In August, Google fired an employee whose internal 10-page memo suggested that women are underrepresented in the tech industry because they are biologically inferior. It’s a fringe sentiment gaining popularity in parts of Silicon Valley. Proponents of the doctrine call themselves “contrarians”, hold meetings advocating total separatism between the sexes, and argue that gender diversity is a ploy to subjugate men.
They’re not alone. On Reddit forums, in private Facebook groups, and even in organizations that have gained charitable status, there are voices that loudly proclaim that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, and that gender equality oversteps the boundaries of male and female roles. By certain accounts, men’s-rights activists—both male and female—are becoming more plentiful, and more vocal.
Lauren McKeon, author of F-Bomb: Dispatches From the War on Feminism and digital editor at the Walrus, has spent much of her career examining cultural attitudes toward women. For her, it’s vital to address the increasingly prominent hostility toward gender parity.
“I had a lot of people say to me before I started this book that antifeminism wasn’t a thing, and that feminism was an obvious done deal,” the journalist tells the Straight on the line from Toronto. “Opposition to gender equality was not increasing, a backlash was not happening, and that any men’s-rights activists—women and men—were just in their proverbial mothers’ basements. But if you really do the research and start talking to people, you understand that these ideas are spreading even as we want to ignore them.
“This argument that we shouldn’t shine a spotlight on the antifeminist movement, or the alt-right, or Nazism, or any of these things we’re starting to see bubbling to the surface—I understand where it comes from,” she continues. “But I think the issue I have with that, especially as a journalist, is that there is a danger of looking away from things that scare us. If we’re not paying attention to these issues, they grow unchecked. How can you possibly engage with something if you choose to ignore it? We have to be thoughtful about what kind of space and platform we give those movements. But when we don’t examine them, we’ve already seen some of those consequences—like Trump rising to power.”
For those who are skeptical about an uptick in men’s-rights activism, McKeon’s evidence is compelling. Through a combination of personal interviews and statistical analysis, she weaves a persuasive narrative highlighting the covert and explicit attitudes to gender politics and, specifically, feminism. In a 2014 Ipsos-Reid study that looked at 15 developed countries, for instance, just 60 percent agreed that there should be equal opportunities for men and women, and that women should be treated equal to men in all areas based on their competence, not their gender. In Canada, that figure stood at only 67 percent. Both men and women are in the remaining third of the population—the portion that believes that there should not be equal opportunities for genders.
By talking to those who oppose women’s reproductive rights, deliberately silence the victims of campus rape, and back the exclusion of women from certain industries, the author sheds light on the motivations behind these positions. In McKeon’s view, that rise in antiwomen sentiment is due, in part, to a backlash against feminism.
“I do think that feminist is viewed as a dirty word,” she says. “Many women who were part of the original movement say that because gender equality was so radical and offensive to some, it always had that connotation. Now there are men and women that feel that as women move closer towards equality—the definition of feminism—it is taking away some of men’s rights. Equally, a lot of women who believe in the feminist politic feel that the movement excludes them—whether that’s on the basis of race, or class, or age. It’s been branded with an exclusivity.”
Rather than merely pointing out the areas in which women are facing resistance to equality, however, the book goes to great lengths to pose solutions. McKeon calls for a new strain of feminism, where different groups advocate for their own interests but come together to fight for common goals. She examines ways to circumvent the barriers thrown up between women of different generations, and their resistance to how the movement is evolving. Most importantly, though, she looks for ways to move beyond the concept of feminism as a brand—something that can be printed on a T-shirt or pencil case—to a workable political movement.
“I think it’s important that we interrogate all the ways that feminism has been attacked, all the ways that it’s losing ground, and all the ways that it is contributing to its own challenges,” McKeon says. “But if you only think about that, it’s so easy to be immobile. Young women are carrying forward the ideas of equality. They’re engaging with it, they’re transforming it, and they’re making it something that they want. When I look at the future I see a continuation of that process.
“It’s important to not lose sight of the fact that feminism aims to change things on a cultural and governmental level,” she continues. “It’s not as easy as saying ‘You’re now empowered’ and ‘Girls are cool.’ In policy, and in the workplace, the home, and out in the world, there are many things that we actively need to transform. They will not be solved in the next generation. But I’m optimistic about where the next generation is taking us.”
Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays