As last week’s Kavanaugh hearings erupted into a full-on opera of white male rage, a friend of mine warned men on Facebook that “today, almost all women in America are one bad conversation away from killing you.” That sentiment has been echoed by an onslaught of heartbreaking revelations of abuse—and heart-affirming calls to action from feminist activists in our newspapers, on our televisions, on social media and in the streets.
The past few weeks have been pretty hard for women—but then, so have the past few hundred years, or, what the hell, the whole of human history. But as hard as it has been, and as much as it seems as if we have changed little since the days of disbelief and disrespect for Anita Hill, I am struck by the level of outrage and organizing and analysis that have emerged from this moment.
Women, and the men who stand with us, appeared on the streets, in the courtroom and on television, armed with rage and with data. It was a nationwide display of the sort of strong and agile leadership that has characterized American politics since the post-election Women’s March movement re-ignited feminism and made clear that women, and particularly women of color, are the heart and soul of “the resistance.”
We may have toxic masculinity to thank for the Kavanaughs and Trumps of the world, but we have feminism to thank for unmasking them. Decades of feminism have ended the silence—about assault, about everyday sexism, about stereotypes—and exposed the ugliness of misogyny run amok. From the early years of consciousness-raising and Take Back the Night marches and rape crisis centers to contemporary young activists blogging about consent and tweeting up a storm of protest, feminism has long fueled the kind of activism that is now literally exploding across the country.
While the coarseness of the words Trump uttered in that bus with Billy Bush years ago may have been generically offensive to many, the understanding of these words—and the deeds they describe—as criminal and assaultive and part of a larger problem of gender violence would not have been possible without feminism. Were it not for the theorists and activists who named harassment and violence as such, not just life as usual, the behavior of men like Donald Trump or Brett Kavanaugh or Harvey Weinstein at the office and on the pageant circuit and on the bus and in the White House and at high school house parties wouldn’t even be newsworthy.
Feminism named this male violence as violence, made it criminal and made it a problem to be solved. Feminist theorists diligently unpacked how a “boys will be boys” or “locker room banter” framing not only lets men off the hook for gender-based violence, but is predicated on a simplistic and oppositional understanding of gender where male violence is naturalized as the outgrowth of simply “being a man.”
One Trump supporter claimed that “the only things that tape shows is he’s a healthy heterosexual.” Not too long ago, words like this were simply accepted as the truth about gender difference. Feminism changed all that. Feminist theorists, sociologists, biologists, psychologists, lawyers who examined how gender is socially produced, deconstructed our ideas about the “naturalness” of behaviors and actions and exposed the sexist assumptions that permit institutionalized gender inequity.
Now, even the old paternalistic discourse that produced the spectacle of endless male politicians bemoaning Trump’s comments in the name of various female relatives is roundly attacked for being, well, not the point at all. Feminism taught us that, too—that paternalism and protectionism is the flip side of antagonistic sexism and, moreover, most often only “offered” to white women who are deemed “deserving” of male protection.
Feminism, and feminism alone, reveals the destructive through-line from gendered double standards to anti-Hillary hysteria, all the way to “lock her up” chants and the dehumanizing boasting of assault and harassment from Donald Trump. Feminism lets us see the links between the frat house and sports team culture of sexual objectification and conquest and the white male fury against a potential female president or a brave survivor refusing to be silent. Feminism calls this all out, and simultaneously illustrates its ubiquity, while refusing to accept it as the norm.
And it is feminism that pushes back—that spawns memes and tweets and protests, that gives us the tools to understand the culture that produces a Kavanaugh, that refuses to relent until something gives.
The world—men included—would be a better place if some version of feminism was the law of the land, but it is naïve to think that the stakes aren’t pretty high for those who benefit so easily from simply being born male. Default benefits—those you don’t have to work for but that accrue to you by no virtue of your own labors—are tough things to give up. They must usually be taken away.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie penned a sharp and expansive treatise urging us all to be feminists just a few years ago. Today, how can we not feel the fierce urgency of feminism?
Perhaps it is time to listen to Kavanaugh lookalike and fellow beer lover Steve Bannon—who fears that “the anti-patriarchy movement is going to undo ten thousand years of recorded history.”
“You watch,” said a scared Bannon. “The time has come. Women are gonna take charge of society.”