Q&A: Barbara Berg on the Backlash to Feminism in the New Millennium

By Maya Schenwar

From the climate of angry machismo that accompanied the drive toward the Iraq war, to the Bush-led campaign against contraception and abortion that has overflowed into the current Congress, this past decade has seen a host of reactionary shifts in attitudes towards women. Barbara J. Berg chronicles this current backlash to feminism in Sexism in America: Alive, Well, and Ruining Our Future (Chicago Review Press). Ms. recently interviewed her.

Ms.: You write, “Women have become collateral damage in the war against terror.” What do you mean by this? Also, do you think this particularly potent brand of sexism has lessened at all since Obama took office?

Barbara Berg: After 9/11 we saw a new kind of masculinity in vogue–one that emphasized domination, control and aggression. Some of this had to do with the terror attacks and our need to be strong and tough. A look at the language of our post-9/11 leaders shows it’s filled with words like “dominance,” “power,” “a time of the warrior” and the like. Women began to disappear as guests from talk shows and their bylines became fewer and fewer. Under then-President Bush, we saw cutbacks in programs vital to women’s health, reproductive rights and education. Much of this was done covertly, but when it was brought out in the open it was justified as budget-cutting for the war. The emphasis on the individual at the expense of government programs was also a feature of [Bush’s] administration. There has been increased violence in our popular culture on the one hand, and a hypersexualization of women and girls on the other, in our post-9/11 society.

Obama brings a different style of leadership to office; I’m hopeful that the particularly potent form of sexism will change, but so far I haven’t seen it happen.

Ms.: Historically, in a time of war, women in the peace movement have often emphasized their role as peacemakers, partially by virtue of their gender. Should women wholly embrace this gender-based argument, or might we run the risk of falling into normative assumptions that might be harmful to advancing women’s equality?

BB: A difficult question. If we embrace peace only because women are better suited to nonviolence, we run the risk of falling into the old (but renewed) gender-difference theory. I hope that all people will support peace and look for nonviolent solutions to our problems because it is the morally and ethically right thing to do. That said, since women today are generally active and engaged on so many different fronts, I think we can stand up to the stereotyping.

Ms.: You discuss some of the ways that the financial crisis has served as a setback to feminist goals. Besides the fact that a high percentage of women have been laid off and experienced wage decreases, how has the recession impacted women’s rights and gender equality?

BB: There have been reductions in childcare facilities and vast food insecurities (a euphemistic term for hunger) due to wage decreases, the reduction of food stamps and the like. Something often overlooked is how many women’s studies and women’s history programs have been put on the chopping block because schools had to make reductions and these are among the first [programs] to go. This hurts the awareness of what is happening to women’s rights.

On another note, there has been a huge uptick in domestic violence due to the recession. The would-be abuser has more time on his hands and may be feeling very insecure about his job—this is also a very hard time to be a male in America. The would-be victim has fewer shelters, hotlines or opportunities to be self-supporting.

Ms.: From abstinence-only education to the war on contraception, your book documents the ways in which the Bush years reversed many reproductive rights gains. Do you think a substantive push to remedy these reactionary policies is in the cards?

BB: We’re already seeing cutbacks in funding of the abstinence-only programs in favor of more comprehensive sex education. It’s no accident that the Bush years saw an increase in teen pregnancy—we lead the Western world—and the alarming figure that one out of every four adolescent girls has some form of STD. More work is needed. Contraception has to be made more affordable and available, and this means emergency contraception being given out when it is needed. There must be education and engagement to get back to where we were in the late 1990s.

Ms.: In your book, you show the prevalence of eating disorders among ever-younger women and girls in this country. At the same time, Americans are witnessing a rising obesity rate, accompanied by diabetes and related diseases. Does the “war on fat” exacerbate the cultural obsession with thinness that, in part, drives the increase in eating disorders?

BB: While obesity is often related to poverty and the fact that high-calorie food is less expensive and more filling, both being too heavy and too thin carry serious health implications for women. When women are valued for themselves and the kind of people they are, I think we’ll see a diminution of eating problems on both ends of the spectrum. I applaud Michelle Obama for taking on this issue and would love to see more celebrities and models speak out against being too thin.

Ms.: The mainstream media is largely controlled by men—you note that women own less than five percent of commercial broadcast television stations. Has this imbalance gotten worse, and what can we do about it?

The concentration of the media into fewer hands is an increasing problem for the nation. Our news all too often reflects the views of powerful corporate America. That said, since the election of 2008 we’ve seen more women and people of color delivering the news in broadcast television, and now we have more women anchors, including Diane Sawyer and Christiane Amanpour. This gives me hope that change is possible, but it unfortunately is slow to come.

You also write that it’s not too popular these days to identify as a feminist. What do you think is behind that aversion?

Many young women I interviewed made a point of telling me, “Yes, I’m a lawyer and I went to Harvard Law School (or to Yale, etc.—schools that they could not have gone to before the second wave women’s movement), but I’m not a feminist.” When I ask, “Do you believe in equal rights for women?” the answer is, “Of course!”

I think that several factors are coming into play. The press has always been very demeaning of women who identify as feminists, and this has had a negative impact. Also, for some women the term is associated with their mother’s generation, and they want a different way of describing themselves. The important thing is to work for progressive change no matter what we call ourselves.

Maya Schenwar is the Executive Director of Truthout (www.truthout.org).

Read more Ms. Q&A’s here.