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Anti-feminists outside the movement and dissent within is driving young and diverse women away at a time when activism needs a boost

Supporters of Planned Parenthood dressed as characters from The Handmaid’s Tale hold a rally as they protest the U.S. Senate Republicans’ healthcare bill outside the U.S. Capitol on June 27, 2017.

Is modern feminism under siege? In her new book, F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, journalist Lauren McKeon looks at the forces pummelling the movement from inside and out. She talks to activists who call themselves anti-feminists and women who identify as feminists, but can't agree on what the word should mean. She spoke to Elizabeth Renzetti about what her reporting uncovered.

Lauren McKeon.

You write that when you were a student and wanted to talk about feminism, it was about as popular as "a fart in the room." We need to hear more about that.

When I was in high school, you were an outsider if you were a feminist. You were not cool. Younger feminists still face the same thing in high school, even with Beyoncé saying she's a feminist and feminist T-shirts and tote bags now. If you actually discuss those thoughts in high school you're not cool.

You suggest the threat to feminism comes from two places, from outside in the form of anti-feminists, and from inside in the form of dissent. You write that feminism's "vibrant acrimony is driving women away." Why do you think that is?

Any movement should be able to self-criticize, so I don't think everyone within the movement should adhere to one "feminism." In fact, that could also be very dangerous. We need to move toward a plurality of feminisms. But in speaking to young feminists who don't feel they belong and those who aren't part of the movement, there's this idea that if you speak up you might open yourself up to attack or shaming. We get enough of that as women and girls in the outside world, so to hear that in a movement that is supposed to be fighting for us and strengthening our position can be very dispiriting. It can cause women to clam up.

We need to prioritize voices that have been traditionally marginalized. What is the best way to do that?

I'm not unaware that I'm a white woman – I'm contributing to the problem even as I'm trying to help figure it out. It's about elevating other voices, raising other people's platforms. It can be as simple as turning down a guest spot on a panel in favour of somebody who hasn't been elevated. Or saying, I'll do it as long as these other voices are also represented, so you don't get another all-white panel of a certain age. It's just listening more. We don't need to be so scared of losing our own platforms. Making room for other voices doesn't mean we won't be heard.

In her new book, journalist Lauren McKeon looks at the forces pummelling the movement from inside and out.

A lot of anti-feminists you spoke with, such as the female men's rights activists and the anti-abortion activists, present themselves as strong and empowered by their positions. How do they articulate that argument?

The word "empowering" is raised a lot now, in marketing, in feminism, in anti-feminism. What does it even mean any more? That word really hides a pernicious message because it allows the anti-feminist movement to say they support women but to also say, well women don't really want reproductive rights. They'd rather have the traditional role of wife and mother. They don't really want to go into STEM, feminists are forcing them to do that. They're not really suffering from sexual violence. And if you're an anti-feminist, you'll be empowered. You'll pull yourselves up by the bootstraps. But that ignores that that kind of empowerment can't happen without huge systemic change.

You interviewed a female game designer who said that 'technology is becoming less and less hospitable to women.' Did your reporting bear that out?

Yes. There was a sense of a low-grade hostility, almost engrained into the culture. The whole viewpoint of [tech] companies – whose ideas are elevated, who's allowed to speak in meetings, who gets funding for their ideas – it does bear out that women still don't quite have a place. We see that in the news cycle, with the Google letter and the class-action suit against Google. One of my closest friends works in tech, and she sees all this stuff going on and she says, "How can I possibly have a future in this sector?" It's not that young women aren't interested; it's that they see signposts everywhere saying Go Away.

Your book ends on an optimistic note, with the Women's March in Washington, and the hopeful discussions you have with young feminists.

I didn't want people to walk away thinking we're doomed. I don't think that's true. It's encouraging that these conversations are being revived. We stopped talking about it for a while. For a lot of younger women it might have seemed that everything was okay. Now they're seeing that those gains weren't enough. And they see that the movement needs to widen, because the gains weren't for everybody.

This interview has been edited and condensed.