The 2010s in feminism: Two steps forward and a big shove back

Feminists are winning the war of ideas, but Republicans still hold power and keep stripping women of their rights

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 14, 2019 12:00PM (EST)

U.S. President Donald Trump vs The Women's March (Getty Images/Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Chip Somodevilla)
U.S. President Donald Trump vs The Women's March (Getty Images/Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Chip Somodevilla)

To understand the baffling, chaotic times we live in, one can do no better than to look at the disconnect in the U.S. between polling on what are often deemed "women's issues" and the actual state of play in the world of politics. Feminist ideas are increasingly popular. But, because Republicans have wildly disproportionate amounts of power, women are actually losing rights.

Abortion rights are more popular than ever, with 77% of Americans in an NPR/PBS poll saying they want Roe v. Wade to be preserved.

But, by this time next year, it's  likely Roe v. Wade will be toast. With Brett Kavanaugh replacing Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, it was just a matter of time. Kennedy was the deciding vote in 2016's Whole Woman's Health vs. Hellerstedt, in which the court ruled that states can't ban abortion by drowning clinics in medically unnecessary and impossible-to-meet regulations. But in shameless and unprecedented fashion, the court is retrying that same abortion ban (though in a different state) in March. By June, it's almost certain that the court will allow states to shut down all their abortion clinics, for the first time since 1973.

Similarly, support for birth control is rising, with an all-time high of 92% of Americans supporting its use and 71% believing the government should require insurance companies to cover contraception. But the Trump administration has been quietly undermining women's access, using federal red tape to shut down birth control grants to nearly 900 public clinics, and attempting to redirect that money to groups that argue abstinence is the only legitimate birth control. The administration has also tried to roll back rules requiring insurers to cover contraception.

The #MeToo movement, which was started by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 but really blew up after Donald "Grab 'Em by the Pussy" Trump was elected and Harvey Weinstein's long history of sexual abuse was exposed, is also relatively popular, with polls consistently showing more than half of Americans support it.

Yet Republicans — who control the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the White House — see it very differently. In fact, Republicans are growing increasingly hostile towards the #MeToo movement. In 2018, a majority of Republican voters agreed that "women who complain about harassment often cause more problems than they solve," casting the victims as the victimizers.

This helps explain how Kavanaugh got confirmed to the Supreme Court in the  first place, despite more Americans believing the woman who accused him of attempted rape, Christine Blasey Ford, than believing his denials. Republicans control the Senate and know full well their voters are inclined to lash out at women who have the courage to stand up to abuse, rather than supporting them.

Then there is perhaps the most dramatic example of all: In the 2016 election the first female major-party candidate for president, Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots cast. But, because the American electoral college system overweights the votes of people living in rural areas, Trump — a misogynist who bragged about sexual assault on tape — won the presidency anyway.

The gap between the popularity of feminism and the actual power of feminism was illustrated in January 2017, when the number of people who hit the streets of Washington for the Women's March utterly swamped that of Trump's inauguration the day before, drawing three times the number of people. And that's not including the millions across the country who turned out for solidarity marches in other cities, leading to quite possibly the largest political demonstration in American history.

Feminists are winning the war of ideas. But feminists are losing in the halls of power, where "Mad Men"-era views that women should be silent and servile are winning the day.

It's all a bitter pill, because, as these poll numbers show, the hard work of feminists over the past decade to move the needle of public opinion has really paid off.

Younger readers may not remember this, but back when I was a fledging feminist blogger in the era of the George W. Bush administration, things looked bleak for women both in the world of politics and in the national discourse. Feminist rhetoric was often timorous, afraid to speak too bluntly about issues like abortion or rape for fear of running off moderates. Younger women felt sidelined by the major organizations, and there were frequently articles in the mainstream press in which older feminists accused younger women of not caring about their own equality. Meanwhile, progressive politics was in thrall to the "What's the Matter with Kansas" theory that Republicans only pretended to oppose women's rights in order to win the votes of benighted rubes, and would never actually act on it.

I'd like to think I played a role in changing that, being an early adopter of feminist blogging that took a different approach of being both cheeky and confrontational — and also by taking sexism seriously. While male pundits clucked over feminists who thought Republicans would taking reproductive rights away, feminists bloggers raised the alarm over the Bush administration's all-out assault on women having non-procreative sex. We raised awareness of rape culture and introduced ideas like "affirmative consent" as a way to counteract it. We insisted that it wasn't that women holding themselves back in the workplace, but that discrimination was still a live issue. We bashed sexist dating manuals and those who claimed that women don't make as much money as men because we don't work hard enough.

We were laughed at and trolled and abused and ignored, but we kept plugging away. And by 2009, we were winning. Feminist blogs were wildly popular. Democrats started to be unapologetically pro-choice. The first woman to become speaker of the House managed to do what Democrats had failed to do for decades — pass a comprehensive health care bill, which mandated that contraception be covered by insurance. Feminist bloggers published a manifesto against rape, titled "Yes Means Yes," that would reshape the national conversation on consent. The idea that "abstinence-only" was a legitimate ideology had turned into a joke. The idea that young women were indifferent to politics was dying. And the feminist bloggers who had once been relegated to the fringes were getting mainstream jobs, at such a pace that, over the next decade, the blogs would be shuttered, victims of their own success.

It would be a lie to say that we were surprised by the backlash. If there's one book that every Generation X and millennial feminist has read, it's probably "Backlash" by Susan Faludi. We knew what to expect. Plus, those of us who had blogs spent ungodly amounts of time dealing with unhinged trolls — men whose desire to control women manifested in online stalking — so we weren't unaware that a lot of men really, really did not like the idea of women's equality.

(We also were aware of the liberal men who pooh-poohed our experiences and said trolls were just a handful of guys and nothing to worry about, a line that held right up until those trolls elected a president.)

Sure enough, the backlash came — and it was brutal. Arguably, the anti-feminist backlash of the teens was the single most important reactionary movement of the time, the one that did more than any other to lay the groundwork for the election of a confessed sexual assailant to the White House.

Maybe the first sign was the sudden surge of attacks on reproductive rights. Women gave Barack Obama his 2008 win — 53% of women voted for Obama vs. only 49% of men — and unsurprisingly, Republicans in state legislatures decided to take their anger out on women. Starting in 2010, Republican-controlled states went nuts restricting reproductive rights, passing laws to block women from getting abortions and deprive women of affordable contraception access. In some parts of the country, abortion clinics were shuttered at an alarming rate, leaving huge numbers of women in "abortion deserts" that required lengthy drives to the nearest clinic.

The war on contraception, which many of us hoped would be over with the election of Obama, only heated up in this frenzy of misogyny. On multiple occasions, congressional Republicans had a standoff with Obama, threatening to shut down the government to try to force him into cutting Planned Parenthood off government grants for affordable birth control.

Things also got ugly over the Obamacare rule requiring insurance companies to cover contraception. Even though government-mandated insurance coverage of birth control had previously been uncontroversial, the right-wing media swung into action in 2012 on this rule in the Affordable Care Act to suddenly and dishonestly pretend the government was asking taxpayers to bankroll hot young sluts to have sex with men who clearly aren't the Fox News demographic. That's no exaggeration — for days on end, Rush Limbaugh railed about how Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student who had testified in support of the new rule, was a "slut"  who wanted "to be paid to have sex." He even demanded  that Fluke provide him with videos of her private life as masturbation material.

Limbaugh's tone was emblematic of what the anti-feminist backlash of the teens looked like. The face of misogyny was no longer pious Christians claiming that feminism was a threat to "the family." Now it was vulgarians who gleefully used sexist slurs and didn't even bother to pretend they wanted women on their knees for Jesus. It was a Trumpian kind of sexism.

So even as traditional anti-choice forces tried to pass off their latest bans on abortion as done in the name of "protecting" women, the actual right wing was in a full-blown lady-hate uproar, culminating in utterly false accusations that women were getting abortions as part of a scheme to sell "baby parts" on the open market. Unsurprisingly, there was also a rise in terrorism against abortion clinics over the decade, kicked off by the murder of Dr. George Tiller in 2009, with the deadliest incident being a 2015 shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado that left three dead.

Outside the reproductive rights debate, the anti-feminist backlash was equally bleak, with a well-funded right wing apparatus churning out a constant stream of shady articles and video segments mocking alleged rape victims and sympathizing with their accused attackers, cheering sexual harassment and claiming that men were under attack by a shadowy feminist conspiracy to emasculate them. Meanwhile, a growing online movement of misogynists, such as the "men's rights activists" and "incels," was becoming ever more radical and increasingly embracing fascism and white nationalism as the answer to their anger at feminist gains.

Gamergate was perhaps the most perfect distillation of what the anti-feminist backlash looked like in the past decade. There were efforts at the time to claim that Gamergate was merely an explosion of anger over "corruption" in the video game press (no, really, that's what they said), in truth it was an eruption of virulent misogyny that started in the video game community and spread across the internet. Sexist video game players, assured in their belief that video gaming "belonged" to them, were furious at feminist critics for their articles and videos arguing that T&A-heavy games that presented women as bimbos and sex objects were misogynistic. Those gamers spent months — years,  really — raging endlessly online about it and subjecting those feminist critics to unreal amounts of abuse.

Breitbart and other right wing media glommed onto Gamergate because they knew that it wasn't just about video games, but about this growing and boiling rage in many men over the fact that feminists were winning the argument. These were men who liked the prevailing system, where they could be condescending and cruel and treat women like objects and unpaid servants without consequence, and also knew they couldn't defend that point of view any longer. Gamergate gave them another option: Give up trying to make coherent arguments, and instead resort to outright trolling, bad faith, harassment and other abusive tactics meant not to win with reason, but to exhaust your opponents into submission.

No wonder the 2016 election was dominated by the chant, "Lock her up!" A lot of men were angry as hell at women and wanted to bring them to heel, and didn't really care how it was done any longer.

But you know what? Feminists didn't give up. On the contrary, unlike during other backlash periods, feminists, armed with social media, were able to fight back, instead of being forced to cede ground to a male-dominated media that is inclined to side with the backlashers.

In the face of rising attacks on abortion rights, feminists started an online movement to "shout your abortion" and rallied around Texas legislator Wendy Davis, who became a feminist hero by filibustering a law meant to shut down most abortion clinics in Texas. Rather than being browbeaten into silence, anti-rape activists created headline-worthy performance art  and held hands while Lady Gaga sang at the Oscars. The #MeToo movement blew up and thousands of men were finally held accountable. Rather than let Trump's win scare them into the shadows, Democratic women turned out in droves to run for office, making 2019 a record-setting year for women in Congress.

The backlashers, using profane language and trying to affect a derring-do trollish attitude, clearly thought they could make feminism uncool. At this, they failed. Beyoncé is a feminist. Practically every famous woman in Hollywood has joined hands under the #MeToo banner. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has the potential to be the next Obama-style political star. Feminist blogs may be gone, but that's because we took the act mainstream. Trump may be president, but the place to be that January was the Women's March.

In 2009, people made fun of feminists for supposedly not being cool. In 2019, anti-feminists are far more likely to lash out at feminists with the angry resentment the terminally uncool have for hipsters.

Still, there is no doubt that, thanks to an electoral system that gives far more voting power to rural, white-dominated areas than the more diverse, urban areas where most Americans live, we are a feminist-sympathetic country being ruled by a misogynist minority. The country may hate Trump, but he is still the most powerful man in the world. We're all learning the hard way that feminists can do the work, make the case and win the people over — and still the patriarchy keeps on winning, because it holds a disproportionate share of power in a rigged system.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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