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.