Despite the growing importance of the feminist ideals in the U.S., antifeminist rhetoric continues to persist. Even well-known and highly popular American newspapers publish articles and materials that illustrate the pervasiveness of antifeminist beliefs in the U.S. The goal of this work is to review two recent antifeminist pieces from The New York Times and analyze their sociological implications. The main question is what interests groups and why are they so interested in maintaining the gendered status quo in the western world.
Keywords: feminism, antifeminist, rhetoric, gender, women, discrimination, harassment, political, status quo.
New York Times
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Feminism is rightly considered as one of the most advanced reform-minded social movements ever created in the developed world (Apple, 1999). However, it would be fair to assume that antifeminism has a legacy that is equal to or even more compelling than that of feminism. Despite the growing popularity of the feminist ideals and the long history of feminism in the U.S., antifeminist rhetoric continues to persist. Even the most renowned American newspapers publish materials that illustrate the pervasiveness of antifeminist beliefs in the United States. The New York Times, with its search of objectivity and multifaceted representation of the complex social reality, cannot completely ignore the presence of antifeminist ideals in the American society. The fact that the discussed newspaper publishes antifeminist materials can be considered as a sign of openness, democracy, freedom of voice and will in the U.S. At the same time, the scope of negativity caused by these publications can hardly be overstated. Recent antifeminist publications in The New York Times suggest that political officials and those in positions of power are the most interested in sustaining the existing gender status quo, as they cannot allow women to break the long-standing system of patriarchal domination and weaken their superior position in the gendered world.
Antifeminist Rhetoric: Why and How?
In order to understand why a newspaper as distinguished as The New York Times publishes antifeminist materials, a brief description of antifeminist rhetoric, its nature and basic features should be provided. For a better understanding of this trend, “antifeminism opposes changes in women’s roles, status, rights, or opportunities” (Wood, 2012, p.91). Antifeminism exemplifies an urgent and rather effective response to women’s movements in America (Wood, 2012). The self-contradictory nature of antifeminism deserves special attention, and the contradictory claims, on which antifeminism relies, shape a good deal of antifeminist rhetoric in contemporary press. The first claim is that feminism has become a major source of problems for women, leading to broken families, delinquent children, and even to the loss of the true female identity (Wood, 2012). In other words, women-feminists are too busy with their political ideals to pay enough time and attention to their families and children. The second claim is that feminism is absolutely unnecessary and useless, because, in the history of humanity, women have won dozens of political battles and can easily achieve any social or political position they want (Wood, 2012).
In light of everything said above, it could be fair to say that antifeminist rhetoric is usually focused on the defense of family integrity and the sacred position of woman in the family union (Apple, 1999). Antifeminist rhetoric is very closely associated and goes in line with the calls for conservatism and traditional morality. Apple (1999) even compares antifeminism to religious fundamentalism. Today’s published sources even dare to suggest that sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace represent an essential ingredient of the American daily culture. In a brief review below, two pieces of antifeminist writing borrowed from The New York Times are summarized.
The New York Times and Antifeminist Rhetoric
Surprisingly or not, The New York Times professionals often express themselves through blogs. One of The New York Times blogs posted on February 2, 2012 and written by Brian Knowlton sends an interesting message to the public. In this article, Knowlton (2012) discusses Rick Santorum’s 2005 book titled It Takes a Family. At the heart of the book is Santorum’s criticism of radical feminists, who, in his view, challenge the established gender beliefs and do not allow the American society to preserve its traditional values (Knowlton, 2012). In his book, Santorum writes that feminism has deprived women of their power, turning them into pure professionals; as a result, they no longer believe they can be happy without professional accomplishments (Knowlton, 2012). Yet, the most remarkable feature of the publication is not about the book itself but the way the author of the post presents Santorum’s antifeminist arguments. Knowlton (2012) does recognize the lack of consistency in Santorum’s claims but does not try to debate them. Focused on the definition of family as a working man and a woman-housewife, Santorum’s claims exemplify a bright piece of antifeminist rhetoric, stating that women should be more focused on their children than the issues that concern them beyond their homes.
Even more challenging is the piece published by Kate Roiphe in November, 2011. In this op-ed article, the author discusses the issue of risqué remarks and dirty jokes about women in the workplace (Roiphe, 2011). Roiphe (2011) touches the definition and implications of undesired sexual advances in organizations and tries to argue that a dirty joke about a woman in the workplace is not a crime. The most remarkable and even outstanding is Roiphe’s (2011) claim that “our Puritan country loves the language of sexual harassment: it lets us be enlightened and sexually conservative, modern and judgmental, sensitive and disapproving, voyeuristic and correct all at the same time”. In other words, the author tries to suggest that sexism and anti-female jokes in the workplace are quite acceptable and even desired. Roiphe (2011) refers to the writings of other antifeminist scholars and criticizes women for their striving to look too tender, fragile, and sensitive against the abrasiveness of their daily lives. Based on what Roiphe (2011) writes, sexual harassment in the workplace is a non-existent phenomenon imagined by women, who take men’s jokes too seriously. The author of the article tries to reach a higher, political level in her claims by saying that the country cannot create laws against flirting and jokes. In many senses, she echoes the recent Justice Scalia’s sentiment with regard to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and its relation to gender discrimination. Interestingly, the discussed op-ed article has generated a wave of feminist criticism. For example, Sarah Seltzer (2011) notes that, as a professional feminist, Kate Roiphe could not do anything more event-breaking than calling the victims of workplace harassment humorless.
Antifeminist Rhetoric: Who Opposes?
From the two pieces of antifeminist writing discussed above, it is clear that political groups are the most interested in maintaining the existing gender status quo. Rick Santorum, a popular political figure, has great influence on his followers, and it is easy to imagine how many Santorum’s adherents will eventually accept the antifeminist position. The issue of antifeminist rhetoric is more political than social, and Roiphe’s post confirms this assumption: when the antifeminist writer mentions the impossibility of passing laws against sexist jokes about women in the workplace, she sends the message of political reluctance to change the existing order of gender things in the developed world.
The Politics of Antifeminism: Why So Serious?
The most important question is not what groups oppose to feminism in the U.S., but why they do it and what goals they seek to achieve. Contemporary sociology provides several interesting ideas. To begin with, the political opposition to feminism is widely documented, and antifeminist rhetoric is believed to be an effective instrument against spreading the gender equality message in the U.S. Hogeland (2008) writes that there are powerful political interests opposed to gender equality and the feminist movement, as it is not in the interests of the white patriarchal supremacy to enable women to fight for their basic rights. The white supremacy that has for many years governed all political and social processes in the U.S. is not interested in granting women the right to get an abortion, to vote, or to defend the right for reproductive self-determination (Hogeland, 2008). The capitalist supremacy is not interested in giving women a chance to defend and promote their economic interests (Hogeland, 2008). Political circles and groups apply to antifeminist rhetoric in their striving to keep the inferior status of women intact, because this is the only way they can successfully preserve their own position and power. In this situation, and pressured by the rapidly spreading political messages, women are left without any single opportunity to say “no” to the sexist jokes and sexual advances from men in the workplace.
Back to Roiphe’s (2011) writing about sexism and harassment in the workplace, it would be correct to say that sexism and discrimination are the products of misbalanced structural relations between a woman and man. In gendered societies, men gain more power and status than women, and the social roles of men and women are consistently differentiated (Glick & Fiske, 2001). This is also what Rick Santorum tries to achieve through his antifeminist book: he is not satisfied with the growing involvement of women in the nation’s workforce. Santorum is not satisfied with the fact that more professional women erase the social role boundary that has always characterized the relationships between men and women in society. Is it possible that the sexism, which both Knowlton (2012) and Roiphe (2011) promote in their writings, is benevolent? It is, but only in the sense that it benefits men’s positive self-image as providers and protectors, who are willing to care for women until the end of their lives (Glick & Fiske, 2001).
The political sexism, which Roiphe (2011) describes in her op-ed article, fulfills an explicit and, actually, expected function – to create an atmosphere of misguided benevolence that favors only the dominant class of males. Hostile sexism is an extremely convenient form of promoting and sustaining the privileged ideology of the dominant group (Glick & Fiske, 2001). The sexism about which Roiphe (2011) speaks further exaggerates the existing differences between men and women. As a result, sexism does not allow women to advance themselves in their social roles. A remarkable fact is that antifeminist rhetoric avoids calling women names. In almost all cases, women are depicted as extremely generous and loving, tender, and pure. The theme of men’s dependence on women transcends all aspects of antifeminist writing (Glick & Fiske, 2001; Knowlton, 2012). However, the underlying message is that women are too weak to act independently in the gendered world. Another hidden facet of this theme is that, with men so dependent on women, the latter simply cannot give up their traditional roles and move forward in the professional world. This benevolent sexism is integrally linked to the themes of paternalistic protectiveness and women’s inferiority (Glick & Fiske, 2001). With a lot of pride and self-consciousness, Rick Santorum speaks about the time when his wife decided to sacrifice her professional career and focus on their family and seven children – an argument that overshadows even the strongest gender equality beliefs Santorum’s adherents might have had in the past.
One of the most remarkable facts is that, under the pressure of antifeminist rhetoric, many members of the inferior class internalize the beliefs and priorities imposed on them by the dominant class. Influenced by the antifeminist politics, these groups and their members simply cannot help but accept and further promote an unfavorable image of themselves (Jost & Burgess, 2000). “Members of disadvantaged groups at times even perform ideological work on behalf of the system, rationalizing inequality at the expense of personal and group interests” (Jost & Burgess, 2000, p.303). In light of these ideas, it comes as no surprise that Rick Santorum’s wife has become one of the authors of the most radical chapter included by her husband in his notorious antifeminist book. It is no wonder that Kate Roiphe, a woman, takes an antifeminist position and defends sexual harassment against women in the workplace. Most probably, this antifeminist position is just a good way to avoid or resolve the psychological conflict members of inferior groups usually face: women who currently represent the inferior group may have incompatible motives to accept the legitimacy of the gender status quo and avoid criticism for favoring in-group behaviors (Jost & Burgess, 2000). Yet, even then, Roiphe’s defense of sexism and harassment in the workplace is rather confusing.
Basically, it is clear that maintaining a gendered status quo in the United States is a matter of politics. Both feminism and antifeminism can be regarded as political movements. As a result, the conflict of the feminist and antifeminist priorities is actually a conflict of political values. The purpose of sexism, harassment, and status quo is rather explicit: to create and sustain negative stereotypes about women and, as a result, create barriers to their social and professional advancement. Most probably, popular newspapers and magazines will keep posting antifeminist works, at least to create the vision of free speech possibilities for all parties of the gender conflict. Simultaneously, recent antifeminist claims made by outstanding political leaders require further social analysis. Likewise, the hidden facets the patriarchal supremacy and its political implications need to be explored.
Despite the growing prevalence of gender equality ideas in the developed world, antifeminist rhetoric in the United States continues to persist. Large newspapers publish antifeminist writings in an attempt to confirm the importance of free speech and free will in the U.S. Political groups seem to be the most interested in sustaining the gender status quo in the developed world, as gender inequality is the only possible way to preserve the power of the male supremacy. In this context, antifeminist rhetoric serves an effective instrument against gender equality in the U.S. Reasons why political groups may be interested in gender inequality are numerous and diverse. As mentioned earlier, gender inequality is the only way for the male supremacy to retain its power and position in the developed world. It is through the antifeminist rhetoric that the political groups can keep existing differences between male and female social roles and make sure that women do not pursue professional growth. Antifeminist rhetoric is often focused on the sanctity of traditional family values and can be even compared to religious fundamentalism. Antifeminists describe women as too tender and pure, meaning that they are unable to advance themselves beyond their homes and need male protection. As a result, pressured by antifeminist messages, many women cannot help but internalize these beliefs about their gender and social roles in society. They may even try to justify and rationalize the existence of the gendered status quo. Most probably, newspapers and magazines will remain open to antifeminist rhetoric and claims. Meanwhile, researchers will need to analyze the hidden facets of the patriarchal supremacy and its political implications.