Sexual Fundamentalism and the Struggle for Gender Equality

Most people—certainly anyone who supports the ongoing struggle for gender equality—should be reeling in horror after watching recent events unfold on the U.S. political stage. In the midst of a growing economic crisis, anti-abortion bills have flooded U.S. Congress and state legislatures, while organizations that provide family planning and health services such as Planned Parenthood have been systematically defunded through the restructuring of state budgets. The latest developments within the Republican presidential candidacy race have been particularly disturbing, from Ron Paul’s characterization of Roe v. Wade as one of the “most disastrous rulings of this century” to Mitt Romney’s opposition to same-sex marriage, Rick Santorum’s denouncement of birth control, Newt Gingrich’s racist and homophobic commentary and G.O.P. favourite Rush Limbaugh’s degrading, gender-based slander of a law student who was advocating for employment benefits that pay for contraception.

On International Women’s Day 2012, it is worth pausing to reflect on the past and the future of feminist activism—especially in light of the clear and present danger being posed by the virulent antifeminism now permeating U.S. politics, and to which even an allegedly progressive country like Canada is not immune.

Nancy L. Cohen, author of Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution Is Polarizing America, was  interviewed on CBC radio earlier this week and used the term “sexual fundamentalism” for the conservative backlash being witnessed against hard-won women’s rights in the United States. Sexual fundamentalism is an ideology claiming to be rooted in religious freedom, but in actuality designed to undermine women’s sexual freedom and control over their bodies.

Sexual fundamentalism appears to be merely one writhing tentacle of a much larger fundamentalist behemoth, which has been described by a growing critical mass of important thinkers, including Chris Hedges, Henry Giroux, and Sheldon Wolin, as signalling the emergence of American-style fascism, authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

Cohen’s historical perspective traces the recent horror show back 40 years to the mobilization of the Christian right against the Equal Rights Amendment. This counter-revolutionary movement was led by women—beneficiaries themselves of pioneering feminist incursions into public political spheres—who ironically demanded a return to the severe circumscription of women’s place in society. For Cohen, this radical-reactionary movement can see its latest incarnation in the likes of Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, media darlings who never fail to throw out an incendiary sound bite or two to sensation-craving reporters.

Consequently, as Cohen argues, a small conservative minority (10-20% of the U.S. electorate, approximately half of the Republican voter base) has become incredibly adept at seizing the public’s attention, denigrating moderate party members and focusing the media on issues such as abortion when, says Cohen, most Americans would like to hear about job creation and sustainable economic planning.

The sad truth behind Cohen’s argument is that the creeping “shadow movement” that has stalked feminist activism since the 1970s has now emerged in the present day as more politically effective than contemporary feminism—which one could argue has become more complex, diverse and transformative in its work than the earlier feminist “waves” could have even anticipated.  Yet, while feminism has struggled through repeated shocks and agonizing growing pains, the sexual counter-revolution rested—assured in its divine ordinance from God, never evolving beyond basic public relations’ strategies such as media engagement, rhetorical persuasion and meretricious voter appeal.

But simply because the U.S. media have repeatedly jumped at the chance to portray feminism as a dirty word and feminists in stereotypical ways—as men-hating feminazis, ugly bitches and vulgar sluts—does not mean that either seasoned feminists or younger women have given up the fight for control over their own bodies or the definition of feminism itself, for that matter.

Today’s feminist struggle is not only against the propagation of the notion that feminism is dead—surely another attempt at rendering invisible the vital, ongoing work being done in various communities and institutions to advance sexual diversity and gender equity—but also a struggle with neoliberal forms of corporate “professionalism,” which, like forms of “post-racial” racism that prevent any discussion of race, make it shameful for women to say they face barriers because of their gender—despite the fact that employed women continue to make 30% less income than their male counterparts.

Perhaps most egregiously, the effects of this double onslaught against young feminists has, on occasion, been further aggravated by the academicization of feminism, which sometimes colludes with depoliticized discourses of “professionalization” and other times accepts the media’s “post-feminist” slant that all youth belong to a mass-enculturated “entitlement generation” and have thoughtlessly rejected the values and street-wise practices of their feminist forebears.

Academic feminism, conversely, has been called the “academic industrial complex of feminism” by a new generation of activists that view oppression in its complexity (gender oppression is indivisible from the injustices of racism, class inequality, ableism and homophobia) and confront the “uncomfortable truths” of earlier feminism’s own shortcomings. It is perhaps little surprise, then, that young people experience frustration when they are repeatedly told that their way of doing things (e.g., the Toronto “SlutWalk” that became a global movement in 2011) is too brazen, muddied, thoughtless, lazy or simply ineffective.

Then there is the other feminist work, perhaps less flashy in its methods than protests and marches but no less clear in its desire for social justice—the work which has never been reflected in the dominant media, which undertakes the day in and day out, messy, ungrateful, laborious, but utterly necessary, task of building coalitions and community partnerships in order to negotiate and struggle “for real,” that is, for wholesale structural transformation.

Admittedly, for academics it is much easier to theorize a dead, static object (“postfeminism”) relegated to a clearly demarcated past than one that is alive and constantly adapting to new contexts, technologies and diverse cultures. Setting aside the academic need to “frame a problem” in a way that underscores the novelty of one’s singular intellectual contribution, on-the-ground feminism lacks the conceptual purity required of academic feminism. Should academic feminists acknowledge how their work is tied up with class privilege, much like the university itself, and has a different—though hopefully compatible—contribution to make to progressive social change than feminist activism? Probably.  And surely it must be apparent how dangerous it is to take away from young activists the very terrain on which the decades-long feminist battle has been heroically fought.

Are such cynical gestures on the part of seasoned feminists symptomatic of what might be understood as really the baby boomer generation’s failure to remain engaged in social movements, its relinquishment of advocacy roles or its disavowal of the responsibility to provide adequate mentorship for youth? Such questions should incite self-reflection, but they often seem to produce only in-fighting and divisiveness between generations. Both old and young appear to have lost the art of listening to one another.  Young feminists do not need celebrity spokespeople; they need mentors who reflect on their own experience, work alongside them and provide insights into the ideas and practices that sustain hope in the face of great obstacles and potentially greater disillusionment.

This is one reason why feminist cultural workers like Michele Landsberg (who spoke at McMaster University on February 24, 2012) are so wonderfully refreshing—because Landsberg’s talk was full of optimism for feminism’s future, even as a grandmother she spoke of the great aspirations she has for her own grandchildren.  Landsberg has compiled a book called Writing the Revolution from the 3000 newspaper columns she wrote over 25 years of feminist struggle, but one of her first sentiments was that you “can’t really do feminism alone.” Bringing together several generations of activists, the event recognized the Grandmothers of Steel for their work with the Stephen Lewis Foundation assisting African grandmothers who care for adults and children impacted by HIV/AIDS.  The young people in attendance felt honoured to have their youth, too, recognized as an asset. Landsberg’s perspective came through clearly when she said, “Feminism was never dead—quiet or loud, it has persisted through all the centuries of human life. Young women will get it when they need to get it.”

The media, perhaps realizing the fatigue setting in among audiences constantly bombarded with mind-insulting drivel, are now “paying attention to women’s stories,” said Landberg. She spoke with urgency about the ongoing need for feminists to defy internal self-doubt and work collectively to address entrenched sexual harassment in police forces and other institutions; advocate for a nationalized, nonprofit system of childcare; challenge the “uniquely powerful form of backlash” involving the sexualization of girls in the dominant media and wider culture; tear off the “straightjacket of gender stereotyping”; and, most urgently, defend women’s sexual and reproductive control of their own bodies against the onslaught of a politically motivated, antifeminist backlash.

The truth is young women and men have not succumbed to a debilitating cynicism, nor are they naïve idealists. They can and do acknowledge the sound victories achieved by earlier generations of feminists, while also saying they are going to try things a little differently this time around. If this were not the case, then feminism’s earlier accomplishments would be very partial indeed. Isn’t, after all, one of the victories of first and second wave feminism that today’s generation has the critical capacity, opportunity and agency to forego a mere replication of previous leadership styles and tactics in order to shape diverse feminisms, gender identities and inclusive communities in ways suitable for the current times? As with previous generations of feminists, we should be very grateful that young people today display the courage to express their own views because they believe they have something important to say and—we should hope—they aren’t going to wait until someone gives them permission to speak.

– Grace Pollock

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