Since they became widely used in the late nineteenth century, both feminism and antifeminism have been hotly contested words, an indication of their politically charged complexity. Activists and thinkers in both camps have sought to control the field of discourse by defining their opponents, while resisting definition themselves. Each camp has adapted to circumstances that change with each victory or setback. The increasing global exchange of ideas and strategies has produced new local feminisms and antifeminisms. The problem of definition is further complicated by retrospective debates about the relative feminism and antifeminism of historical figures and traditions. Even among self-proclaimed feminists and antifeminists at any given time and place, great philosophical and programmatic diversity is the rule. Under these circumstances, all definitions must be provisional.
Defining Feminism and Antifeminism
Historically and conceptually, feminism precedes antifeminism, which arises as a reaction against and repudiation of feminism and can only be defined on that basis. The definition of feminism offered by the historian Linda Gordon has the requisite balance of precision and suppleness to serve as a starting point: "Feminism is a critique of male supremacy, formed and offered in the light of a will to change it, which in turn assumes a conviction that it is changeable" (quoted in Cott, pp. 4–5). Antifeminism, then, repudiates critiques of male supremacy and resists efforts to eliminate it (often accompanied by dismissal of the idea that change is possible). Note that this definition of antifeminism limits its reference to reactions against critiques of gender-based hierarchies and efforts to relieve the oppression of women. In this way, antifeminism is distinguished from the related concepts of male chauvinism, sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, and androcentism, all of which can exist in the absence of feminism.
The origins of modern feminism and antifeminism are primarily found in the European Enlightenment. Among the earliest and most influential works of Enlightenment feminism was Mary Wollstonecraft's (1759–1797) A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Her innovation was to include women in the Enlightenment ideal of autonomous individualism and to extend the critique of rule by divine right to men's subordination of women. Initially, A Vindication of the Rights of Women was praised in the majority of publications that took notice and largely ignored by more conservative journals. The disclosure of Wollstonecraft's transgressive sexual history in a memoir posthumously published by her husband then brought increased attention from conservative commentators who, in their denunciations, pioneered a common tactic of antifeminist discourse by linking her ideas to her behavior and then labeling both "immoral."
In a pattern that continues to the present, much of early antifeminism was both an authentic manifestation of opposition to the dismantling of male supremacy and an effective weapon against women and men seeking larger transformations in social, religious, moral, economic, and political relations. Wollstonecraft and the generations of feminists she inspired have most often been affiliated with radical movements such as abolition, free love, Jacobinism, Perfectionism, Communism, temperance, transcendentalism, antimilitarism, and other less-than-popular causes. These associations have provoked and shaped antifeminist reactions. For example, the anticommunist movements following the world wars utilized often tenuous connections between feminists and communists to condemn both. Near the end of the twentieth century, the U.S. radio personality Rush Limbaugh created the term feminazi as an all-encompassing epithet to discredit liberal activist women. In practice, the two functions of antifeminism, as a means and as an end, have complemented and enhanced one another.
Feminism, Antifeminism, and Difference
At the core of the antifeminist program is the preservation (or reestablishment) of social, economic, and political differences based on gender. The most basic tenet of antifeminism is that the differences between men and women are such that inequalities of treatment and status are desirable or necessary. While the antifeminist position has been clear, feminists have been divided in their approaches to the nature and ramifications of gender differences. Individualist, liberal, or equality feminists have asserted an androgynous view of society and have sought to banish gender differentiation from social, political, and economic structures. In this view, equality is achieved by equal treatment without regard to gender. Difference, social, or relational feminists recognize gender differences (both biological and socially constructed) as of continuing significance, and base their claims for equity (in part) on these differences. The argument from difference emphasizes that utility and justice demand that, because men and women are different, women's interests cannot be represented by men and, therefore, women need to have the opportunity to participate fully in society. Difference feminists have been open, to varying degrees, to differential treatment of men and women in cases where gendered physical or other characteristics are such that equivalence appears more tenable than absolute equality. In practice, many feminists have employed both approaches, basing their opposition to male supremacy on universal human rights as well as uniquely female characteristics or experiences.
Equality feminism and difference feminism have aroused overlapping versions of antifeminism. The antifeminist reactions to equality feminism have mostly been of two types: exclusion and ridicule. By appealing to religion, tradition, science, and nature, antifeminists sought to exclude women from the Enlightenment category of autonomous individuals who should be granted rights. In this view, women lacked the rational capacity and independent nature required of members of society. As the mounting evidence of women's accomplishments and capabilities has made it increasingly difficult to directly dispute women's intelligence and rationality, opponents of equality feminism have turned to the other approach: exaggeration and ridicule. In one example, opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States equated equal rights for women with mandatory unisex toilet facilities in their successful campaign against ratification.
Ridicule has also been employed against difference feminism, often as part of a larger critique of the "feminization" of society. Because antifeminists and difference feminists share a belief in gender differentiation, their disagreements have centered on the nature of this differentiation, claims to superiority of one gender or the other, and appropriate spheres of participation. Although there is a strain of antifeminism that associates women with dangerous, uncontrolled sexuality, most antifeminists and difference feminists have held a common vision of women as more nurturing and less aggressive than men. Extreme antifeminists have presented this difference as absolute and unalterable, not a matter of degree or environment. On this basis, they have asserted that women are unfit for professions and pursuits demanding an aggressive intellect or personality and, more generally, for the rough-and-tumble of the public spheres of politics and business.
Equality feminists and some difference feminists have countered that gender characteristics vary greatly within each sex, are largely the product of education and opportunity, and that differences will lessen if males and females are treated equally. Other difference feminists, especially those associated with maternalist versions of feminism, have diagnosed the failings of the public sphere as symptoms of aggressive male dominance and prescribed female activism and influence as the cure. Expanded female influence has brought backlash protests against "momism" and the "softening" of individuals, institutions, and cultures informing the men's movement activities of Robert Bly (b. 1926) and others. Complaints about momism and "feminization" expose the antifeminist dimensions of ideas such as republican or national motherhood that celebrate women's abilities and contributions within the circumscribed private realm of the family, simultaneously seeking to limit women's participation in the larger society. When these boundaries have been stretched or broken, the reactionary ridicule has been based on the supposed inappropriateness of female-identified qualities in a shifting array of arenas ranging from education, governance, and the law (primarily in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), to (in the twentieth century) science, police work, and the military.
Nature, Science, Religion, and Antifeminism
Antifeminists have appealed to both religious and scientific authority in defending male supremacy as "natural." The Abrahamic monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), like many of the world's religions, contain contradictions: they grew from liberatory roots but were shaped by the hierarchical and patriarchal environments of the societies they matured in. This is manifested in restrictions on women's actions, movement, contacts, dress, and worship as well as general dictates mandating female obedience. Feminists, ranging from the United States' Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826–1898) in the nineteenth century to Morocco's Fatima Mernissi (b. 1940) in the twenty-first, have identified established religion as a primary source of women's oppression while simultaneously providing feminist interpretations of cardinal religious texts to claim the liberatory traditions for women.
Established religions tend toward antifeminism because they have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. In contrast, religious fundamentalists are generally reactionary outsiders, opposing secular authority as well as conservative and liberal religious practices. Although much scholarship and most popular images portray fundamentalist movements as inherently antifeminist, other scholars and women within these movements have identified ways in which women have used fundamentalism to increase their power and freedom, if not actually to overthrow the male supremacy deeply encoded in most religious traditions. The historical record reveals that fundamentalist regimes, from Puritan Massachusetts to Afghanistan under the Taliban, have imposed severe restrictions on women, indicating that the feminist potential of religious fundamentalism is limited in practice.
As religion has aided antifeminist appeals to tradition, science and social science have provided more modern justifications for the subjection of women. Scientific antifeminism begins and ends with the assertion that "biology is destiny." Charles Darwin (1809–1882), the pioneer of evolutionary theory, believed that the female's primary role and the focus of her evolutionary adaptations was reproduction. The influential nineteenth-century social philosopher and social scientist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) held an even dimmer view of women's evolution, asserting that women had not taken part of the final step in human development, the acquisition of the ability to reason. Other scientists and pseudoscientists measured brain size, head bumps, musculature, and other characteristics to delineate women's supposed inferiority.
The belief that women had primarily (if not exclusively) evolved for reproduction was used to caution against their education and participation in almost all activities not directly connected to procreation and nurture. In this view, women who pursued other avenues were going against their nature, risking serious illness and damage to their reproductive capacity. At a time when "race suicide" anxiety was common among Northern and Western Europeans and the colonial project was underway, antifeminists depicted women's neglect of their reproductive nature as a selfish betrayal of their race and nation. The common diagnoses of "hysteria" given to a variety of mental, emotional, and physical symptoms drew on this analysis in that the "disease" was confined to women's child-bearing years and was often portrayed as a product of women's inferior, childlike nature. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of psychology, extended the (pseudo)scientific discourse on female inferiority by positing a phallocentric view of human nature. These versions of scientific antifeminism have fallen from favor, although echoes of them can still be discerned in discussions of gender difference. More common early in the twenty-first century are utilitarian social science arguments, offering anecdotal and statistical evidence that women who choose not to be wives and mothers are unhappy, that the children of working mothers are damaged, and that society suffers when women pursue any path but motherhood. Intellectual antifeminism in academia ranges from wholesale dismissal of feminist work to less obvious discrimination in publishing and career advancement.
Antifeminism, Patriarchy, Reproduction,
Feminists and antifeminists have staked claims to a range of positions on sexuality and reproduction. It is important to begin with the observation that control of female reproductive labor was the historic object of the establishment of patriarchal forms of male superiority around the globe. In the vast majority of societies, feminism has targeted some form of patriarchal relations, or their vestiges in industrial or industrializing societies. For this reason, control of female reproduction and sexuality have been major antifeminist themes and goals. Patriarchal practices as varied as patrilineal inheritance of property and female genital mutilation have been targeted by feminists and defended by antifeminists. Early feminist activists challenged direct legal manifestations of patriarchy by agitating for married women's property laws, maternal guardianship rights, and the liberalization of divorce statutes. Feminist success, real and perceived, led to a counter "men's rights" movement in the late twentieth century, largely concerned with the divorce-related issues of alimony, child support, and paternal custody rights.
Although not directly addressing reproductive issues, the struggle for political rights and educational and vocational opportunities sought to provide women with alternatives to patriarchal dependency. In each of these cases, antifeminists claimed that the resulting reforms would render women physically and temperamentally unfit for reproduction and motherhood. In the late nineteenth century, Margaret Sanger (1883–1966) and other birth-control advocates addressed reproduction directly in their promotion of contraception as a means to increase women's autonomy. The battles over access to contraception, like the continuing conflicts over abortion rights, divided women's rights advocates to some degree. At base, contraception and abortion are about control of reproduction, but a complex mélange of issues including religion, freedom of speech, medical authority, and female sexual pleasure have shaped the debates.
In these and other contexts, the antifeminist depictions of female sexuality have been multifaceted. Early feminists were often said to be unsexed. The exact meaning of this term varies greatly, but it was never used in a positive manner. The related concept of the "masculine woman" is clearer and equally negative in intent. The rhetoric associating feminists with lesbians—accurately and inaccurately—has been a mainstay of antifeminism. This trope has long coexisted with other conflicting stereotypes of feminists as antisex prudes and free-loving (heterosexual) libertines. Although all three have been present throughout the history of antifeminism, their relative popularity has gone through cycles. Perhaps due to the influence of Wollstonecraft, the depiction of feminism as a gateway to sexual license enjoyed an early popularity, but most feminists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries actively espoused respectability. This, in concert with their involvement in the temperance movement and campaigns for social purity, inspired caricatures of feminists as antisexual. The emergence of the "New Woman" and the flapper ideals in the early twentieth century brought back complaints about the loose (heterosexual and homosexual) morals of feminists. The visibility of lesbians in the women's liberation movements of the 1970s inspired new attacks on feminists as sexually deviant "man-haters." In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries all three antifeminist tactics have been common. Prominent women with progressive politics are regularly the subjects of whispering campaigns about their homosexuality. In works such as Katie Roiphe's best-selling The Morning After, feminism is blamed for creating a puritanical climate of sexual fear, yet it is commonplace for religious activists to condemn feminists for "undermining" the morals of society. Leading antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly has exploited all three: equating feminism with lesbianism, blaming feminists for creating an overly sexualized culture, and taking them to task for their work against rape and pornography. The inconsistency in the antifeminist stance on sexuality is both a reflection of the diversity of feminism and a product of political expediency.
Colonialism, Anticolonialism, and Globalization
The colonial project of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries was freighted with gender ideologies. One important aspect involved attempts to remake the gender relations of the colonized peoples in the image of Western male supremacy. The diverse societies subjected to colonization had developed unique systems of gender, some more egalitarian than Western norms, some less so. An unintended consequence of the colonial project was the contradictory spread of Western feminist ideas. Just as the official policies were based on a lack of understanding of the traditions and needs of the colonized people, Western feminism betrayed a narrowness of vision and arrogance that created distrust, even among those women who were the intended beneficiaries. This distrust and these misunderstandings continue to plague relations among feminists, creating schisms that have been exploited by antifeminists.
Anticolonial movements provided new but often fleeting opportunities for feminists. In many nations, the flux of revolutionary times combined with the need for the widest possible support created revolutionary nationalist movements open to expansive roles for women, if not always feminist ideas. Women's labor and leadership were celebrated, but in a manner that reinforced traditional images of women as wives and mothers, not as revolutionaries on their own terms, and the success of nationalist movements has often brought a backlash against the feminist women who were once comrades-in-arms. In strategic appeals, former revolutionaries and other local authorities have branded feminism as a Western influence. Feminists in the developing world have increasingly rejected Western models in order to create their own ideologies that are both truer to their experiences and less vulnerable to condemnation on nationalistic and anti-Western grounds.
See also Discrimination ; Diversity ; Enlightenment ; Equality: Gender Equality ; Feminism ; Gender ; Gender Studies: Anthropology ; Human Rights: Women's Rights ; Identity: Personal and Social Identity ; Motherhood and Maternity ; Philosophies: Feminist, Twentieth-Century ; Power ; Sexuality ; Untouchability: Menstrual Taboos ; Witchcraft ; Women and Femininity in U.S. Popular Culture ; Women's Studies .
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Thomas J. Mertz
"Antifeminism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/antifeminism
"Antifeminism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved April 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/antifeminism
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