PRINT December 1996


Backlash and Betrayal

IT USED TO BE THAT feminism was a total woman thang. Outside of the nice white girls who filled women’s-studies classes because they wanted to learn to be bad, everyone was content to think of us as just a bunch of bra-burning pussy-loving antimale morons who were never gonna have any impact on the rest of the world so no one really had to give a damn. In other words, back in the day when feminist politics had a serious radical edge it was not a movement that everyone was dying to join, but neither was it a movement that everyone wanted to trash. At the peak of the contemporary feminist movement, after all, the patriarchal boys used to tell the world that every single one of us unruly girls could be tamed by just “one good fuck.”

Well, for many of us this life-transforming fuck never happened and we went right on telling the world that equal rights were for everybody, that gender roles had to be transformed, that folks who do the same work should get the same pay, that patriarchy was fucking up the family big-time, that practically all of us—female and male—had been violated by male domination, and that it really was life-transforming to JUST SAY NO. And feminism began to seep into the culture as a whole. Suddenly many of the issues first put on the table in all-female, confessional, consciousness-raising groups—domestic violence, child abuse, reproductive rights—were rocking the nation. So much changed that men could no longer simply ignore the movement or squash it with their ridicule. A lot of us women had had the wisdom to know that if men knew what they were really about, they would drop that dick-thing patriarchal madness and get in touch with liberation. And in fact, in the late ’80s a lot of men started embracing feminism, dismissing crude biological determinism and living their lives on the equality tip. Feminism came to be the movement everybody could count on for a taste of freedom. That was when the backlash really began, and in this past year it reached an all-time peak.

Much of what Susan Faludi documented in Backlash in 1991 looks like child’s play compared to the tactics deployed this past year to discredit feminism on every front. One of those tactics was to enlist as many women as possible who had previously benefited from the movement to give eyewitness accounts of it as both banal and corrupt. With Camille Paglia heading the crowd (after all, since girlfriend ain’t been writing she’d have had no public play if not for all those times she could be found providing some antifeminist testimony or other), women themselves lined up. On the academic front, moving from a legacy of left politics to basic right-wing doublethink, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese offered her stellar tract Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life. In a more popular vein, Nancy Friday bashed feminism throughout The Power of Beauty. As the mass media applauded this move to rip feminism to shreds, a host of lesser-known white girls joined the antifeminist parade to get a day in the sun and a paycheck. Whether it was in The New Republic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, or The Village Voice, feminism was under attack.

Everywhere one turned, feminists were accusing other feminists of stealing their spot in the limelight. This was good old patriarchal competition at its best—blood sport. And no matter where or at whom the gun was aimed, feminism was the target. Hillary Rodham Clinton has never declared herself a feminist, but conservative media (which have always made it seem that every successful woman, no matter how reactionary, is a feminist in disguise) imposed the title on her to give the feminism they were attacking a concrete image. To discredit her was to discredit feminism proper.

Feminism was under attack generally, but a particular kind of feminism was particularly targeted—it was the radical dimensions that had to go. The revolutionary intervention that really transformed and renewed the contemporary feminist movement, giving it a broader base, was the recognition on the part of women and men engaged in feminist struggle that race mattered—that it was impossible to fight against sexism without understanding the convergence of race and sex. This focus had emerged in the thinking of a broad spectrum of writers, such as media and film theorist Drucilla Cornell. Until the last year or so, though, the mainstream media showed little interest in the feminist theory that was really causing radical shifts in feminist thought and practice. But then, suddenly, the O. J. Simpson case and the Million Man March became the perfect patriarchal playing fields for challenging and undermining feminist insistence on the interlocking nature of systems of domination.

Audiences around the world were encouraged to see the Simpson trial apart from issues of sex and class—in other words, as primarily about the issue of race, or as yet another unfair attack on the disenfranchised black man. Simpson, actually a rich man with an expensive team of lawyers, was represented as the downtrodden black everyman who could not get a fair deal. Not only did this deflect people away from the issue of class power, it hid the fact that the real deal was the reinscription of patriarchal privilege, via a discounting of the issue of male violence as a relevant concern for everyone in a society that sustains such privilege by equating the ability to be violent with masculinity.

The trial did gain an even larger audience for already popularized feminist concerns like sexual harassment and domestic violence, but that only deluded many misguided women into seeing it as furthering feminist work. In fact, conservative mass media were creating the image of concerned feminist white women who care about male violence being attacked by ferocious antifeminist black women who only think about race and stand by their man at all costs. In a matter of months, the incredible body of work done by black women feminist thinkers to highlight the convergence of racism and sexism, the way the two systems sustain and perpetuate each other, was rendered suspect. (Reformist white feminists and conservative black cultural-nationalist “womanists” who had always frowned upon the linkage of sexism and racism actually welcomed this separation of the two issues.) And white women were sent the message that they’d better stay in the arms of benevolent white patriarchy or their lives would be at risk and they’d have no one to blame but themselves.

If the Simpson trial became a way to whip white girls into shape and remind them that father knows best (not to mention letting black men know they get a better deal if they side with the ruling patriarchy), the Million Man March in late 1995 definitely served notice on black women. It told the world that the major problems in black life were caused not by interlocking systems of domination based on race, sex, and class, but by uppity black women who just won’t get to the back of the bus and let black men be the patriarchs they were born to be. The “atonement” that the march was all about was actually black men’s atonement for their refusal to assume the role of benevolent patriarchs—but no more.

At the same time, black feminist thinkers who critiqued the march were written off as traitors to the race. No matter what our political history, no matter whether we’d spent years on the black liberation front, if we weren’t down with the march we were anti–black male and therefore anti–black family. The fact that many of us opposed the march because of its reinscription of patriarchy, its support of militarism and imperialism, and its attack on single mothers and welfare went unnoticed. Astute feminist political critique was ignored in favor of that old misogynist terroristic strategy—just proclaim, “They hate black men.” Meanwhile, black male leaders on the left showed that they had no difficulty supporting Minister Farrakhan and making plans for “the future of the race” without including the wisdom of feminist sisters.

Let’s not think for a minute that the reason the march got so much play in the mass media was that white folks are so scared of black men gathering together. In fact white folks seemed to welcome black men climbing on the conservative bandwagon and calling for more homosocial bonding, more patriarchy, more men at the head of everything. Quiet as this was kept, much of the march’s rhetoric echoed that of the white male Christian group the Promise Keepers: homophobia, male domination, women at home taking care of the children, kind fathers disciplining and punishing without abuse.

This was not just backlash, it was the demand for erasure: LET’S ALL JUST PRETEND THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT NEVER HAPPENED! Let’s just act as though women have always had rights and the nation’s most pressing problem was these uppity free women who are so busy harassing men (according to the movie Disclosure) that a boy doesn’t stand a chance. Let’s just act as though, when there’s no welfare, men will work and provide for families. Let’s just act as though there really were jobs for everybody, work was easy to find, and housing was cheap and available. Ultimately, let’s just pretend that there’s no racism—no sexism—that anybody who speaks out about oppression is just whining and should shut the fuck up, nobody’s listening. That was the message of 1996.

Bell Hooks