The Vagina Demagogues: Feminism and the War on Women

It has come to this. The Vagina Monologues is no longer progressive enough for feminists. At elite women’s college Mount Holyoke, Eve Ensler’s classic play has been canceled because it is “inherently reductionist and exclusive.” This play, this personification of vaginas hailed by feminists as liberation from our societal fear of the female anatomy, this ultimate form of modern campus progressivism, is literally a play in which women perform soliloquies as vaginas. It even inspired a nationwide day of activism—V-Day to supplant the Valentine’s Day of the patriarchy, February 14—on which women’s groups perform the play to raise money for combating violence against women.

The Vagina Monologues is now, improbably, part of the war on women, because it is insufficiently inclusive of women without vaginas.

If you find this confusing, you’re not alone.

You put your “ladyparts” in. You put your ladyparts out. You do the hokey pokey of womanhood, and you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about.

It’s not that catchy as a party game ditty, but it’s how many women feel. From the Mommy Wars to work-life balance, from parenting ad- vice to Pinterest envy, the task of being a thoroughly modern, liberated woman can feel like a precarious balancing act of its own. It can feel like everyone and their momma (literally) has an idea about how you should live your life. Are you unwittingly enabling the patriarchy by making Angry Birds cupcakes for your kid’s birthday? Is staying at home with your kids or working part-time a betrayal of those who fought for your rights in the workplace? Is buying an iPhone 6, with its giant display designed for man hands, a sexist act? Is giving your child a toy soldier or a princess or a gingerbread man at Christmas sentencing him or her to a life of horrifying gender conformity?

There seems to be some confusion at the heart of all this regarding the F-word. No, not the fun one. Feminist. What does it mean? Who is one? What does it take to be one? And, who the hell makes the rules? The standards, of course, are capricious, ever changing, frequently contradictory, and controlled by a cadre of self-appointed commentators who adjudicate the degree of your liberation and loyalty to womanhood in blog posts and MSNBC interviews. Seemingly the only thing these Pharisees of feminism agree on for certain is that any woman who holds conservative views cannot simultaneously be liberated or modern.

When it comes to defining feminism, there are clichés aplenty that simplify into disingenuous sound bites a political movement that is on its fourth (fifth? Ask five feminists and you’ll get five different answers) wave of bitterly infighting generations.

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“Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.” Sure, you’d be daft to disagree with that! “Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” We wish it were that simple. If it were, there’d be no large group of women gathering online because they feel excluded by feminism.

In the fall of 2014, an online movement emerged that represented those women and irked the Pharisees of feminism. A Tumblr page called “Women Against Feminism” collected statements from such women, mostly in the form of selfies holding pieces of paper with their sentiments on them.

Some of the contributions to Women Against Feminism were silly or incoherent, as is to be expected with any movement based on aggregated selfies. But the movement was not defined by a retrograde desire for homebound careerless women and unequal protection under the law. Rather, as a blogger named AstrokidNJ found in surveying a week’s worth of contributions to the Tumblr page, “46 percent were egalitarian, 19 percent endorsed men’s issues, and 12 percent criticized feminist intolerance toward dissent. Only 23 percent reflected traditionalist views such as support for distinct sex roles, chivalry, or full-time motherhood,” as reported by columnist Cathy Young in the Boston Globe.

The thrust of most of the women’s complaints was this: Modern feminism does not welcome me. It does not reflect my life as a woman or accurately portray the men who love, respect, and support me in that life. In fact, it makes me feel like I can’t qualify as a woman if I don’t agree with a very specific slate of policy preferences and political positions, and make public pronouncements accordingly.

The backlash of the gatekeepers of feminism against these women was swift, merciless, incredulous, and biting.

“These women are slandering the movement that enabled their freedom,” wrote Nina Burleigh in the New York Observer.

Rebecca Brink satirized the movement with her own collection of mocking sign selfies, including “I don’t need feminism because I want boys to like me.”

Burleigh and prominent feminist writer Amanda Marcotte each wrote that the women in the pictures were probably just expressing what their boyfriends and husbands told them to, because as feminists in good standing, they respect the agency and intellect of women, unless those women disagree with them.

“I’d lay odds that the young Women Against Feminism anti-feminists are the girlfriends and wives of these frustrated young men,” because “their men (are) underemployed, bitter, and yes, bitching husbands and boyfriends,” Burleigh wrote in a 2014 column in the New York Observer. “Indeed, unseen husbands holding cameras while their wife gives them ‘I won’t ever be one of those dirty feminists who wants equality’

eyes at them is a common theme here,” Marcotte wrote at Raw Story. But a general disaffection with the cultural understanding of “feminism” is reflected in polling. A 2013 Huffington Post/YouGov poll showed only 20 percent of Americans call themselves “feminist,” though more than 70 percent in every demographic believe in social, economic, and political equality for the sexes.

Feminism, Americans say, it’s not me. It’s you.

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Reprinted from End of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free and Fun by Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson. Copyright © 2015 by Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson

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