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The New Anti-Feminism: Global Edition


The twentieth century was more feminist than the nineteenth century. The developed nations are more feminist than the less developed nations. Globally, women’s status hasn’t been this high since the early gender egalitarianism of hunting and gathering societies.

Does this mean that the world will just get more and more feminist as time goes on, and that women’s status is permanently assured?

Don’t count on it!

A patriarchal backlash is in progress in much of the world. The causes of such a backlash are present now and will reappear in the future. Probably the gains made by women will be maintained. But this will not be the case for every nation on the planet. There will be settings where women’s power and the beneficent effects associated with such power will get rolled back.

There are two primary mechanisms that could lead to anti-feminist backlash. The first is declining male economic status. Leicht and Baker have argued that globally men are losing earning power due to de-industrialization in the Global North and rising unemployment in the Global South. Unemployed and underemployed men lose power within their families, particularly if the wife becomes the primary breadwinner. Men react to this loss of status by turning conservative and striving to reconstruct traditional gender roles. This leads on one hand to fights against reproductive rights and in favor of traditional religion. Anger and frustration also lead to increased use of violence which is targeted against both minorities and women.

Blumberg and I have argued that war and crime have similar effects. Warfare and crime prioritize male combativeness and machismo. They put women in danger and make them dependent on the physical protection of men. They limit the ability of women to move freely due to security concerns. Unfortunately, the deterioration of economies in the Global South pushes men into warlordism and gang life. Male resentment from lost earning power leads to domestic abuse and sexism on its own. It also increases societal violence which leads to sexual violence and male control of women.

For whatever reason, anti-feminism is on the march in much of the world.

In Poland, there is an explicit movement against feminism jointly sponsored by the governing Law and Justice Party and the Catholic Church. The church itself is sponsoring a STOP “GENDER” campaign, with the word “Gender” being in English. The implication is that gender is a foreign construct that no nationalist Pole should accept. The government has implemented a  policy designed to increase the birth rate by providing cash to women who have babies. The explicit goal is to have more women staying home taking care of children.

Yemen saw a significant rollback of women’s rights in the 1990’s. South Yemen was a relatively progressive government with a secularized Marxist component. In 1970, gender equality was written into their constitution. In 1974, a law was passed giving women and men equal power within the family. In 1990, South Yemen fell and was reunited with North Yemen. All of the old patriarchal policies were re-established. Among the most adverse changes: honor killings of women by men were explicitly legalized; women were formally required by law to provide sexual access to their husbands.

In Kenya, a new constitution in 2010 that guaranteed a fixed quota of parliamentary seats for women led to a gigantic backlash of anti-feminism. Within the political sphere, the new women candidates were generally marginalized. More disturbingly, there was a substantial increase in political violence channeled against women candidates and their supporters. Crowds and thugs were egged on not only by male political opponents but by the mass media which unabashedly referred to female politicians as prostitutes. Women candidates were stripped naked by crowds, slammed into walls while trying to speak, or simply knifed by gangs.

Walsh and Menjivar, two specialists on gendered violence in Central America, report that domestic violence is increasing in that part of the world. Killings of women have increased in 400% in Honduras between 2002 and 2013. Some of this is due to the increased presence of criminal gangs, which raised both crime rates and homicide rates overall. However, some of this is due to anti-feminist backlash. Most of the killings of women in Honduras and El Salvador involve domestic violence rather than gang or criminal activity. The women who Walsh and Menjivar interviewed reported that the police do little to nothing to protect women in danger. In El Salvador, where domestic abuse laws actually exist on the books, only 1.5% of the domestic violence cases that are tried in court produce convictions. Keep in mind, the overwhelming majority of cases never come to court in the first place.

Fortunately, while individual countries have seen increases in violence against women, the increase in risk is not worldwide. Global rates of intimate partner female homicide have been stable. Sadly, stable also means not declining. In some countries, base rates of violence against women are very high. In Tanzania, fully one third of women report having been the victim of violence every year. Ironically, if you ask about wife beating specifically, the number rises to seventy percent - seventy percent every year.

Note that none of this absolutely guarantees that women’s status is going to deteriorate.

There are several factors that work on the plus side.

1. Throwing women completely out of the labor force is economically unsustainable. Too many employers have become completely dependent on female labor. Global supply chains are absolutely dependent on women workers as an international source of cheap labor.

2. The world economy is increasingly structured towards having a greater weight of female rather than male sex-typed jobs. Manufacturing is decreasing. Service jobs are increasing. Heavy industry is decreasing. Light industry is increasing. Women have traditionally been employed in the service sector and light industry, while men work in heavy manufacturing.

3. Female education rates have never been higher. High female education means low fertility. Low fertility means it will be harder to keep women confined to their houses because they have to take care of children.

4. Female education rates have never been higher. This increases the opportunities for women in the professional sector and the managerial sector. Female education also increases the opportunities for women entrepreneurs. Women are increasingly hard to replace because their training has given them skills. This is true whether they are in a female sex-typed job such as nursing which has skills, or they are in a gender-neutral job such as marketing which has skills. If they are entrepreneurs, they are hard to replace because they are the boss.

5. Women are organized in their own defense. Women are not going to sit passively and let patriarchal men exclude them from the good things in life. In some cases, women’s organization leads to victories at the ballot box. In some cases, women’s organization leads to victories in the legislative process. In some cases, women’s organization leads to changes in the culture which makes it harder for sexist men to hold effective sway.

So on one side of the battlefield, we have threatened, marginalized men, willing to do whatever it takes to put women back in their place. On the other side of the battlefield, we have economically essential, educated, well-organized women who don’t intend to be put anywhere they don’t want to go.

Who is going to win this conflict?

This will be a nation by nation, case by case situation.

But neither feminism nor patriarchy are going to win one hundred percent of the battles.

For More Information

For the Leicht and Baker argument on declining male status, see Leicht, Kevin and Phyllis Baker. 2019. “Gender Through the Looking Glass: Role of Low Status Men in the Reproduction of Global Gender Violence and Racial and Ethnic Bigotry.” Pp. 175-188 in Samuel Cohn and Rae Lesser Blumberg (eds.), Gender and Development: Economic Basis of Women’s Power. Thousand Oaks, CA., Sage.

For the Blumberg and Cohn argument on war, see “Power of the Purse: Importance of Women’s Economic Power: Why Women’s Economic Power Is Absolutely Essential.” Pp. 1-27 in Samuel Cohn and Rae Lesser Blumberg (eds.), Gender and Development: Economic Basis of Women’s Power. Thousand Oaks, CA., Sage.

On antifeminism in Poland, see Snitow, Ann and Kathryn Detwiler. 2016. “Gender Trouble in Poland”. Dissent

On women in Yemen, see the unusually good Wiki article on the topic

On backlash against quotas for women parliamentarians in Kenya, see Berry, Marie, Yolande Bouke, and Marilyn Muthoni Kamuru. 2020. “Implementing Inclusion: Gender Quotas, Inequality and Backlash in Kenya.” Politics and Gender

On femicide in Turkey, see Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz Platformu (We Will Stop Women’s Murders Platform).

On Central American gender violence, see Walsh Shannon and Cecilia Menjivar. 2016. “Impunity and Multisided Violence in the Lives of Latin American Women: El Salvador in Comparative Perspective.” Current Sociology 64: 586-602 and their 2017. “Architecture of Feminicide: State, Inequalities and Everyday Gender Violence in Honduras.” Latin American Research Review 52: 221-240.

On femicides in Argentina, see Zambrano, Adriana Marisel. n.d. “Informes de Femicidio en Argentina” (Information on Femicide in Argentina) La Casa del Encuentro.

On legislative changes in women’s status in Argentina see Hutn, Mala. 2003. Sex and the State:Abortion, Divorce and the Family Under Latin American Dictatorships and Democracies. New York, Cambridge.

On online antifeminism in Argentina, see Engler, Veronica. 2017. “Antifeminismo Online” Nueva Sociedad 269: May-June.

The statistics on global violence against women come from United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2019. Global Study on Homicide: Gender-Related Killings of Women and Girls.

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