Forty years ago, when the Second Wave of the American feminist movement was young, many of the movement’s radicals (this writer among them) went to war with sexism. The word itself was electrifying. Misogyny—the demonization of women as a class of being—was a word we found little use for, but sexism as a theory seemed to account for everything about the lives of women past, present, and future. It quickly became our sword and our shield, providing the strength and protection to think, speak, and write about how and why we experienced ourselves as second-class citizens, without the freedom to discover for ourselves the lives we might have lived.
Feminism has always emerged from the left; in fact, it is the left that routinely taught us how to do politics.
The insight was stunning. Most of us had little or no sense of the past, our own history as feminists long buried in libraries we hadn’t entered, archives we hadn’t consulted, testimonies we had never heard. When we did enter those libraries, we discovered that everything we were saying had been said many times before, first in England in 1792 by Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, then in America in 1848 by Elizabeth Cady Stanton during the Seneca Falls Convention, and then again in France in 1949 by Simone de Beauvoir with the publication of The Second Sex. All were visionary thinkers with a philosophical cast of mind large enough to see with radical speed the historic conflicts that women’s rights addressed.
It was our fervent hope that, after our own visionary time had passed, generations to follow would realize that social change comes not through ideological declarations alone but through the daily task of grappling with the very conflicts—for women and men alike—those declarations bring to the surface. And, indeed, over the decades, hundreds of thousands of women have done just that. With courage and intelligence, they have changed the world by successfully demanding, in undreamt-of numbers, to be let into government, business, and sports; medicine and law; science and math; the academy and the corporation. At the same time they have undertaken to live amicably with their husbands, fathers, and brothers.
Yet sexism persists, and it persists in ways that many, if not most, women, especially young women, experience as still virulent. In fact, sexism today often appears not simply as garden-variety discrimination against women taking their rightful place in society but as downright misogyny—a distinction Kate Manne is at pains to make, and one that comes at a ’70s feminist with startling force.
On first reading Manne’s essay, and seeing in it definitions and declarations I have long associated with Feminism 101, I protested to myself, “This is impossible. We can’t really be back to square one!” On second reading, I thought, “If this is how it feels to her, this is how it feels. No arguing with that.” Then I thought back to my own history, and the history of those who came before, and I remembered, “It isn’t over ’til it’s over; and until it is over, every time around it’s probably going to sound the same.” The essay also made me remember how alone we had often felt in the ’70s, bereft even of support from those whom we had considered comrades in arms, those on the radical left.
Feminism has always emerged from the left; in fact, it is the left that routinely taught us how to do politics. Yet whenever women have risen to announce that even within the movement they have experienced themselves as second-class citizens, they have been slapped down. Wollstonecraft feminists were denounced by their fellow revolutionaries as that horror of horrors, loose women. In the 1860s, when Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony refused to support the Fourteenth Amendment, they were scorned by their fellow radicals, the abolitionists, as creatures born without a moral backbone. In January 1969, when a woman rose at a counter-inauguration and antiwar protest to announce her commitment to solving the problem of women’s rights, a man in the audience wasted no time in crying, “Take her off the stage and fuck her!”
Now we have a candidate for the American presidency who feels free to speak openly as a misogynist, insulting and reviling women as such in the worst language yet. What else can this mean except that he knows in his gut the time and place in which he lives is still amenable to withholding from women respect not only for their status as equal citizens, but also for their irreducible humanity?