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Feminism and Its Enemies

About: Christine Bard, Mélissa Blais et Francis Dupuis-Déri (dir.), Antiféminismes et masculinismes d’hier et d’aujourd’hui, Puf


Paradoxically, feminism was named by its adversaries. Thus, the history of feminism is closely connected to antifeminism. An interdisciplinary work examines their parallel journeys.

When we look at the progress made in gender equality, it is sometimes tempting to forget that feminism still faces influential and powerful opponents. Referred to in this work as “antifeminists”, ever since their emergence, these adversaries have left lasting marks on the fight for equality. The word “feminism” itself came out of this antifeminist movement: from 1872, Alexandre Dumas fils spread the term to describe what he called “the enterprise of negation” of the natural difference between the sexes (p. 9). Ironically, it was therefore the adversaries of feminism who created the term for it, before this name was reclaimed by the French suffragettes, in the writings of Hubertine Auclert in 1882.

It would be difficult to do justice to the 14 contributions in this collective work in just a few lines, because each one is original and proposes its own theory. However, there is a shared idea running through the work: that the history of feminisms is intimately linked to that of antifeminisms. The two evolve together and influence one another, meaning that neither can be understood without the other. Thanks to its three editors (a historian, a sociologist and a political scientist), the book has an interdisciplinary dimension. The word is sometimes overused, but this work is interdisciplinary in the truest sense, because antifeminist discourses are examined from multiple angles: as historical phenomena, sociological manifestations and political strategies.

The chapters reveal how deeply rooted these discourses are in western societies, leading Christine Bard to present the hypothesis of an antifeminism that predated feminism, existing before it was named, mobilising out of a fear of any movement that would challenge the patriarchal order (p. 11). The use of this recent term for long-standing phenomena raises questions about definition: if movements that did not recognise themselves as such in their time can now be described as antifeminist or masculinist, even if they came before the existence of feminist movements, what are antifeminism and masculinism? How can there be a countermovement unless the movement it opposes exists?

Distinguishing between antifeminism and masculinism

The definition question therefore presents an initial problem for the authors, who consider that antifeminism is as polymorphic as feminism. Although each contribution provides a more nuanced perspective according to its analytical context, antifeminism is generally understood as the countermovement of thought and action that opposes feminism and its advocates. Antifeminism is not, therefore, against women themselves (unlike sexist and misogynist discourses). It is only against the women (and men) who support feminism. A first distinction emerges here, because antifeminism is broader than masculinism. Masculinism does not just oppose feminism. It also promotes the “rights of men” in a society perceived to be dominated by women. Thus, the antigender campaigns in Italy (chapter 7) and the fathers’ rights movements in France and Quebec (chapters 10 and 13) are not only antifeminist, but also masculinist.

The faces of antifeminism

Antifeminism and masculinism are played out by very different actors. They are often associated with nationalist movements (chapters 3 and 4) and far-right movements (chapter 5). Antifeminism is also strongly represented in certain branches of the Catholic Church and Islam (chapters 8 and 9). However, we sometimes find antifeminists in unexpected places. Some antifeminist groups are mainly female. This is the case of the “Women Against Feminism” Tumblr campaign, which promotes a post-feminist position. The participants believe that equality has already been achieved and that feminists do more harm than good, because they discriminate against and hate men (chapter 6). Others come from political currents that are far from the right wing. This is the case of Proudhon’s thought. Its rigorous deconstruction by Francis Dupuis-Déri shows that the philosopher, despite being critical about domination, sees no problem with essentialising male supremacy to justify an arbitrary power balance between the sexes (chapter 2).

Maintaining the status quo, retaining power

However diverse these players, they have a shared spirit of conservatism. As emphasised by Diane Lamoureux, this conservatism is characterised by an aversion to sudden change and an attachment to traditionalist views, sometimes accompanied by pessimism about human nature (p. 57). The challenge of studying antifeminism lies in the movement’s capacity to conceal conservative claims behind the mask of progressivism. For example, some antifeminists turn our usual understanding of feminism on its head, by calling it outdated and archaic, proposing an alternative sometimes referred to as “post-feminism”. However, the contributions in this book examine this discourse closely and reveal that a strong conservative dimension remains. These chapters reveal three camouflage strategies.

The strategies of a countermovement

Hijacking the adversary’s rhetoric
Firstly, an egalitarian rhetoric can be used to defend a discourse of inequality between sexes and genders, under the guise of feminism. In this case, gender equality is developed in terms of natural complementarity. It is argued that women can only be truly free when they are associated with men. The family is the symbol of this complementarity, justified by a biologising view of procreation. Thus, groups defending “fathers’ rights” will proclaim a desire for equality, in order to assert a right to see their child, against a justice that they argue is biased in favour of mothers. They use the figure of the child against mothers and produce a masculine consciousness of domination. Édouard Leport (chapter 10) shows that these militants fight against the female cause by denouncing its institutions, which they think favour women’s interests (courts, family benefits office, etc.). There is nothing new about antifeminists hijacking feminist rhetoric. In the 1900s, the far-right monarchist political movement Action Française employed the same strategy by promoting an “intelligent feminism” involving respect for the differences between the sexes (p. 129).

Appearing less radical and more reasonable
Furthermore, antifeminists tend to present themselves as less radical than feminists, or even claim to be the true feminists. They assert that feminists have gone too far and that they will not accept that they already have equality. This argument is often associated with neo-liberal thinking. Thus, oppression is individualised and women are held personally responsible for structural inequalities. The way some women dress is stigmatised, to justify sexual harassment. According to Héloïse Michaud (chapter 6), studying antifeminist strategies also allows us to highlight the weaknesses of feminist movements. They have been overtaken by the negative connotations associated with feminism and by the discourses that present feminism as obsolete (and according to which equality has already been achieved).

Reversing the power balance: the rhetoric of the crisis of masculinity
Another major antifeminist strategy is the use of masculinist rhetoric that reverses the power balance between men and women: it argues that women are more powerful than men (in politics, in the home, sexually, etc.). According to this rhetoric, feminists contribute to the commodification of women’s bodies and do not sufficiently consider the harm done to women when it is inflicted by women themselves or by immigrants (chapter 5). Moreover, men are portrayed as the victims of feminisation, because their virility and masculinity are purportedly devalued, to the benefit of homosexual men. Therefore, fathers are disadvantaged in the divorce process, when it comes to obtaining custody of their children (chapter 13). Isabelle Côté and Simon Lapierre analyse the use of the controversial concept of parental alienation: the denigration of one parent by the other (often the father by the mother) in front of the child when the couple breaks up, causing the child to hate the targeted parent. The authors show how this concept reinforces antifeminist claims, even when it is used by researchers or professionals who are independent from antifeminist groups (chapter 11).

The influence of antifeminists on feminists

Although we are beginning to understand the structures of masculinist discourses, we know less about the way in which feminists fight these discourses and adapt their strategies. In the conclusion of the book, Mélissa Blais and Francis Dupuis-Déri identify three ways in which feminists react: ignoring the discourses, responding on an ad-hoc basis, or focusing their actions on combating antifeminists, by creating a sort of counter-countermovement. This is an important issue for feminists, because it concerns their ability to deconstruct antifeminist discourses without this deconstruction monopolising all their resources in their fight for equality. Mélissa Blais (chapter 14) analyses how antifeminists hindered the work of feminists in Quebec from 2006 to 2015. She shows that this caused problems for intervention work with women, damaged their alliances with partners and led to a loss of funding.

Conclusion

Antifeminist discourses have adapted to the strategies of feminists, influencing feminists in return and directing their efforts towards the deconstruction of the new post-feminist, masculinist or straight rhetorics. Thus, antifeminists are above all united by their shared battles—against women present on social networks, groups defending abused women, divorced mothers, etc.—which sometimes serve as a convergence point for their hatreds by combining multiple oppressive discourses (p. 203). This plurality of antifeminism leads the contributors to focus on the discursive strategies, in order to better capture the characteristics and transformations of this discourse in each context. Although this work is deliberately broad, which allows it to tackle and connect very different subjects to show the extent and diversity of antifeminism, it would have been interesting to see a closer focus on themes that seem central in the study of contemporary antifeminists: post-feminist discourses, the effects of antifeminists on feminists, or how division among feminists weakens the movement.

by Tristan Boursier, 20 January

To quote this article :

Tristan Boursier, « Feminism and Its Enemies », Books and Ideas , 20 January 2020. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : http://www.booksandideas.net/Feminism-and-Its-Enemies.html

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