Skip to main content

Do we still need feminism? According to many younger women, we do not. For the past few weeks, a Tumblr hashtag campaign called #WomenAgainstFeminism has been stirring up a lot of angst in the Twitter/blogosphere. As part of the campaign, young women submit selfies with handwritten signs that say: "I don't need feminism because [fill in reason here]." The reasons include things like: "My self-worth is not directly tied to the size of my victim complex!" "I love being an engineer, but I'd rather just be Mom." "I like men looking at me when I look good." "Feminism has become a pseudonym for bullying." And, on a lighter note, "How the [bleep] am I supposed to open jars and lift heavy objects without my husband?"

Naturally, this campaign has been like a red flag to a bull, if I may use that expression. Shock, horror, ridicule and satire have ensued, along with a great deal of reproachful head-shaking from those who say that women who reject feminism are ignorant and misinformed.

To make sense of the debate, the CBC's The Current convened a panel. It was the type of panel that muddied these already turbid waters even more. I felt sorry for the moderator, Jeffrey Kofman, who was stuck trying to elucidate the views of three not-very-interesting young women (two feminist, one anti). They left me longing for the days of Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer – fierce, magnificent, passionate, witty lionesses who would put any modern feminist to shame. They never stooped to academic jargon. They never spoke in uptalk, either, a mannerism these panelists unfortunately had not shaken. It's hard to take anybody seriously when she's droning on about oppression, colonialism and imperialism, especially when she's uptalking.

This being the CBC, the audience reaction was predictable. Older, affluent, liberal, second-wave females generally agreed that we all have feminists to thank for our freedoms, and the anti-feminists shouldn't forget it. Also, they protested, feminism has been badly misunderstood. It is not a bunch of shrill, hairy-legged man-haters, as the antis seem to think. Any younger woman who knew the slightest thing about feminism would be one!

So how come they're not? (Most polls say fewer than half of younger women identify with feminism.) One big reason is: We won. Thanks for your hard work, Gloria and Germaine. The heavy lifting's over. You can rest on your laurels now.

Another reason is that #WomenAgainstFeminism is essentially right. There is a hard core of misandry and victim-culture in modern feminism that is deeply disturbing. #WomenAgainstFeminism is in part a reaction to the #YesAllWomen campaign, which began in reaction to the murder rampage of Elliot Rodger last May. The lonely misogynist – who killed two women and four men, before killing himself – was cast as a symbol of the worldwide war against women. As one Facebook comment (quoted in Time by Sarah Miller) said: "If you don't think this is about misogyny there is something wrong with you."

Modern feminism has split into two distinct strands. The mild-mannered mainstream version, having achieved most of its objectives for equality (and then some: upward of 60 per cent of postsecondary graduates are now women) is focusing its efforts on ever more elitist issues, such as the lopsided gender split in Silicon Valley and the shortage of women on corporate boards. Will all due respect to the problems of the one per cent, I do not think these are the types of issues that will send young women to the barricades.

The leftist, postmodernist strand of feminism insists that women are still oppressed, and the world's still stacked against us, and there is basically no difference between the rape epidemic in India and the one in North America. One example of this thinking is The Guardian's Jessica Valenti, who, in response to #WomenAgainstFeminism, wrote: "[D]enying that women are a victimized class is simply wrong. What else would you call a segment of the population who are systematically discriminated against in school, work and politics? How would you describe a population whose bodies are objectified to the point of dehumanization? Women are harassed, attacked and sexually assaulted with alarming regularity in America and around the world." This is a belief system rather than a depiction of reality, and, as with all belief systems, there's no point arguing about it with the faithful.

Views like this wouldn't matter much, except that they have real-life consequences, as Cathy Young has pointed out in Time. One is the destructive "rape culture" myth that has gripped campuses across North America, along with the meme – utterly fictitious – that one in five women will be sexually assaulted by the time she gets her degree. This claim is on the face of it absurd, but it has spawned an epidemic of victimology and abuse of due process that will take a generation to undo.

Is it even worth being a feminist any more? Well, maybe yes. We can keep trying to find ways to help girls and women in the more miserable parts of the world. Here at home, we should be doing a great deal more to resist a hypersexualized culture that is much harder on girls than boys. We could also ask every passionate young feminist with a university degree to spend a few months living in a middle-class neighbourhood, hanging out with middle-class women who just want to find decent part-time jobs so they can help pay the mortgage and be home for their kids. They'd probably learn a lot.

Interact with The Globe