When Phyllis Schlafly is forced to concede that not all feminists are ugly, it’s clear that something has gone awry on the right. Sure enough, in April, Schlafly, a conservative crusader who has been peddling stereotypes of women’s activists as physically and socially unappealing for decades, thought she should warn cadets at the Citadel not to fall for one.
“Some of them are pretty,” she said. “They don’t all look like Bella Abzug.”
Schlafly’s anachronistic dig at Abzug, a boisterous New York congresswoman who has been dead for 14 years and whose name and fondness for large hats probably don’t ring bells for many undergrads, betrays the anxiety undergirding her warning. The aged, arid vision of feminism on which conservatives have long relied — and that Abzug embodied only in caricature, never in reality — is finally losing its power.
The image of the feminist as a mirthless, hirsute, sex-averse succubus is a friendly fire casualty of the Republican “war on women.” It’s a grave loss to conservatives, who have used this faithful foot soldier as a comfortably grotesque stand-in for the real people whose liberties they have sought to conscribe: women.
In a famous 1992 fundraising letter, television evangelist Pat Robertson described feminism as a movement that “encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians,” while conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh has stated that “feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream.” The characterization is so potent and pervasive that lefties have also availed themselves of it. In 2005, liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas dismissed feminist complaints as the “humorless, knee-jerk … tedious” stuff of “the sanctimonious women’s-studies set.”
Painting those with a commitment to gender equality as brutish killers of buzzes and babies has been a useful tactic, not only in distracting the public from anti-feminist policy, but in sending messages to young people. Generations of kids, including my own 1990s cohort, have prefaced feminist statements with, “I’m not a feminist, but…” Sarah Michelle Gellar, who played girl-power icon Buffy Summers, once told a reporter that she hated the word “feminist” because it “brings up such horrible connotations and makes you think of women who don’t shave their legs.”
In activism, an image problem becomes a structural problem: Twisted but resonant stereotypes make women hesitant to identify with the movement to expand their rights. And if women won’t organize and advocate on their own behalf, the work of anti-feminists is done.
But the recent Republican incursions against women’s rights have been extreme enough to make women finally see beyond the wraith, to recognize that this battle is in fact about them. As presidential candidates sparred over birth control and state legislatures enacted punishing restrictions on reproductive rights and opposed equal-pay protections, newly vocal feminists resisted publicly. By doing so, they transformed the stereotype, putting youth, sex and humor on the side of the long-denigrated women’s movement.
Conservatives such as Limbaugh, Foster Friess and Rick Santorum, dealing in sexual censoriousness and musty utterances, suddenly looked like the sexless relics of a bygone era, while the women shouting back at them presented a new, cool model of feminism — young, funny, socially nimble and appealing enough to tempt young men from the Citadel.
The popular dismantling of entrenched feminist stereotypes began, perhaps, not with the feminist movement itself, but in comedy. Performers such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Wanda Sykes, Samantha Bee and Kristen Schaal have happily made gender politics part of their acts. In March, Schaal even performed Republican policy as stand-up on “The Daily Show”: “What’s the difference between a fertilized egg, a corporation and a woman? One of them isn’t considered a person in Oklahoma.”
Some of this season’s most furious feminist comedy didn’t come from women at all, but from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, whose steady coverage of misogynist policy highlighted a reassessment of another stale presumption — that feminism is an all-girl ghetto into which no self-respecting man would venture. In Pennsylvania, Democratic state Sen. Larry Farnese proposed Viagra restrictions intended to make antiabortion measures look “ridiculous,” joining other lawmakers, such as Oklahoma’s Constance Johnson, a Democrat, who proposed banning the deposit of sperm anywhere but a woman’s vagina, in battling Republican misogyny with satire. Meanwhile, two young men launched “Texts from Hillary,” a site that showcased Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s efflorescent cool and stood in bracing contrast to the images of guys holding “Iron My Shirt” signs during her 2008 presidential campaign.
In March, online denizens “sarcasm-bombed” the Facebook pages of conservative officials. Virginia state Sen. Ryan McDougle, who backed a bill that would require women to have an ultrasound before an abortion, received a message about “a possible yeast infection … since you’re so tuned [in to women's] bodies I thought you might have some natural remedies.” Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback got requests to schedule pap smears and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose anti-Planned Parenthood policy cost the women of his state $35 million in health-care services, was asked for his opinion on methods to detect cervical mucus for fertility. So it wasn’t exactly a march on Washington, but it made right-wingers look slow and out of step.
Fighting funny may not be inherently more effective than fighting mad, but it does help correct abiding misapprehensions about feminism as a cheerless vortex: anti-male, anti-sex, anti-porn, anti-fun. In 2012, the anti-everything platform was occupied not by feminist agitators but the GOP politicians they were battling.
It was presidential candidate Santorum and not, say, feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, who complained in March that pornography “contributes to misogyny and violence against women.” Santorum also could be seen, in a widely disseminated interview, barely able to bring himself to say S-E-X, opining instead about how contraception encouraged people to do things “in the sexual realm” that are not “how things are supposed to be.” Republican Virginia Del. David Albo, who sponsored the mandatory-ultrasound bill, was too Victorian to utter the word “vaginal,” and spoke instead of “trans-V this” and “trans-V that” in a tale he told on the Virginia House floor… about his wife’s decision not to have sex with him after the ultrasound story became news.
Meanwhile, feminists were being credited — by their detractors, no less — with having robust erotic lives. Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke did not say much about sex in her congressional testimony in support of mandated birth control coverage, but her views nonetheless prompted Limbaugh to imagine her carnal activity in florid detail and to suggest that she — and all the other women for whom Limbaugh assumed her to be speaking — were having “so much sex” that they couldn’t pay for it.
Limbaugh made a tone-deaf misstep in his choice of the word “slut,” an epithet around which young feminists have been rallying for more than a year in “Slutwalk” protests against victim-blaming. There was no insult that young women were better equipped to both brush off and to battle, making Limbaugh’s rant not an instance of simply trading one smear (unattractive) for another (loose), but rather a moment that revealed the limits of name-calling. The world had changed; pathologizing female sexuality didn’t do the trick. Limbaugh lost more than 140 advertisers, and Time magazine — not exactly an obscure feminist blog — labeled him a “sad loud man in a small room.”
The 30-year-old Fluke’s eagerness to speak about gender equality — not just in her testimony, but since — further belied the retro view of feminism as the purview of older women. Young women, we’ve repeatedly been told, don’t care about the freedoms won for them by their mothers and grandmothers. But while Republican bankroller Friess’ comment, “Back in my day, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives; the gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly” made conservative men sound like great-grandpas, young feminist women were getting themselves noticed by the media.
Images of ultrasound wands and all-male congressional hearings and social-media campaigns goosed boycotts, donations to Planned Parenthood and state-house demonstrations nationwide. Youthful engagement zinged through mainstream popular culture; on “The View” in May, 20-year-old actress Eden Sher recommended Jessica Valenti’s “Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters.” Women’s rights activism enlivened even small towns such as Dunkerton, Iowa, where residents protested an appearance by Bradlee Dean, a conservative Christian preacher whose band had recently told a group of high school girls that they would “have mud on their wedding dresses if they weren’t virgins”; demonstrators included female students with signs that read: “This is what a feminist looks like.”
This is what feminism looks like, despite generations of having been told something different. While Republicans have been scrubbing their Facebook pages of jokes and decrying the rich sex lives of liberal women, actual feminists — and not just conservative puppeteers — seem at last to have devised a way to wrest control of feminism’s image.
The hairy harridan of yore isn’t totally vanquished. She’s too useful for the right. Without her, it becomes clear that Republicans are fighting not some made-up monster but women themselves. Contemporary activists who have recently replaced the yellowing cartoon of feminism with a living, breathing, nuanced version of what women’s liberation means in 2012 must keep fighting with humor and zeal if they ever want to finish off the old bat.
Perhaps someday they’ll even avenge her by hoisting a banner of their foes as fogeyish, woman-hating, humorless prudes and carrying it into future battles.
Rebecca Traister is the author of “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women” and a forthcoming book on unmarried women.