The Trivialization Of Modern Day Feminism
Critics are rewriting feminist history to belittle today’s movement
With the beginning of 2018, America is now just two years away from the centennial of women’s suffrage — which is precisely the milestone at which most members of the modern right-wing think “real” feminism ceased to exist. Or, rather, ceased to be needed.
In the final days of 2017, the New York Post wrapped up the year with an op-ed entitled “How the Feminist Left Let Women Down in 2017.” Dripping with all the characteristic smugness and cruelty of those who have never had to worry about affording the resources requisite to basic bodily autonomy, the piece mocks today’s feminists for daring to demand affordable birth control, as well as their purported sense of “entitlement.”
The piece, largely predicated on the separation of modern feminism from its earlier counterparts, seems to follow an increasingly popular strategy pedaled by the same crowd who coined the term “social justice warrior.” That is the trivialization of the political battles that young women are fighting today by pretending that all of the “serious” women’s rights battles have already been won.
At outlets ranging from The Federalist to the National Review, pro-choice protests involving activists dressed in Handmaid’s Tale-esque costumes were savaged for comparing today’s national crisis around access to reproductive health care to the Hulu drama. The underlying message of these criticisms? So long as American women are better off—if only by a little bit—than their counterparts in repressive, third-world dictatorships or dystopic alternative realities, they ought to shut up and be grateful.
Throughout internet comment sections and likely at every family gathering you’ll ever attend, you’re bound to catch an ear load of something along those lines—the subtle reminiscing of feminism’s pre-#MeToo glory days, the reverence for history’s Alice Pauls and Elizabeth Cady Stantons and all the other suffragettes who are just as noncontroversial in the 21st century as they were controversial in their own days.
Of course, a twisted irony exists in how much in common these women have with today’s feminists, in terms of how they were regarded in their respective times: Women demanding rights have always been dismissed as crazy and asking for too much by their contemporaries. That suffragettes were viewed as radical and out of their minds is evidenced by the staggering numbers in which they were arrested and jailed.
And yet, it’s worth noting that impatience with today’s feminism isn’t some uniquely right-wing phenomenon. Liberal and progressive stars of the left— from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who called abortion rights a “fading issue,” to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who endorsed an anti-choice Democrat in a mayoral race and ranks among the most vocal Democratic critics of the disdainfully named “identity politics”—are guilty of citing historical feminist victories to quiet today’s activists, too.
It’s all too common for Democratic politicians asked about reproductive rights to dismiss the modern crises around reproductive rights and the activism of today’s feminists with a shrug and a generic, “Abortion is legal, that’s settled, the conversation ends there.”
In either case, the overarching pretense that that was when feminism peaked, that the movement has only gone downhill from there, is noteworthy. Praising older versions of feminism is so prevalent among misogynists both overt and closeted, because all in the same breath, doing so serves as a front to make one’s sexism appear less blatant while simultaneously degrading the movement’s modern identity, and laughing off all the lingering sexual injustices that persist and grow with each day.
Nothing To Complain About?
The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate in the industrialized world—a rate that has steadily been on the rise—with a dismaying correlation between states with more limits on abortion and contraception access and higher maternal death rates.
These rates are notably even higher for black women, who are 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than their white counterparts, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Between 2011 and 2016, a quarter of all restrictions on abortion since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision were passed, and in states that have been hit particularly hard, research has shown unsettling consequences for women’s living standards. Almost 90 percent of U.S. counties lack an abortion provider, as of 2014.
In recent years, the legality and accessibility of abortion have become two entirely separate things. A May 2017 study by the Population Reference Bureau found millennial women are worse off than their mothers and put at further risk in their physical health due to a recent sharp decline in reproductive health care clinics, and more likely to suffer from economic disenfranchisement that could be at least in part due to this.
The simple reality is that access to reproductive health care is about so much more than just young women’s sex lives. It shapes every decision they’re able to make about their educational and professional lives, every opportunity they’re able to pursue.
There should never be a distinction between “regular health care” and “reproductive health care.” They’re equally important to society.
However much conservatives would like to focus on 20th-century feminists’ fight for suffrage, they also fought for the rights to birth control and abortion. And today, feminists of this century are fighting tooth and nail to access these rights unlocked by their predecessors. Both battles are noble, necessary and, yes, even life-saving.
The Female Body: A Political Battleground
Low-income women with unwanted pregnancies can either be bankrupt by traveling great distances to have the procedure or forced to put their health and safety at stake by seeking back-alley abortions or unsafe self-termination methods. Restrictions on abortion have no effect on the rate at which they occur—what they do, instead, is burden, economically cripple, or outright endanger the often low-income women of color who need the procedure.
In the same vein, where restrictions on safe, legal access to the procedure fail to stop abortion from happening, widening access to reliable contraception provably does. And yet, this is also increasingly under attack. Where former President George H.W. Bush once recognized birth control access as a “public health matter,” the Trump administration’s repeal of the contraceptive mandate gives any employer or insurer, who just may not like the idea of a female employee having sex for reasons other than procreation, the authority to strip them of coverage.
And for all the right’s dismissals of birth control as cheap—think: former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price claiming not one woman had trouble affording birth control, conservative pundit Tomi Lahren claiming the pill is $9 a month—depending on the form of contraception and on whether you have insurance coverage, birth control can easily become economically inaccessible.
And ultimately, what conservatives and the loudest critics of today’s “social justice warriors” refuse to acknowledge is that the alternative to a country where birth control is an option for everyone, and abortion is safe, legal and accessible, is a country where the state can force women to give birth.
However much one would like to ignore basic, objective science and imagine fertilized eggs as human beings and adult women their mere vessels, this is the reality: Today’s feminists are fighting for the right to live in a country where their bodies are their own. Where states like Texas won’t see more than half of their abortion clinics shut down over the course of three years as a result of laws passed by male, conservative lawmakers. Where women who don’t want to give birth can safely walk into a women’s health clinic without being threatened, harassed, or attacked.
This has nothing to do with ingratitude for the achievements of feminists past, or the “feminazi” and her aspirations of colonizing America under her misandrist, fascist regime. What we’re seeing today is a generational struggle for what it means to live a dignified life in the 21st century.
I wish I could say reproductive justice is the one, singular fight of today’s young women because, on its own, it’s certainly an exhausting one. But rather, we live in a country where Congress is 80 percent male and more than 75 percent of the country’s state legislators are male; one in six women are the victims of rape or attempted rape and only six assailants for every 1,000 rape cases will be incarcerated; the human trafficking of predominantly immigrant and minority girls remains widely ignored; and where we as a nation are ranked 49th for gender parity according to the 2017 Global Gender Pay Gap report and equally qualified women—particularly women of color—are continually underpaid, discriminated against and harassed in workplaces.
The issues that today’s feminists are confronting and fighting for are many, all interconnected and each affecting every aspect of American women’s lives.
Portrayals of modern feminism as trivial and less serious than historical feminism are not only staggering in their ignorance, but also in their cruelty. The struggles of today’s young women may not be excluded from property ownership or voting, but they’re devastating nonetheless.
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The Right To Exist
Something I found particularly striking about the New York Post op-ed mentioned earlier in this article was its derision of birth control activism as if something unique to 2017’s “feminist left,” or some fairly recent product of today’s internet “social justice warrior” craze.
But here’s some fun trivia: Access to birth control is something feminists have been fighting for since the 1910s. Although feminism has overcome myriad internal conflicts and adapted to become more intersectional over time, the movement has been fighting for not only basic reproductive rights but also workplace equality, political representation, and the eradication of sexual abuse for generations.
In attempting to distance modern feminism from its past lives, its critics follow a long tradition of refusing to take women and their demands seriously, of chastising and attacking women who dare to ask for more.
But in the same vein, today’s feminists are following a tradition, too. They’re fighting for the same thing they’ve been fighting for since the movement’s earliest days: the right to exist in a world constructed around the premise of male dominance. To be sure, what, exactly “existence” looks like may change with every generation—but that basic, universal struggle for it remains the same.