Who’s Afraid of Feminism? Seeing Through the Backlash

Who’s Afraid of Feminism? Seeing Through the Backlash

Book Review by Eleanor J. Bader

Edited by
Ann Oakley and Juliet Mitchell
The New Press, New York
292 pp.,
$15.95, paper

So who’s afraid of feminism? By the looks of it, just about everyone, including those of us who call ourselves feminists. But as this anthology reiterates, change is neither linear nor easy.

Nearly 30 years ago, women began to enumerate the things that were wrong in their lives. From battering by husbands and boyfriends to inequality in the workplace and restricted career options, they named names and cited wrongs. At times they were shrill, offending the powers that be. But in their efforts to remind the world that women are full human beings, they shook the foundation of social and political life the world over.

Not surprisingly, that shaking has reverberated, sparking conflagrations both progressive and reactionary. In her introduction to Who’s Afraid of Feminism?, the third collection of essays about women’s liberation edited by Ann Oakley and Juliet Mitchell, (following 1976’s The Rights and Wrongs of Women and 1986’s What is Feminism?), Temma Kaplan writes that “nostalgia is the fuel driving the backlash. Never mind that nostalgia is more about fantasies for the future than memories of the past. When nostalgia sets the tone of debate, feminists are always at a disadvantage.”

Who’s Afraid of Feminism? explores the backlash that second-wave European and American women’s movements have encountered over the past two decades. A mix of academic research, political advocacy, and personal essays, the collection touches on subjects as varied as homophobia, fashion, pro-natalist policy, the intellectual canon, the media, and sexism in the academy. Unlike other books on the backlash phenomenon, Who’s Afraid of Feminism? does not focus only on explicit opposition to women’s emancipation outside of women’s movements, but looks inward to scrutinize what the editors call the “misogyny inherent within certain forms of female success.”

Patrizia Romito’s “Damned If You Do and Damned If You Don’t: Psychological and Social Constraints on Motherhood in Contemporary Europe” is a case in point. Italy, Romito’s country of origin, is 90% Catholic. While the populace seems to easily coexist with a Church and Pope who oppose birth control and abortion, many of Italy’s women are quietly — passively — resisting motherhood. Indeed, as Romito points out, the birthrate in Italy is among the world’s lowest: “If we take the generation of women who are now around 40, one in five is childless; in northern Italy the proportion is one in four.” In order to address this issue, anti-abortion and pro-natalist groups have increased their activities in recent years. So what’s going on? Is the anti-natalist trend a response to a feminist movement that has emphasized women’s non-maternal contributions to society?

According to Romito, the answer is no. While feminists have mobilized when abortion has come under direct attack, for the most part activists have been shockingly reticent about choice. In fact, feminists have appeared reluctant to take up the abortion rights banner; much of the writing that has been done on the subject treats abortion as a tragedy, albeit a necessary one. Instead, “much more energy has been invested in the subject of childbirth, with theorizing, conferences, books and ever-increasing activity on the part of groups involved in home births, water births, sweet births and so on.”

Are feminists to blame for growing anti-abortion sentiment in Italy? Of course not. But Romito’s essay is a clear indicator of what is at stake if feminists remain silent on issues of reproduction. By siding with those who extol the maternal, Romito writes, organized feminists have lost touch with their constituents, and are playing into the hands of conservative movements that are virulently opposed to altering those traditional family structures that have historically oppressed women. In Italy today, organized feminist groups are apparently less willing to question those structures than are average Italian women. A cautionary tale, her essay is a sobering reminder of an early tenet of women’s liberation: that freedom to have a child, as well as the freedom to remain childless, underscores the notion of female autonomy.

Feminism is, of course, about more than choice, and the fight for economic parity has been another critical site of the backlash. “Feminism, Fatherhood and the Family in Britain,” an essay by Juliet Mitchell and Jack Goody, outlines the hostile reception that has greeted the Child Support Agency (CSA) since its founding in l99l. Opponents of the agency — which goes after absent parents (usually fathers) to collect unpaid child support — range from misogynist men’s groups to feminist organizations that argue that it is an “old fashioned idea that fathers are breadwinners and responsible for the upkeep of their children.” Socialist-feminist groups like the Campaign Against the Child Support Agency (CACSA) argue that all children should be supported by the state and believe that government should “pay all mothers to nurture and rear its future workers.”

While Mitchell and Goody support the CSA, their essay tackles several complex questions that face the agency’s supporters. In particular, they analyze the position of men and women in the contemporary family, and look at the impact of remarriage on child support and household structure. “It is often second families that are objecting to payments to the first,” they write. “Our society has been unprepared for the serial coupling that has overtaken it.” Feminists have been slow to recognize this phenomenon and have not yet been able to formulate a response that meets the needs of working-class and poor women and children. Aside from CACSA (formerly Wages for Housework), the economic needs of female-headed households and the role of the CSA in meeting them has received scant attention. As a result, “men’s rights” groups — the most vocal proponents of the backlash — have managed to garner the lion’s share of press attention.

For their part, the media have ignored daily feminist struggles while conjuring up images of “chic lesbians” and a post-feminist generation. Yet perhaps no change has been as rapid — or as startling to the status quo — as the personal and political transformations wrought by queer theory and lesbian and gay culture. Susan Heath’s essay, “Thoughts of a Latecomer: On Being a Lesbian in the Backlash,” is the most personal piece in the collection. A “late bloomer” who came out after 30 years of marriage and the rearing of four sons, Heath can easily pass as a respectable grandmother. Yet she chooses not to. Instead, she sees herself as an affront to myths about queerness — a personal challenge to unexamined stereotypes about lesbian life.

Other essays in the anthology address the backlash from a variety of vantage points. Retired academic and writer Carolyn Heilbrun assails the sexism she encountered at Columbia University and lambastes the many left-wing men who failed to take up feminism during her tenure there. Ann Oakley presents an historical overview of gender, and looks at the conflation of sex and gender as a manifestation of the backlash. Psychologist Carol Gilligan offers a plea for the inclusion of women — and the recognition of their difference — in public life. “If women’s voices are no different from men’s, then leaving women out is no problem. If women’s voices are different from men’s, then listening to women will change the voice which we hear and name as human,” she writes in “Getting Civilized.”

So who’s afraid of feminism? By the looks of it, just about everyone, including those of us who call ourselves feminists. But as this anthology reiterates, change is neither linear nor easy. Undoing social conditioning and impacting social organizations is ongoing work, and the backlash is but one indicator that feminism has begun to shake things up. In fact, as long as feminism, in all of its permutations, continues to push at the boundaries of female — and human — experience, we can expect the backlash to continue, and to become even more visible.

As Carol Gilligan writes, the stakes are extremely high: “The world will change as everyone ‘gets it’ — that women are half the population in every generation and that undoing men’s disconnection from women and women’s disconnection from themselves does mean the end of patriarchy and the beginning of something which we have barely imagined — something that wholeheartedly could be called Civilization.”

Eleanor J. Bader is a writer and teacher from Brooklyn, NY.