school, at work, on the streets, and in our bedrooms, courtrooms, and boardrooms.
Now in its third year, the forum had set itself a bold goal: it would define the feminist agenda, for today and for the coming years. “We can, and we must, do this,” boomed Niki Ashton, a New Democratic Party member of parliament in her early thirties. “Canada is waiting.” A feminist agenda for whom, I wondered. Should there be only one? Can there be only one? I remember this as the time when I stopped avoiding the question: if we wanted to bring women back to feminism, did we need to overhaul the movement? I wasn’t alone. In the opening panel discussion, one of the speakers, Sonia Lawrence, director of the Toronto-based Institute for Feminist Legal Studies at Osgoode Hall Law School, described herself as a “critical race feminist.” She urged us to be “generous across our differences.” To a background of tentative cheers, she went on, “We need to keep the movement open and inclusive so that our disagreements do not overwhelm the many things we do agree on.” As the audience’s clapping became more confident, she added, “I am not the feminist police, and I don’t want to be.” Later, she remarked that the demonization and polarization sweeping the movement surprised and disappointed her. “We have to find a way to talk about the things we disagree on and pursue those,” she said. “It’s not clear what we have to gain from this divisiveness; it is clear what we have to lose.” She suggested the movement adopt flexible coalitions within itself: hundreds of groups with different key goals that could still work together to lobby for the big goals.
After her speech, I wanted to hoot and holler like I was at a riot grrrl concert, not the country’s National Library of Canada. My enthusiasm was short-lived. During the question-and-answer period, a woman in the audience asked how we could stop all the feminist-on- feminist hate she was seeing on social media, especially Twitter. “It’s vicious. It’s extremely discouraging and confusing,” she said. “How do we build a space where we don’t slip into attacks publicly?” The problem with such attacks, she argued, is that in addition to creating disunity, they perpetuated all the worst stereotypes about feminism. Women are turned off from the movement, and anti-feminist groups, sensing a wounded lion, take advantage of its weakness.
One of the other panelists, Erica Violet Lee, a twenty-three-year-old Indigenous protestor who, minutes earlier, had received a standing ovation after reading her rallying cry, “We are the Revolution,” told the women gathered that she’d had to quit Twitter for just that reason. She couldn’t take the hate. Sonia Lawrence quickly jumped in. “By no means did I want to suggest we should be quiet in the name of unity,” she said. “Feminists should not,” she noted, “fear to discipline each other, particularly if a mainstream feminist is out of line.” In a way, I agreed: for far too long, women have been taught to play nice and be polite. Historically, the feminist movement has hushed many women’s voices under a misguided pledge for unity. It needs to stop. Still, as I glanced at my social media feeds, my smile sagged. Peer discipline and call-out culture on Twitter often manifests as neither respectful but firm nor even correctively caring. What we largely get instead are vicious and unforgiving attacks. No wonder people like Lee were bowing out of the conversation. Though dissent isn’t inherently terrible, it’s hard to understate how much it is fracturing us. There are no easy answers: feminism’s vibrant acrimony is turning women away, and so is its demand that all women kowtow to one capital-F unified version. It’s lose-lose at a time when women’s rights need it to be win-win.
I was thinking about all this as I walked back to the hotel, after the conference. The parliament buildings were old and gigantic and beautiful, a testament to nation building and legacy. But construction was everywhere. One building, larger than a city block, was almost entirely covered with an outer shell of scaffolding wrapped in white plastic. The entire thing looked like it was plopped inside a bag, except where wind had ripped makeshift windows. Roughly half of all the storefronts located in the city’s pedestrian-only area were in the midst of remodeling, flimsy plywood shelters doing a poor job of disguising the chaos. This being Canada, plenty of signs asked passersby to “Please excuse our mess.” Construction was in progress, but soon, said the signs, everything will be good again. It occurred to me that the feminist movement was a lot like these buildings: an old, mammoth institution, proud and important, but falling apart — and still trying to convince us there was nothing to see. All the while, its scaffolding was showing.
The backlash against the women’s rights movement, in and of itself, is nothing especially new. Those with a vested interest in seeing the movement fail have always existed: yes, sometimes it was men, but it was also the religious right and conservative traditionalists. In 1991, when I was seven years old, journalist Susan Faludi published the Pulitzer Prize–winning book Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women. Faludi charted the rising 1980s anti-feminist movement and emergence of what she called the “New Right” woman. I imagine Faludi must look at much of what’s going on today with a serious case of déjà vu. In Backlash, she argued that male anti-feminists enlisted women to do the heavy lifting in the campaign against their own rights. Phyllis Schlafly, whom I like to think of as first president of the female anti-feminist fan club, headed the Stop ERA campaign against the (still unratified) Equal Rights Amendment because she believed it would “take away the marvelous legal rights of a woman to be a full-time wife and mother in the house supported by her husband.” Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who claimed to be a reformed feminist (thanks to Schlafly) and whose book A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women’s Liberation sparked a six-publisher bidding war, argued that feminism reviles motherhood. Faludi also introduced us to Camille Paglia, who was then rising to fame for dismissing date rape as feminist nonsense.
On my bookshelf, I have the fifteenth-anniversary edition of Backlash, which includes a preface that wryly notes the latest wave of anti-feminists were right-wingers who said they were the true feminists. Faludi calls women like Christina Hoff Sommers, author of Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women and The War against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men, a “sleeper cell of pod feminists” who have hijacked the feminist movement. Other potential pod members are Lucianne Goldberg and Jeannie Sakol, who co-founded the Pussycat League in 1970 to oppose the women’s lib movement and bring back “charm, chic and clinging gowns,” and Danielle Crittenden, author of What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman and founder of The Women’s Quarterly Magazine, which ushered in “new” — ahem, anti- — feminism.
This latest iteration of the anti-feminist backlash reminded me of a Glee mash-up song, only depressing (well, depending on how you feel about musicals). Maybe Britney Spears’s “Oops! I Did It Again” meets Guns N’ Roses’s “Welcome to the Jungle.” The same rhetoric was re-emerging, only now it was wilder and, also, everywhere. Social media allows the ideas underpinning both anti-feminism and post-feminism (the idea that we’re past the need for feminism) to spread and to connect, and the anti-feminist movement — and its many octopus arms — have grown beyond the usual suspects. This popularity makes a certain kind of sense. My fellow millennials and I are, quite literally, the daughters of the powerful anti-feminist wave Faludi wrote about in Backlash. But it’s not just my generation. This new pukey-face-emoji reaction to feminism may have historical roots, but it also has its contemporary reasons. I’ve never before seen such a blanket rejection of feminism from those who actually have a vested interest in seeing it achieve its goals. To me, these women are harder to explain away. I can’t credibly claim they are all misogynists, and too many of them are not traditional, right wing, or even remotely devout. I also can’t quite convince myself they are all under the big, fat, hairy thumb of men or are misguided, approval-seeking drips.
Lest we think it was only Women of the Internet, let’s not forget the spate of celebrities who once rushed to distance themselves from the f-word: Sarah Jessica Parker, Demi Moore, Carrie Underwood, Susan Sarandon, Kelly Clarkson, Lady Gaga, Björk, and (until recently) Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Madonna. (Both Donald Trump and Beyoncé can likely take some credit for pushing female celebs to join Team Feminism — albeit for different reasons.) In June 2014, pop star Lana Del Rey infamously declared: “Feminism is just not an interesting concept.” Shailene Woodley, star of the blockbusters Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars (both based on wildly popular teen fiction) has said she’s not a feminist because, as she put it, “I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.”
Most of these women are also outspoken advocates for empowerment, independence, and strength. And yet — and yet — they repeat the same strange rhetoric of many anti-feminists: they love men, believe in equal rights, but feel feminism limits and confines them. It reminded me of a game I used to play with my friends when I was a kid: Opposite Land. Everything we said, we meant the opposite. Yes became no, and green became red. Our shirts would go inside out or backwards, and sometimes we’d do a Wonder Woman with our underwear. Often, we’d wait for a parent to enter the room before we started playing it, just so we could annoy them. Looking at pop culture, I was that annoyed parent all the time.
The uproar became so great that in May 2013 the Washington Times gleefully announced: “Feminism may be dead.” It wasn’t just hot air. At the time, in a countrywide survey, more than half the US female population had declared itself “not feminist.” About 5 per cent said they were actually “anti-feminist.” And, in a series of subsequent polls, women consistently said they felt there was nothing positive about the term “feminist.” A year later, one 2014 Economist/YouGov joint poll showed that more than 30 per cent of women still said “no” to the f-word after being read the dictionary definition of feminism (“someone who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes”).
A May 2014 Ipsos Reid survey of fifteen countries — including Canada and the US, but also places such as Sweden, Japan, and Argentina — put feminists on the majority side again, but just barely. Drastically less than half of the respondents said they “strongly” identified as feminists, leaving the pollster to conclude only one in six were “core” feminists: the type who’d be likely to engage in activism or talk rights at dinner parties.
In Canada, for instance, only 17 per cent of women said they strongly identified as a feminist; in the US, the number sat at 20 per cent. In all cases, those polled were then read a dictionary definition of feminism that stressed social, political, and economic equality. It made a negligible difference. The numbers only bumped up once the poll asked respondents if they believed in equal opportunities for men and women and that women should be treated equally to men in all areas based on their competence, not their gender. In Canada, 67 per cent strongly agreed; in the US, only 63 per cent. The average for all fifteen countries surveyed was just 60 per cent. To find out the story behind the words, I contacted John Wright, a Canada-based executive with Ipsos whose job it was to turn the company’s raw data into meaningful narratives.
“Words in and of themselves are absolutely critical and can become pejorative,” said Wright, his voice heavy with a Nicolas Cage drawl. Survey results can vary wildly based on the precision of the language used when crafting the questions, even when considering the small differences between terms such as in favor, support, and acceptable. Each suggests a different level of commitment, what we’re willing to accept as true to us. And some words, simply put, are loaded. This can result in survey respondents answering negatively to something with which they actually agree. Based on the polling, that’s what Wright, a man in his late fifties, thought had happened to the word feminist. It was like a tea bag steeped in water too long, gone sour from all the negative social connotations. Many women may want to avoid calling themselves feminists, Wright said, even if they agree with equal rights.
The word feminist has a long history of debate, and some of those debates were so negative, he argued, that it could be time, at least for pollsters, to redefine the word, or use an entirely different term. He had a point, though I was torn between whether it made me relieved or angrier. Wright, however, may have thought I was confused, because he suddenly told me about his old phone, a Motorola Flip the size of two hands and something many of the younger, smartphone-tethered staff in his office have never seen. Wright keeps it at the back of his desk and whenever anyone in his office is so fixated on something they believe is right, he will whip out the old cell and point to the gawky antenna. He does it to remind his younger staff that things have not always been the way they are now, that sometimes something that seems forever ago, wasn’t.
I wondered whether Wright meant that feminism as a unified movement was about as outdated as an old phone, or that thinking feminism was a good label was naive in the same way that believing all phones had always been smartphones was naive. Either way, it was bad. I am sure what he really wanted was for me to be optimistic that, at least for some women, ditching the f-word didn’t preclude them from believing in equal rights. But I don’t think avoiding the word helps women; it hushes our voices and makes it harder to act. When I asked Wright if he was arguing for future polls to not include the word feminist, he paused. He was silent for longer than I expected. “I think this is just new ground,” he finally said. “And we just have to think about it.” Some countries, he surmised, still had a great need for the word and all that it represents. He was mostly talking about countries in Asia that, in his mind, still needed the Germaine Greer–type definition of the movement. “This is their time for feminism,” he said.
But, I wondered: had our time really passed?
Once I started seeing women (and men) embrace this hardline rejection of feminism, I couldn’t stop seeing it or its effects. I pictured it as a giant f-bomb that had exploded, leaving a nuclear-sized mushroom cloud filled with hypersexualization, scary new conservatism, mid-century values, and a new generation of women who were eager to ditch the feminist fight. Famous women who ardently rebuffed the label and the thousands of Women Against Feminism weren’t the cause of this change, though, or even the final outcome; they were a single symptom of a much wider cultural shift. Just one generation ago, asserting the existence of such a regression would have seemed silly, conservative, wishful thinking. Not today. Today, evidence all around us shows that women see feminism as a tool for their mothers’ and grandmothers’ apron pockets, but it is not for them.
I would love for the women who believe we are in a post-feminist world to be right. I want nothing more than for all the women who have dedicated their lives to feminism to retire and sip piña coladas on a beach while women and girls everywhere enjoy the fruits of their labor: equal pay, lives free of violence, equal representation in positions of political power, absolute reproductive rights, harassment-free working environments, and about a bazillion other things. But I just don’t see that paradise yet.
That’s not to say women haven’t made huge gains; they have, and thanks largely to feminism. In 1967, for example, only 11.7 per cent of mothers were the family breadwinners, and just over 15 per cent were co-breadwinners. This is according to the 2014 Shriver Report, a 415-page study on the state of women in North America completed by the Center for American Progress under the guiding fear women were on the brink of societal backslide. As of 2009, those numbers had jumped to 41 per cent and 22.5 per cent, respectively. In recent years, twice as many single women as single men were new home buyers. Globally, women controlled more than $20 trillion in spending. Also gone were the days where only men pursued post-secondary education; we now outnumbered them in most programs. We kept making impressive gains in employment, too: back in the 1970s, scantly more than 15 per cent of us were managers in the private sector. That number was now closer to fifty. In the US, women-led businesses accounted for a staggering $3 trillion of the country’s GDP.
We were also leading companies that, years ago, nobody would have ever thought we’d run. Sheryl Sandberg was at Facebook and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! The CEO of General Motors was Mary Barra. Before her, in Canada, Maureen Kempston Darkes became the company’s first woman president. In grade four we had to write to a CEO for a school assignment. I wrote to her, confessing I idolized her. I was the only one in the class who received a handwritten response, which I still have. My dad worked at GM and, to his credit, explained that the fact a woman was his big boss was special; it meant I could do something like that one day.
But it’s dangerous to let these victories fool us into thinking we’ve won. At the time of the Shriver Report’s release, one in three adult women in North America lived in poverty or on the brink of it. We made up roughly 47 per cent of the labor force but more than 60 per cent of minimum-wage jobs. As a result, we were likely to have poorer health and more stress than men. We continued to earn somewhere around seventy-five cents for every dollar a man earned, and some studies of the past decade showed that gap was growing, not shrinking. The average Black woman earned only sixty-four cents to a white man’s dollar, and Latinas earned fifty-five cents. Paid family leave was still a dream for close to 90 per cent of women workers. And while there were close to three million more of us enrolled in post-secondary education than men, they still hugely outnumbered us in program majors that tended to pay more after graduation, including science, technology, engineering, and math, disciplines jointly known as STEM. The field, in fact, was overwhelmingly male. Despite a few high-profile women at the top, we comprised less than 20 per cent of the industry’s employees. Considering STEM is widely acknowledged as the driver of our future economy, this portends bad things for working women.
Beyond these hard numbers were hundreds of anecdotes that charted the ways women were still losing. Take, for instance, just a few of the things that happened during the week I wrote the sentence you’re reading right now: a woman was shot and killed in Detroit after refusing to give a man her phone number; three men in Atlanta gang raped and then set fire to a woman because she beat them in a freestyle rap battle at a house party; Microsoft’s CEO told a predominately female audience at a tech conference to never ask for a raise but instead “know and have faith that the system will give you the right raise”; American talk show host Wendy Williams told Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence that the hacked, leaked nude photos of her were not a “sex crime,” as Lawrence had told Vanity Fair, because, according to Williams, the hacking “has actually made your career even hotter”; and numerous rape scandals rocked the New York alt-lit scene, supposedly a bastion of progressive values. And that was just an average news week. I could have picked any week at random and found similar results, or worse.
Also consider the moment in 2016 when most of us realized we were in trouble — the Trump in the room, if you will. First came the Hillary Clinton effigies hung in front of houses. Then Donald Trump called Clinton a “nasty woman” during a live televised presidential debate. Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a shock. That same month, October 2016, a 2005 recording was leaked of Trump bragging about his treatment of women to Access Hollywood host Billy Bush. “I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women]. I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything,” Trump boasted. “Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Trump’s resurrected words, and his response to the leak, launched many “This pussy grabs back” T-shirts, memes, and rallying cries — and prompted many women to come forward with sexual assault allegations against Trump. By the end of the month at least seventeen women had shared their experiences, alleging unwanted sexual advances that included touching, groping, and kissing. Among the women who spoke out against Trump’s behavior were former Miss Teen USA contestants who accused Trump of entering their changing room when they were undressing or, in some cases, already nude. The teens were as young as fifteen. Trump had previously gloated about this, too, on Howard Stern’s show, also in 2005, saying that because he was the owner of the pageant, he could “sort of get away with things like this.” When not calling his accusers liars, Trump and his supporters dismissed his talk as harmless locker room banter.
People either believed the Trump team spin or didn’t care about his behavior, because he won the election. I was less surprised than most to learn that 53 per cent of white women voted for Trump. Their ballot marks disproved conventional wisdom that his gross actions and comments toward women would make him about as appealing as a dirty gym sock. Many women resented the presumption that they’d vote for Clinton based on her gender. Even supposedly diehard Democrats had piled on the misogyny, claiming they simply preferred Bernie Sanders for the job while also calling Clinton supporters “Hillary bots” and Clinton herself other, worse, things. They earned their own nickname, “Bernie Bros,” which, in turn, spawned several think pieces and much online chatter about whether feminists were making up the misogyny. Never mind the death threats.
Scott Godson’s 2012 book, Uprising: How to Build a Brand and Change the World, offers surprising insight into anti-feminism’s growing popularity. To help explain the rise of social movements, Godson turned to Bob Johansen, a director at the forward-looking think tank Institute for the Future. “In times of turbulence, anything that gives people a sense of meaning tends to grow,” Johansen explained. In a modern era of super connectivity — and yet concurrent in-person disconnectivity — movements are the new gathering points, today’s Rotary Club or Tupperware party, if you will. While technology facilitates today’s lightning growth, Godson argues, it’s really passion of belief that inspires people to move on an idea together.
Godson cites Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign as the start of today’s movement mania. While Obama offered hope, his campaign also sparked the Tea Party, one of the most successful recent countercultural movements. The Tea Party swiftly sprang up in opposition to Obama’s policies and positions, zeroing in on people’s anger. Like anti-feminism and men’s rights activism (MRA), it started out, as Godson wrote, “unclear and chaotic and messy” but as Obama’s popularity grew, so did the Tea Party’s ability to oppose his message. Their own message soon crystallized. (Fast forward and we get Trump.) So it goes with feminism and anti-feminism. As feminism grows and stalls and fails and grows some more, like all major movements, anti-feminism responds, plucking at the restlessness and dissatisfaction that feminism misses, paving the way for a new vision of womanhood.
According to Godson, hundreds and thousands of movements are happening all around us — some commercial, some social, some big, some small — and together they’ve put us in a cultural moment of movements. We’re on a hunt for meaning, and technology has accelerated our ability to connect with others on that same hunt. In 2009, shortly after Barack Obama’s second election win, and way before @RealDonaldTrump broke the internet, Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, gave a TED talk on the power of social media. He called our current age “the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.” The internet, he explained, was the first-ever medium that allowed for a many-to-many communication pattern: it can facilitate the building of groups and mass conversation among those groups.
Some researchers are beginning to argue that the relationships we form online can be as strong and as real as the ones we form offline. That’s how we get a Women Against Feminism Facebook group that, by early 2017, had grown to amass more than 42,000 likes, or a “Feminism is Evil” Facebook page that claims “Feminism is about female supremacy, not gender equality” with more than 52,000 likes. (For a chilling comparison, the pro-feminism campaign “Who Needs Feminism?” had earned just under 39,500 likes by 2017, despite massive media attention upon its 2012 founding.) These aren’t just idle conversations; people are building bonds and social groups, no matter how trollish they might seem to outsiders. Fizz. Bang. Explode. There is no recorking that champagne bottle now. “The question we all face now,” Shirky told his audience, “is ‘How can we make best use of this media?’”
If this were a different type of book, I might focus on the uplifting actions and the optimistic work of those who are forging new feminisms for the future, documenting how they are making best use of our moment of movements. We will meet more of those people soon — they do exist — but what I wanted to know first was: why are women so hell-bent on throwing feminism in the historical trashcan? And if feminism is not what they want, what do they want? What can we learn from those who oppose us?
I knew that, in many ways, whatever I discovered would be inadequate. There is so much that feminism must pay attention to right now, so many life-or-death issues from which we can’t afford to turn away: the hugely disproportionate rates of discrimination and violence against Indigenous women, women of color, women with disabilities, transgender women, and so many more who do not fit the white, middle-class status quo. These are undeniably feminist issues, and they’re also ones wrapped up in painful, long histories of colonialism, racism, white supremacy, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia.
The statistics on violence against women are both depressing and alarming. In 2016, for instance, twenty-seven transgender people were murdered in the US, nearly all of them transgender women of color; in the first five months of 2017, that tragic number had already hit eleven, and all of the victims were transgender women of color. Sixty per cent of women with disabilities experience some form of violence. Indigenous women, including First Nations women, Inuit women, and Métis women, are six times more likely to be killed than non-Indigenous women and more than 2.5 times more likely to be survivors of violence. In Canada, the number of murdered and missing Indigenous women is staggering, a national crisis that our federal government took an unforgivably long time to acknowledge, let alone act upon. The two-year, $53.86-million independent national inquiry launched in September 2016 has been soundly and rightly criticized by activists, leaders, and family members for its inadequate communication with families, its need for an extended timeline to allow proper hearings for those families, and to demand more care and awareness so that families are not re-traumatized by the process. What’s more, the commission put the onus on families to reach out to participate; as of May 2017, less than three hundred had done so. Numerous studies show that when women of color report violence, they’re taken less seriously and their perpetrators receive more lenient sentences. No woman should ever have to experience violence; that society seems to judge some women more worthy of our sorrow than others is inexcusable.
We need to write a hundred, a thousand, books about this. We must shine a ceaseless spotlight on these issues, and so many others. Investigating the rise of anti-feminism and post-feminism and its allure among today’s girls and women is only one small part of all the feminist work that needs to be done. In choosing to focus on the areas in which the anti-feminist movement has gained the most ground, particularly among women, I know I’m missing so many other feminist issues, including those that are dear to me. The onslaught against women is broad, and the scope of my book is narrow. It is impossible for one book to cover it all. I set out on this project with the hope that if I could understand women’s anti-feminist discourse, it would help me — and others — to understand more, and in that understanding we would wake up: we would investigate more, make more connections, become thunderous in our feminist fights.
Many women seem convinced that the gains we’ve made are enough. The US presidential election felt like proof that we were willing to settle for almost there, not realizing, or unwilling to admit, it would mean never there. And somehow, in the process, both what we’d achieved, and our unattained goals, were being turned into tinder for the anti-feminist fire.
How did this happen? If I refused to dismiss women who didn’t believe in feminism or rejected the label, then it followed they must have been responding to something. What was it about feminism that women weren’t connecting with? To find out, I knew I had to go deep inside the anti-feminist movement; I needed to keep meeting the people who had decided women’s rights were achieved, or at least enough for us to stop fighting for them. I needed to not look away.