Josh Hawley and the New Anti-Feminism
Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times / Redux
The conservative movement thinks men are in trouble, and they know who to blame. “The left wants to define traditional masculinity as toxic. They want to define traditional male virtues – things like courage, independence and assertiveness – as a danger to society, ”Republican Senator Josh Hawley said in a recent speech. Thus besieged, men fall back on pornography and video games, abandoning their traditional responsibilities, he added. And who can blame them? “In America, you should be able to raise a family on one income,” said Senate candidate Blake Masters in an advertisement. This feat was once possible, he said, but globalization has made it all too rare. It’s a “huge problem,” he said, but “the left they want to attack me, and say, ‘Blake, this is sexist.’ The breadwinner, as always, is male.
Elsewhere, Republican men show masculinity at its worst. Sean Parnell was Donald Trump’s choice to represent Pennsylvania in the Senate until he lost a custody battle over his ex-wife’s domestic violence charges, he claims. Trump, who once boasted of grabbing women by the pussy, might find a lot to admire in Parnell. “I feel like all the ‘happy woman, happy life’ nonsense has done nothing but raise one generation of female bullies after the next,” Parnell said on Fox Nation. “The idea that a woman doesn’t need a man to be successful, the idea that a woman doesn’t need a man to have a baby, the idea that a woman can live a happy and fulfilled life without a man, I think it all makes no sense. In Missouri, Eric Greitens is running for the Senate on a MAGA platform despite allegations of sexual assault that ended his tenure as governor .
They are giving an old culture war a brash new twist. Hawley’s anti-feminism is not new, but it responds to a new moment in modern American politics. Conservatives have always maintained that by blurring the gender roles, feminism harms both men and women. Yet in recent years this rhetoric has taken on an even sharper character, pitting men and women against one another as if greater freedom for women comes directly at the expense of men. For Republican politicians and their supporters, Trump’s shameless misogyny has further widened the boundaries of what is possible.
The GOP has been an anti-feminist institution for decades, with conservative women using loose language of empowerment in its place. Only see Sarah Palin talk about a “mommy wake-up call” to anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List in 2010. “The left has controlled this conversation,” Carly Fiorina said during her 2016 presidential bid. “They defined the terms ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’ in a certain way. And I think it’s important that we use that term again. Republican voters disagreed and named Trump, as complete a repudiation of feminism as one can find anywhere.
“I think you can’t even really understand the conservative movement without understanding conservative women, both as leaders, but also as their organizations,” said Dr Ronnee Schreiber, author of Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics. Conservative women, like the Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly, she added, helped legitimize the larger movement to which they belonged. “It’s better for the conservative movement to say that women were there to argue that abortion was bad for women, that traditional gender roles are good for women. “
Society is changing in a way that directly challenges the standards that are so precious to Hawley and his ilk. Americans are more likely than ever to identify as LGBT, a trend at odds with traditional rigidity around the roles of men and women. Forty-two percent of American adults say they know a trans person personally, according to a recent Pew poll. While the Pew poll also found that 56% of respondents believe that a person’s gender, as assigned at birth, determines their gender, it also found that “young people tend to be older. likely to know a trans person and comfortable with neutral pronouns, ”the 19th reported. This prospect will disturb conservatives like Hawley, who opposes basic equality for trans people, especially under the pretext of protecting cis women. The consequences of Me Too persist, leading some to believe that men will be disproportionately punished for minor transgressions. The rising cost of living threatens the breadwinner even more and makes him powerless in the face of forces he cannot control. Hawley believes men will turn to pornography – another old Tory nemesis – and neglect his responsibilities to his family, if he does get married.
None of this amounts to a war against men. Me Too was an attempt to correct a long-standing social problem: that of violence against women. The overcorrection, although much prophesied, never happened; millions of voters still revere a former president who faces dozens of credible charges of sexual harassment and assault. The gender pay gap persists. The lack of guaranteed paid time off and affordable child care has placed heavy burdens on female workers and pushed them out of the workforce en masse throughout the pandemic. The growing acceptance of trans people may threaten traditional gender binaries, but it is not a fundamental attack on males; trans people remain a vulnerable minority in the face of pervasive discrimination.
Hawley “may have phrased it slightly differently,” said Dr Schreiber, but “definitely” the senator was thinking about traditional gender roles. “It’s not new, is it?” ” she said. “There is all kinds of literature, all kinds of activism, especially from the Christian right, that the roles of men and women are devalued and men are emasculated by policies that promote feminism.”
Hawley wields an aggressive anti-feminism that bears all the hallmarks of a new troll age. There are hints of Gamergate and Barstool Sports in Hawley’s rhetoric, all mixed in with familiar points of anger from the Right. Hawley’s war on porn is old fashioned, but there is plenty more for Dave Portnoy and Jordan Peterson’s sidekicks to embrace. Hawley doesn’t just own the libraries. It has women: specifically, the wrong type of woman, trans women and women who have abortions, and women who reject traditional constraints. She is the real threat to Hawley’s masculinity. The desire to punish her explains why candidates like Greitens and Parnell have not yet been excluded from public life.
Faced with such enemies, women need comrades, true friends in the struggle. By default, they end up with the Democratic Party, the inconsistent counterweight to the GOP’s increasingly authoritarian turn. Conservative anti-feminism is the key to the movement’s illiberalism. Yet if the outcome of Virginia’s gubernatorial race is any indication of more serious problems, the Liberals are fighting to win the crop wars. Tying a Republican candidate to Trump is not enough, as Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia shows. Sexist motivations may underlie Blake Masters’ one-time income dreams, but the Liberals will gain nothing by calling him a misogynist on the campaign trail. And yet the liberals cannot admit their central point, which is that traditional gender norms are worth preserving. Plus, masculinity isn’t as threatened as Hawley claims. As long as Brett Kavanaugh can reach the Supreme Court despite a credible allegation of sexual assault, as long as Donald Trump remains a popular figure with conservative voters, as long as domestic violence does not automatically end political careers, masculinity does not is hardly attacked. . Women’s rights, however, appear fragile, with abortion on the precipice. American women need a party that won’t sacrifice them for fear of looking too awake.
It is not enough to run female candidates or euphemistically speak of reproductive “choice” during the election campaign. The right to abortion is popular. The average voter doesn’t want to end Roe deer. Social conservatives often claim that they are speaking for a silent majority of the American electorate when the subject bans abortion; this claim is a pernicious lie, and Democrats should look down on it. The fight for abortion is part of a struggle for liberation, and it is possible for the liberal left to champion this cause without appearing as graduate students on an election campaign. Include the right to abortion without excuse in a platform built on economic justice for all – living wages, medicare for all, paid time off – and Democrats have a message that directly undermines the language that divides the right. The conservative view, as expressed by Hawley and experienced by candidates like Parnell and Greitens, pits men against women. However, freedom for the latter must not come at the expense of the former. It’s up to the Democrats to tell. Without the kind of robust economic vision that left-wing feminists have developed and demanded for decades, Democrats have nothing to offer either men or women other than liberal feminism: a movement that has utterly failed to stem the illiberal tide of the right.
No one can stop Josh Hawley from misinterpreting concepts like toxic masculinity. And in the wake of Trump, domestic violence allegations, like the ones plaguing Parnell and Greitens, might not be as disqualifying as they should be. There is no reason, however, that Democrats cannot make their appeal hollow by coming up with more appealing ideas. Republicans are playing an old game – and they’re good at it. Their opponents should try a new strategy. Let Hawley talk about the decline in masculinity if he wants to. The answer lies in a more dignified future for all.