Credit: Flickr/Rich Anderson. Some rights reserved.
When Silvio Berlusconi was Prime Minister of Italy we got a taste of things to come in the USA. Media mogul, showman and willing to play the buffoon but always with a sense of menace, Berlusconi was Tony Soprano in real life, a man to whom women were inevitably little more than a piece of ass. Remember that moment caught on film when Michelle Obama seemed to flinch with discomfort at having, diplomatically, to shake hands with the man?
Berlusconi objected, with his whole being, to the rise of independent women. He was a man who wanted to turn the clock back to a time when women knew their place and were subservient as mothers, grandmothers, mistresses and show girls. To any woman of my generation there was something familiar about this kind of older man, aggrieved because he could no longer pinch a woman’s behind with impunity.
When forced to interact with powerful women on the world stage such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Berlusconi became the joker, poking fun at her, playing like a schoolboy and pulling ‘funny faces’ behind her back as though she was nothing more than a nanny figure, in effect saying ‘don’t expect me to take you seriously.’
Confronted with the reality of feminist voices he adopted a classic post-feminist stance, insulting and reviling feminists as unattractive, old and disgusting while at the same time promoting unqualified and stereotypically glamorous women into positions of power across his own government. He also hinted at a new form of ‘mediated’ fascism—a love of being in the spotlight while making relentless denunciations of the left and populist claims to represent the common man, always willing to skirt close to the edges of legality.
Now, some years later, Donald Trump’s victory displays these same characteristics on a much grander scale. Trump’s unapologetic sexism seems to give carte blanche to an insurgent patriarchy which can now re-assert itself with confidence, having previously been seen as dormant—so look out Angela Merkel, or British Prime Minister Theresa May, or Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland. Low level or ‘undiplomatic’ insults reflect a particular way of exercising power, a way of putting women in their place regardless of their party affiliation.
Since November 8 2016 many feminists have asked why so many white women voted for Trump. Is this indicative of women’s own misogyny? A good deal of ire has been directed at Hillary Clinton for espousing ‘elite white feminism’ while failing to connect with working class women across the United States. But large numbers of black and other ethnic minority women voted for Clinton, not just because of the racism shown during Trump’s candidacy but also because the fantasy of being a pre-feminist woman who is somehow protected by husbands or fathers and supported by a male breadwinner never had any traction with them—the racialized nature of the labour market rarely permitted a model comparable to this fantasy to emerge, so there was no thought of going back in time to being the archetypal 1950s housewife.
In any case, the argument that Clinton was out of touch with ordinary women voters who haven’t seen their real wages rise for decades still doesn’t explain why many of them were willing to vote for a man who is prepared to limit their rights to reproduction and thus impede their very ability to take participate in the workplace on any kind of equal level with men. This phenomenon is only explicable if we take anti-feminism more fully into account.
Although anti-feminism is always changing its colours, it never goes away. As the writer and activist Susan Faludi documented in her important book Backlash, an angry oppositional movement of ‘moral majority’ adherents arose almost concurrently with the rise of liberal and socialist feminism in the USA. In my own book The Aftermath of Feminism I traced a later complexification of this backlash which seemed to have a less invidious, more progressive or even pro-women dynamic.
This movement entailed a new form of championing of women, and especially young women, on condition that they abandoned feminism as old hat, anachronistic and deeply unattractive—as something associated with old and seemingly embittered women from a past era—in favour of a ‘go-for-it’ pathway of female individualisation. This was the post-feminism of ambitious and competitive ‘Alpha Girls’ who could easily achieve their goals in the new meritocracy without the help of feminism.
During the period of Tony Blair’s governments in the UK this ethos pervaded political and popular culture. Feminism was put into cold storage as women were expected to be smiling and compliant ‘Blair babes.’ I recall this time well, when even female students who were otherwise interested in questions of work, employment, gender and sexuality nevertheless repudiated feminism, feeling that they could do just as well without it. It was fashionable to affect a kind of ‘phallic femininity’ by acting like a young man, with a flask of whisky in the back pocket, happy to hang out in a lap-dancing club.
Nancy Fraser and others have accused some feminists of becoming complicit with the neoliberal order by advocating this kind of achievement-driven or ‘choice-based’ notion of female empowerment, a complex way of saying that they have sold out to capitalism by accepting a place in the sun that is offered to a select few. In the process, much of liberal feminism has morphed into a more overtly market-driven and competition-based idea of female success, though even this form of ‘neoliberal feminism’ may be anathema to the Trump worldview.
At the same time, there has also been a feminist renaissance that embraces many different types and forms of feminist campaigning and organising. The Everyday Sexism project is one of the best examples of how feminism has recently shown itself to be so needed. Equally important has been the web-activism of the last decade, like the F Word in the UK or the ways in which US feminists have galvanised to demonstrate against Trump’s infamous ‘pussy-grabbing’ comments. But what has taken almost all young and older feminists aback has been the level of abuse, violence and vitriol to which this new visibility has given rise.
Anti-feminism has now taken on a much more aggressive edge. This hostility has found a home on the internet, and it has moved from there onto the streets, as the terrible death of the MP Jo Cox has shown. Ostensibly Cox was killed because she aimed to stem the tide of hostility against immigrants and asylum seekers. But it also seems no accident that she was a woman. The catalogue of women campaigners, politicians and commentators who have received death threats that resulted in the need for police protection has risen steeply in the last 12 months. Sadly Cox didn’t get to the point of requesting that protection.
Menace and the threat of violence have a particular address to women, different from men who are squaring up to fight each other. Berlusconi belonged to the realm of the Godfather films in which women were slapped about for daring to confront the man of the house. Among his many statements in recent days, Trump has said, provocatively, that there is no need to be ‘scared,’ but the new backlash takes the form of an undisguised provocation to women who are willing to take a stance. The core of rights that were eventually won in regard to contraception and abortion are now more than ever before under threat. It is women themselves who will be forced to defend the freedoms which have had to be fought for from the early days of the ‘second wave’ of feminism.
We cannot yet tell how real this threat is, but faced by this latest backlash there’s an urgent need for women across the boundaries of class and ethnicity to take heed and find new ways of defending their rights, both for their own sakes and for their daughters as well as for their husbands, fathers and sons, for they also need to be reminded of how feminism has and will continue to enhance their lives.
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