“Of course I believe in equality...but I’m certainly not a feminist.”
Such was the catchcry of my late adolescence. Had the #womenagainstfeminism hashtag existed then, I’d be mortified to recall some of the ignorant things I spouted, my pouty lips posed behind a placard of falsehoods, photo attempt number 38 among 45 other discarded snapshots.
But as a feminism denying adolescent, I was still interested in the disparate treatment of men and women. I bristled each time domestic chores were handed down to my sister and I while our brother was given leave to play and explore, our femaleness apparently carrying with it a greater capacity for cleaning things. On the streets and at school, I had grown aware of the lingering threat that circled girls. The men who yelled crude sexual taunts and those who simply stared, both executions resulting in the slow and steady shrinking in on oneself that begins at around age 12 and perhaps never truly goes away.
I also knew that atrocious things happened to women ‘out there’, some of them as young or younger than myself. (Later, I would realise just how much this suffering would be exploited to justify Western sexism as a benevolent entity, an annoying itch rather than a dangerous burn, and one that subsequently doesn’t deserve to be complained about.)
Women suffered the world over, some more than others, and my heart throbbed quietly for us all.
Still, I did not call myself a feminist - because I wanted boys to like me. And knowing what I knew about how it felt to be a woman in the world, I was terrified at the kind of punishment that lay in wait if I took all the evidence of that collective oppression and laid it squarely at the feet of those who benefited from it, saying, “Look! Look! Can you see?”
Having long since resolved my hostility towards the label ‘feminist’, I’ve been thinking about the Women Against Feminism arguments in recent days. Amidst all the frustration and headdesking, I’ve realised there are three key things that encourage women to set themselves against a movement invested in their liberation and equality.
The mechanics of internalised misogyny are complicated, but they’re largely driven by fear of retribution. Feminism is perceived as a threat by some people, and the only recourse they have is to threaten it right back. For the girls and women who experience these threats on an ongoing basis, it’s understandable that they’d want to minimise exposure to them.
Forgive the overworked idiom, but if I had a dollar for every time someone had responded to my feminism by calling me fat, bitter, ugly, unrapeable (yes, that happens frequently), angry, stupid, opportunistic and - most recently - hypocritical for being paid to write about it, then I’d have enough to buy a substantial block of time with a decent therapist. When you add to that the very real risk of physical violence that looms over women who stand up for themselves or ‘shout back’, it makes sense that some women would seek to establish themselves as foot soldiers and enforcers in order to avoid this negative fall-out.
Sometimes, anti-feminism isn’t about women being unable to ‘think for themselves’ as the argument goes. It’s about an unconscious battle for self-preservation. Being a feminist isn’t easy - but being an outspoken one can be even more difficult.
That urge for self-preservation is very strong, and we see how it manifests with negotiation all the time. Consider the women who join in victim blaming narratives, reasoning that if she hadn’t done X then Y wouldn’t have happened. So women who willingly engage in X are ‘asking for it’.
Women consent to the limiting of their behaviour in an attempt to negotiate their own protection. The fact that none of this works is by the by. Accepting that and talking about it makes them a target, so instead they consent to being the enforcers of patriarchy and misogyny in order to carve out a small slice of symbolic power within those structures. Negotiation is not power - it’s compromise.
3. Wilful, selfish ignorance
Feminism argues that women are people too, and all people with privilege are susceptible to the kind of selfishness that keeps them indifferent to the struggles of others.
If you’re not forcing yourself to routinely interrogate the benefits you enjoy in society, it’s all too easy to tell yourself that other people are inventing their disadvantages. So people born into financial independence tell themselves that poor people need to work harder; people born into the relative utopia of Australia argue that refugees fleeing war-torn countries are ‘jumping the queue’; and some women favoured by the world’s preference for compliant, conservative ‘traditionalists’ understand and enjoy the benefit they think they get from being an ardent supporter of the status quo. Who cares about the grievances of angry, bitter women when your own situation is relatively comfortable?
Part of feminism’s core mission statement is to advocate for a world in which all women, not just some, are given equal opportunities and respect. That some women don’t yet understand this is a shame, but they may one day come to this realisation. That some women do but simply don’t care is an outrage.
I expect Women Against Feminism will flare briefly and then disappear into irrelevancy. It boasts a fundamental misunderstanding of feminism from the outset, and seems instead designed to support the conservative ideals that harm women rather than help them.
This is nothing new. The backlash has always attempted to push back against feminism’s success and it will keep trying.
But the world has forged women into fighters. We’ll keep pushing right back, as we always have done and as we always will, until we create a world in which all women are treated with dignity and liberated from patriarchal oppression - even the ones who don’t believe it exists.