Every so often, one woman engages with me on Twitter who is against women’s suffrage. That’s right – she believes women shouldn’t have the right to vote. I always hoped it was a fake account, but no – this anti-suffrage enthusiast runs a blog where she writes about religion alongside recipes. It seems the only thing we have in common is a love of beets.
When men are against feminism, it’s frustrating, if ultimately predictable – groups with power have always been loathe to give it up. But when women come out against gender justice, it feels worse: no matter how fringe, the rise of the anti-feminist woman is not just baffling but a betrayal.
Obviously “women” aren’t a monolith, and neither are the issues that they care about or believe in. But anti-feminist organizing is based on a deep hypocrisy and selfishness – an ideology built to assure conservative women that as long as they are doing just fine, other women will make do. And they’re putting up roadblocks to progress right in the middle of a renewed feminist awakening, with retrograde sexism that’s ultimately not too different than that of their male counterparts.
Last week, for example, the US supreme court’s Hobby Lobby decision left most women’s groups livid. Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, called it “a shocking disregard for women’s health and lives.” The co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, Marcia Greenberger, said the ruling gave companies “a license to harm their female employees in the name of religion.”
But the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) – a conservative women’s group with at least a quarter-million dollars in financial ties to Rush Limbaugh – called the decision “undoubtedly good news”. The group’s director of cultural programs, Charlotte Hays, told a crowd outside the court, “This is a great day,” and called the ruling a victory “for anyone who believes in freedom of conscience.” This from the same woman who has written that womenshouldn’t be astronauts and that rape culture on college campuses is all “inflated numbers” and “hysteria”.
This latest crop of female anti-feminists – powerful, Washington-based organizations like IWF and Concerned Women for America – want to repeal the Violence Against Women Act and argue that pay inequity doesn’t exist. These organizations, along with a handful of popularwriters and authors, want to convince women that it’s men who are the underserved sex. They want to convince you that inequality is just a trade-off.
And as much as feminists are accused of obsessing over women’s sexuality – as if by putting so much effort into abortion and birth control, we’re reducing women’s issues to those below the belt – it is the well-funded, poorly researched anti-feminists who can’t seem to get their minds off sex.
The Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, for example, had a campaign to “bring back the hope chest”, and published a short booklet for college women called Sense and Sexuality, which doles out advice – in pink cursive writing – like this: “The rectum is an exit, not an entrance.” (As you can imagine, neither of these campaigns went viral.)
And IWF, a group that claims not to take a stance on social issues, runs a campus program dedicated to shutting down performances of the Vagina Monologues and funds research into how “hooking up” hurts women.
Ronnee Schreiber, author of Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics , thinks the anti-feminist focus on sexuality is a throwback to the issue of “respect”. “The idea is that men will treat women better if we present ourselves respectfully,” Schreiber tells me. In fact, much of the anti-feminist work – new and old – has been based on the idea that if women aren’t on a pedestal – sexual and otherwise – then men will act out.
As for all those rights won by so many feminists on behalf of so many more American women, the sad truth is that they fought other women every step of the way. Indeed, we live in a country with a long history of anti-feminist women: Before we had women like Christina Hoff Sommers and Katie Roiphe arguing that feminism was hurting men and that date rape wasn’t real, respectively,women were leaders in in the anti-suffrage movement of the early 1900s. And it was a woman – Phyllis Schlafly – who led the charge against the Equal Rights Amendment in the ’70s. Schreiber points out that some of the debates against the ERA were about “masculinity run amok”: “Phyllis Schlafly said if we were are treated as equals, then men will shirk their responsibilities,” she notes.
Remind me: Who are the man-haters again?
Between the last presidential election and the next one, between the feminist social media explosion and even Beyoncé coming out in our corner, right now is one of the most exciting times for feminism in decades. Yet here we have female anti-feminists – emboldened by Sarah Palin’s faux-feminist movement – raining on our progress parade. And it is especially irritating given that they’re using their gender as part of their organizing strategy. “It’s an identity politics angle that they criticize but often invoke,” Schreiber says.
Women stopping the progress of other women – especially those who don’t have the power and prestige to work for DC think-tanks or pen anti-feminist books – stings much more than when men do it. That may be a double standard, or naive – I don’t believe in an all-encompassing sisterhood, after all – though it does remind me of how powerful feminists really are: we’ve taken on not just the men in our way, but the women as well.
“If I saw Gloria Steinem,” the Fox pundit Andrea Tantoros likes to say, “I don’t know if I’d hug her or punch her.” I don’t know about you, but I’m putting my money on Gloria.
This article was originally published at the guardian