The New Anti-Feminism

Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times/Redux

The conservative movement believes men are in trouble, and they know who to blame. “The left want to define traditional masculinity as toxic. They want to define the traditional masculine virtues — things like courage and independence and assertiveness — as a danger to society,” the Republican senator Josh Hawley said during a recent speech. Thus besieged, men are retreating into pornography and video games, abandoning their traditional responsibilities, he added. And who can blame them? “In America, you ought to be able to raise a family on one single income,” asserted Senate candidate Blake Masters in an ad. That feat was once possible, he claimed, but globalization made it all too rare. This is a “huge problem,” he said, but “the left, they want to attack me, and say, ‘Blake, that’s sexist.’” The breadwinner, as always, is male.

Elsewhere, Republican men show masculinity at its worst. Sean Parnell was Donald Trump’s pick to represent Pennsylvania in the Senate until he lost a custody battle following his ex-wife’s accusations of violent domestic abuse, claims that he denies. Trump, who once bragged of grabbing women by the pussy, might find much to admire in Parnell. “I feel like the whole ‘happy wife, happy life’ nonsense has done nothing but raise one generation of women tyrants after the next,” Parnell said on Fox Nation. “The idea that a woman doesn’t need a man to be successful, the idea that a woman doesn’t need a man to have a baby, the idea that a woman can live a happy and fulfilling life without a man, I think it’s all nonsense.” In Missouri, Eric Greitens is running for the Senate on a MAGA platform despite sexual-assault allegations that ended his tenure as governor.

They are putting a brash new spin on an old culture war. Hawley’s anti-feminism isn’t novel, but he is responding to a new moment in modern American politics. Conservatives have always argued that by muddying gender roles, feminism harms men and women alike. Yet in recent years, this rhetoric has acquired an even sharper edge, pitting men and women against each other as if greater freedom for women comes directly at the expense of men. For Republican politicians and their supporters, Trump’s unapologetic misogyny further expanded the borders of the possible.

The GOP has been an anti-feminist institution for decades, with conservative women making use of a loose language of empowerment in its stead. See only Sarah Palin speaking of a “mom awakening” to the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List in 2010. “The left has controlled this conversation,” Carly Fiorina said during her 2016 run for president. “They have defined the term ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’ in a certain way. And I think it’s important that we reclaim that term.” Republican voters disagreed and nominated Trump, as thorough a repudiation of feminism as one could find anywhere.

“I think you can’t really even understand the conservative movement without understanding conservative women, both as leaders, but also their organizations,” said Dr. Ronnee Schreiber, the author of Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics. Conservative women, like the Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly, she added, helped legitimize the broader movement to which they belonged. “This is better for the conservative movement to say that women were out there making the argument that abortion was bad for women, that traditional gender roles are good for women.”

Society is changing in ways that directly challenge the norms that are so precious to Hawley and his ilk. Americans are more likely than ever to identify as LGBT, a trend at odds with the traditional rigidity around men’s and women’s roles. Forty-two percent of American adults say they personally know a trans person, according to a recent Pew poll. Though the Pew poll also found that 56 percent believe that a person’s sex as assigned at birth determines their gender, it also found “that younger people tended to be more likely to know a trans person and comfortable with gender-neutral pronouns,” the 19th reported. That prospect will disturb conservatives like Hawley, who opposes basic equality for trans people, most notably in the guise of protecting cis women. The consequences of Me Too linger, inducing the feeling among some that men will be disproportionately punished for minor transgressions. The rising cost of living further threatens the male breadwinner and renders him impotent before forces he cannot control. Hawley believes men will turn to pornography — another old conservative foe — and neglect his responsibilities to his family, if indeed he marries at all.

None of this amounts to a war on men. Me Too was an attempt to correct a long-standing social problem: that of violence against women. Overcorrection, while much prophesied, never took place; millions of voters still revere a former president who faces dozens of credible accusations of sexual harassment and assault. The gender pay gap persists. The absence of guaranteed paid leave and affordable child care created heavy burdens for women workers and pushed them out of the workforce in droves throughout the pandemic. The growing acceptance of trans people may threaten traditional gender binaries, but it is not a substantive assault on the male sex; trans people remain a vulnerable minority facing pervasive discrimination.

Hawley “may have couched things slightly differently,” said Dr. Schreiber, but “without a doubt” the senator was thinking of traditional gender roles. “It’s not new, right?” she said. “There’s all sorts of literature, all sorts of activism, particularly from the Christian right, that men’s and women’s roles are being devalued and men are being emasculated by policies that promote feminism.”

Hawley is brandishing an aggressive anti-feminism that bears all the hallmarks of a trollish new age. There are notes of Gamergate and Barstool Sports in Hawley’s rhetoric, all mixed with familiar points of right-wing ire. Hawley’s war on porn is unfashionable, but there’s plenty else for Dave Portnoy and Jordan Peterson acolytes to embrace. Hawley isn’t just owning the libs. He’s owning women: more specifically, the wrong kind of woman, trans women and women who get abortions and women who reject traditional constraints. She is the real threat to Hawley’s masculinity. The desire to punish her explains why candidates like Greitens and Parnell haven’t yet been shamed out of public life.

Faced with such enemies, women need comrades, true friends in the struggle. By default, they’re left with the Democratic Party, the inconsistent counterbalance to the GOP’s increasingly authoritarian turn. Conservative anti-feminism is key to the movement’s illiberalism. Yet if the outcome of Virginia’s gubernatorial race is any indication of bigger trouble, liberals are struggling to win the culture war. It’s not enough to link a Republican candidate to Trump, as Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia shows. Sexist motivations may underlie Blake Masters’s single-income dreams, but liberals won’t win anything by calling him a misogynist on the campaign trail. And yet liberals can’t concede their central point, which is that traditional gender norms are worth preserving. Masculinity, additionally, is not as threatened as Hawley claims. As long as Brett Kavanaugh can ascend to the Supreme Court despite a credible allegation of sexual assault, as long as Donald Trump remains a popular figure with conservative voters, as long as domestic violence doesn’t automatically end political careers, masculinity is hardly under attack. Rights for women, however, look fragile, with abortion at the precipice. American women need a party that won’t sacrifice them for fear of sounding too woke.

It’s not enough to run women candidates or to speak euphemistically of reproductive “choice” on the campaign trail. The right to abortion is popular. The average voter does not want to end Roe. Social conservatives often claim they speak for some silent majority of the American electorate when the subject is outlawing abortion; that claim is a pernicious lie, and Democrats should stare it down. The fight for abortion is part of a fight for liberation, and it’s possible for the liberal left to make that case without sounding like grad students on the campaign trail. Include the unapologetic right to abortion in a platform premised on economic justice for all — living wages, Medicare for All, paid leave — and Democrats have a message that directly undercuts the divisive language of the right. The conservative vision, as expressed by Hawley and lived out by candidates like Parnell and Greitens, pits men against women. Yet freedom for the latter does not have to come at the expense of the former. It’s on Democrats to say so. Without the sort of robust economic vision that leftist feminists have been developing and demanding for decades, Democrats have nothing to offer either men or women but liberal feminism: a movement that has failed, utterly, to stem the right’s illiberal tide.

No one can prevent Josh Hawley from misinterpreting concepts like toxic masculinity. And in the wake of Trump, domestic-violence allegations, like those that plague Parnell and Greitens, might not be as disqualifying as they should be. There’s no reason, however, that Democrats can’t render their appeal hollow by offering more attractive ideas. Republicans are playing an old game — and they’re good at it. Their opponents should try a novel strategy. Let Hawley posture about the decline of masculinity if he chooses. The answer lies in a more dignified future for all.

The New Anti-Feminism