Yes, Virginia. Canada has an anti-feminist movement too. So, in February 2018, LiisBeth invited feminist and management science scholar CV Harquail to review Canadian award-winning author Lauren McKeon’s book on Canadian anti-feminism which was published last fall by Goose Lane Editions.
Lauren McKeon, an award-winning, Canadian feminist author wants us to know where feminism has gone wrong. She’s worried that women are “abandoning” feminism, can’t agree on what it means, and assume they don’t need it. In F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, she invites us into the anti-feminist universe so that we can listen directly to our biggest critics, learn from their views, and develop some kind of coordinated response. Her argument: we need to listen to those who despise feminism because their views are becoming more hateful and contorted yet better broadcasted than ever before.
I’m not as confident as McKeon that feminism has gone wrong or that people are “abandoning” it rather than increasingly adopting feminism as a perspective and an identity (as data shows). But her larger point remains: there are folks out there, organized into movements, who hate feminism and everything they imagine feminism stands for.
McKeon proves a trustworthy and entertaining guide taking us through the tangled mess of lies, deliberate misunderstandings, and sad self-centredness that characterize the groups arrayed against the progress of feminism. Occasionally funny and appropriately snark, she introduces us to five.
First up are the female members of the pro-patriarchy men’s rights activists (feMRAs) who use the voice and the social power that feminism earned for them to spit invective in feminism’s face—and McKeon’s too. Stepford doyennes of New Domesticity invited us “back to the kitchen,” cloaking their arguments in a comforting nostalgia for a gendered simplicity and social peace that never actually existed. A well-documented and rangy chapter about women and paid employment reminds us of nagging questions about the wage gap, the mom penalty, and the dearth of feminist business leaders, and offers a succinct review of the Gamergate scandal as an example of how tough it is for women to make a living doing work they care about.
And then McKeon takes us into the “bucolic” guest room of a woman I can only call a “Mother Defending Misogyny,” a woman who simply can’t believe that her own son might be capable of sexually assaulting a woman. As a mother, I can understand the emotional and cognitive distortions these women might go through wanting desperately for their children to be innocent, indeed, incapable of intimate, dehumanizing cruelty. It’s simply easier to see a frat boy son as a target rather than a rapist. But did these moms ever consider the harmed daughters, or the moms of their sons’ victims? At this point, I had to put the book down for a few days.
For the final stop on this tour of anti-feminist hell, McKeon takes us to the anti-abortion movement to meet activists who proclaim they are “pro women” while working to constrain the rights of those facing unwanted pregnancies and to undermine the autonomy of all women.
What we learn from our travels with McKeon is that Patriarchy and its nasty buddy, Misogyny, are powerful, resilient, and sneaky. Patriarchy doesn’t fight fair. It doesn’t use science or recognize facts. It nurses emotions like bitterness, fear, and, on a nice day, nostalgia for a fictional past. Patriarchy values illegitimate power—hoarding it, wielding it, normalizing it—to fight liberation, not just for women but for everyone.
McKeon writes of these anti-feminists bending to that power: “I needed to know more, and also maybe barf a bit.”
The quality of her writing—empathic, funny, curious, skeptical, open-minded—kept me attentive as I held my nose through this well-researched tour. And then I exhaled during her final chapters. Here, McKeon makes an important feminist move by adding her own life experience to her avalanche of interviewees’. She lets down her cool-girl posing (a nice counterpoint to the ugliness of the anti-feminist rhetoric) to share her own story of being raped as a teenager.
For me, this was the moment McKeon revealed the high stakes of this conversation, when the weight of anti-feminist attitudes shifted from offensive to acutely, personally painful. As McKeon writes: “Rape culture doesn’t happen in a bubble. It happens because women (like these) are telling other women their experiences, while unpleasant, could have been stopped if only they’d said no, emphatically.” My takeaway: These anti-feminists are crazy and they are actively hurting us and each other. As McKeon writes later, “I can tell you that rape breaks us, even when we want to be strong.”
In the final chapter, McKeon returns to her old high school, to the gender studies class where she got an early dose of consciousness raising. Here, she finds hope in feminism among the teens, their level of engagement and quality of thought and advocacy. As an “old,” I must challenge the inference that we need the young’uns to save us. They are able to do what they do now because they stand on the feminist foundations built by the waves of activists who came before them. No one wave is going to wash away patriarchy, no matter how pretty or hip that wave looks on Instagram.
Given how much louder and broader the anti-sexism conversation has gotten in the last ten months, with #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #TimesUp, McKeon’s book might already feel a bit dated. Unfortunately, it is not. The anti-feminist movement remains strong and feminists must find ways to be stronger.
But I remain unconvinced by McKeon’s argument that doing so requires knowing more about these anti-feminists. Or feeling sympathy for them. Or getting in touch with their hurt or their fear, much less their bile. And it’s not because (as McKeon seems to assumes of her readers) I’m willfully ignoring them or self-righteously disdainful of them. I don’t think that anti-feminists are stupid, necessarily. But they are misinformed and so misled as to be unable to think their way to a more positive future.
So how could it be useful to try to understand their limited worldviews? Perhaps it might be more beneficial to look at the ways that racism and other systems of oppression are shaping these anti-feminist movements. McKeon herself says, “We (feminists) are unequivocally failing” when it comes to opening doors and including more than upper middle–class white women in the feminist movement. Yet she fails to investigate the whiter than whiteness of the five anti-feminist movements she discusses. If women and men of colour, newcomers, the working poor, and other marginalized groups are absent from anti-feminist movements, doesn’t that say something? Isn’t that important for us to understand? Would this help us find useful ways to crack the rigid worldviews of these anti-liberation movements?
McKeon talks a lot about “feminism” and what “feminism” has done wrong and needs to do. For example, she says, “If feminism wants to survive and grow, it is vital that it learn to communicate within itself.” She treats “feminism” as a big F thing, with its own independent agency. If “feminism” has the ability to act that means we can hold feminism responsible for its shortcomings. Certainly, that’s how anti-feminists treat feminism, as a thing we can fault.
But what—or rather who—is this “feminism” that McKeon and the anti-feminists are wagging a finger at? Feminism is not a unified, monolithic entity that can be faulted; rather, dear readers, “feminism” is us. As activists, we are diverse, we are many, we connect and work together and, because we are so varied, sometimes we don’t. While McKeon’s book is useful in showing how anti-feminists mischaracterize feminism, that’s about as much time as I want to spend thinking about them. Personally, I would rather look at the many dimensions of feminism and consider ways we can move forward. Where should we look for more leadership, where can we find energy to persist with change efforts, and what new actions might we try to make things better? After finishing this book, I wanted to get right back to work doing that.
Other articles on LiisBeth by CV Harquail: