How The Stereotype Of Feminism As Anti-Men Started

by JR Thorpe
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Kellyanne Conway, who spearheaded President Trump's campaign for the White House and currently works as his counselor, said some mighty confusing things about feminism at the conservative gathering CPAC last week, and it's time to do a little unpacking. As well as lambasting people for their "negativity about women in power," she noted to the audience, “It’s difficult for me to call myself a feminist in a classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male, and it certainly is very pro-abortion, and I’m neither anti-male or pro-abortion." Facepalm.

The part of her comments I'm going to deal with here is the anti-male segment; whether or not feminists can also oppose abortion is a complicated issue all of its own, with significant differences about the topic within the movement itself (I personally do not believe pro-life feminism is possible, but that's only individual opinion). No, what concerns me here most is that yet again, a white blonde lady has stood up and said that she doesn't think feminism is sufficiently nice to dudes, and why that false idea is now over a hundred years old (and extremely tired, might I add).

We've dealt with this before when Taylor Swift said it, and though I hope that the Women's March movement and other demonstrations of the power and political clout of women might lessen its frequency, I'm not without skepticism. Let's have a look at why anti-feminists came up with the anti-male stereotype, and how it's stuck around for so long.

Anti-Feminism Has Mischaracterized The Movement For A Long Time

Let's talk the history of anti-feminism. While people against female equality in principle have existed for an extremely long time, many sentiments that now seem common to opponents to feminism really blossomed in 1792, when Mary Wollstonecraft published her Vindication Of The Rights Of Women in England. The tone of disapproval, notes Valerie Saunders in Eve's Renegades: Victorian Anti-Feminist Female Novelists, was personal, indicating that the only reason Wollstonecraft felt the way she did about women's equality was because she was, in private, not actually a respectable woman at all, and certainly not a sensible one. The British Critic asked in 1803,

"Did [Mary Wollstonecraft] not, in private life, disdain almost every regulation by which society is held together, and erect her own caprice, inclinations, and passions as the unerring standard of right?"

The idea of feminism as somehow not respectable was one thing, but the concept of it as being fundamentally unbalanced and unnatural was another. And that was another common theme, unfortunately. The idea of women standing up loudly and demanding their rights was anathema to critics of the time, because it was "unfeminine." Women were meant to confine themselves to home and hearth, not be out agitating and making political speeches; that was usurping male space, and the logical leap to seeing women as "anti-male" because of it was a small one. The 19th century anti-feminist journalist Eliza Lynn Linton coined the term "shrieking sisterhood" for what she perceived as "hysterical" political attempts that "frighten the world," saying that feminists should instead try to proceed in silence.

The Suffragettes Were Deemed "Ugly" & "Bad Mothers"

The suffrage movements were the ones that saw the real flowering of anti-feminist rhetoric, as feminists were seen to threaten central parts of female identity related to femininity and motherhood. The whole "anti-male" label really took hold in the popular press in this period, showing sympathetic fathers at home nursing abandoned offspring while mothers went off to do irresponsible things like march and picket for their own rights. That was if they were pictured as married at all; the "shrieking sisterhood" were also depicted as chronically ugly, unhappy about their rights and roles because they were embittered about their inability to have a "natural" woman's position in a family.

Anti-feminists also took feminism to be a threat to values considered by them to be fundamental to gender values; a 1918 anti-suffrage organization in America declared itself "Dedicated To The Defence Of Womanhood, Motherhood, The Family & The State." Feminism, the argument went, challenged the traditional order that required male heads of household and female mothers and nurturers, and was therefore a threat to both genders.

The Stereotype Grew With Second-Wave Feminism

Modern feminism has encountered problems — a lack of intersectionality, for instance, and problems with accepting sex workers — but one thing it's never done is demand that there be a reduction in the rights of men. The depiction of feminists throughout the decades as unfeminine and therefore grossly unnatural, from the shrieking sisterhood to imagined bra-burnings, is a product of fear and self-protection.

An interesting insight into how these particular misconceptions entrenched themselves during second-wave feminism in the 1970s comes from Janet Saltzman Chafetz and Anthony Dworkin, who tracked the development of feminist movements across 48 countries. They point out that there were often two kinds of anti-feminist groups that popped up in response in the 20th century: "vested-interest groups which are typically male-dominated and oppose feminist change movements on the basis of class interests, and voluntary grassroots associations made up of women who are reacting to the threat of their status as privileged traditional women." Different types of opposition may have spawned different stereotypes, or simply diversified the audience for ones that already existed. The anti-male message, either way, was hammered home.

It was in the argumentative interests of all anti-feminists that feminism be seen as about establishing a matriarchy and threatening to castrate any males that crossed their path, but it's always been incorrect. As any basic understanding of feminism dictates, feminist equality is about creating an even playing field for opportunity and allowing everybody a free, safe life regardless of gender, rather than taking away hallowed parts of male existence that are fundamental to their flourishing and happiness. That we're still hearing this tired old message in 2017 indicates that, as the third-wave of feminism appears to be upon us, the anti-feminist movement is as wrong as it ever was.