The discussion about the balance of power between the sexes had already come down to nuances. For example, in recent years, much was made of how men and women speak to one another. The concept of “mansplaining” was introduced, a term for men who constantly explain the world, unasked, to others.
Then 2016 arrived and swept all these details away.
Given the shocking ignorance of the President-elect on almost all topics, enthusiastic mansplainers suddenly seem pretty appealing. The post-testosterone era seemed to have arrived. This was the year of Brexit, Putin, Erdogan and Trump: In 2016, politics was conducted with the banging of fists on tables. But calling this behavior specifically masculine would be an insult to most men today.
This could have been the year when feminism renewed its strength. After all, the movement had suffered in the West because there seemed to be a lack of obvious enemies. Just as Francis Fukuyama described “the end of history,” so too were the evils of the patriarchy lost in the details.
Instead of throwing all its weight behind free societies’ struggle against fast-growing authoritarian movements, feminism gets all tangled up in battles of wit.
But now there are enough enemies. Feminism wants to free all people from coercion, self-imposed immaturity and powerlessness; yes, even men, given that strictly hierarchical societies are not welcoming to men who aren’t rich and powerful. Feminism’s core concept is thoroughly anti-authoritarian. Which could be really useful right now.
But the louder the world gets, the quieter feminism gets.
Instead of throwing all its weight behind free societies’ struggle against fast-growing authoritarian movements, it gets all tangled up in battles of wit with columnists such as Jan Fleischhauer or Harald Martenstein, both of whom pose a more manageable risk. These days, it’s not hard to see feminism – which was once movement for the liberation of all – as just a kind of training program for men.
Feminism was evidently not a criterion for the (mostly white) American voters who cast their ballots for Donald Trump.
German feminism suffered its worst defeat earlier this year: Sexual violence, once one of the main themes of feminism, became an immigration policy issue on New Year’s Eve in Cologne. According to the country’s central criminal investigation agency, the Federal Criminal Police Office, or BKA, in 2015, 72 percent of men who fought with or raped women in Germany, were German. It is of little help to the victims of those crimes if North Africa is declared a safe country of origin or not.
But it’s no longer about the victims. It’s not like women have not been seen as the spoils of war in a cultural clash before. It’s just that, in a supposedly emancipated society, something is going wrong if the debate about violence against women is dominated by men.
How could this happen? When did feminism lose its clout?
Until recently, people thought feminism had won. The word seemed to have finally lost its terror: See how easily it’s used by U.S. pop star Beyoncé and other wonder women of the entertainment industry. But in hindsight, one wonders whether that wasn’t actually a sign of feminism’s victory, but the first sign of its decline.
While some members of the movement looked better and better and became more successful, others left the debate without anyone really noticing. The questions changed. As a woman, who am I? This question became increasingly important. What started as a collective movement turned into a more individualistic movement. How defined should my biceps be, and what does that say about me? Is it progressive to let my armpit hair grow? Do we need an emoji that show women in jobs traditionally held by men, say, as pilots? Because if I wanted to, I could work as a pilot tomorrow!
We lost sight of the fact that this kind of navel-gazing is usually only possible if all the other pressing questions have been answered. We forgot just how privileged we have to be, in order to be able to reinvent ourselves every day. We also forgot the other women, the ones who were not privileged enough to be able to choose their identities. They could only choose to be themselves: No money, no options, no new “me” every day.
This blindness to class and privilege was demonstrated by the American actress, Jennifer Lawrence, recently. America was in the middle of the toughest presidential campaign in its history, and low-income men were already very, very angry. Lawrence contributed an essay to feminist director Lena Dunham’s weekly newsletter in which she complained about how much less than her male colleagues she made and how humiliating this is for women.
Lawrence is 26 years old and last year she earned $52 million dollars.
This inability to comprehend divisions of class and income is so advanced, that liberal women in the U.S. are clueless about why in God’s name any woman voted for Trump. Well, why does a woman do that? There are certainly political answers. So far, the discussion has focused on psychological reasons. Women have a tendency to be submissive, a New York psychologist was quoted as saying in the reputable Washington Post. The author of another article in that paper speculated that women voted for Trump because he reminded them of their strict fathers.
Or perhaps women voted for Trump because Hillary Clinton reminded them of their strict mothers. We do not know. But what we do know: People’s perceptions are not only determined by general psychology, but by socioeconomic status.
It’s useful to be aware of class differences when considering one’s own perspective. Then feminists could also answer the following question honestly: Is this whole gender knowledge not at least in part an attempt to distance myself from my stuffy, provincial roots? Today, being able to recite the letters LGBTQIA in the correct order – lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans-sexual, queer, intersex, asexual – is a sign of belonging to the urban middle class.
The distinction works just as well the other way around: Trump won hearts because he focused on this question.
Perhaps we should have allowed the feminists to get away with distancing themselves from reality. We should have left them in their carefree state. After all, it is a wonderful thing to be a young woman today. Some of their identity issues are interesting and nowadays, in fully developed consumer societies, identity questions are answered with external appearances.
But what was fatal for feminism was taking the wrong tone.
The main topics had long since become questions of lifestyle, but the tone was still about fighting for the right to vote and the right to higher education: animated by the desire for justice, and, by and large, on the right side of history morally. This meant that every mistake, every cheap shot, every wrong word, was interpreted as sexism and therefore as a moral fault.
Just because a few women can talk about their vaginas without shame, that doesn’t mean women at the bottom are better off.
But morality is a powerful tool. One should use it in small doses and only when representing the interests of others, not just one’s own. It should also, if possible, be about justice, especially if one is accusing someone else of injustice. Above all, one should not speak in the name of a movement, that used to transcend class and nationality, that doesn’t exist anymore. Especially if you contributed to its devolution with your own individualistic impulses.
In other words, in salary negotiations, you shouldn’t behave like a suffragette prepared to prostrate herself before the king’s racehorse in the struggle for women’s rights.
You could do that, of course. But you risk bearing the brunt of the reactionary rage that is in the process of overthrowing the world order.
German feminists spent 2013 trying to reproach German politician Rainer Brüderle in the pettiest way possible for a failed compliment. Autumn 2016 and a man for whom sexual violence is a fancy flirting technique, is elected to the White House.
The language of morality is depleted. The accusation of sexism was made so often that it is now easy to disqualify it. After so many false alarms, it’s hard to hear whether the house really is on fire. Not only has the word feminism has lost its tension, the term sexism has lost its moral force and thus the protective function it once had.
Those who never liked feminists in the first place can indulge in schadenfreude for a while longer, given the dangerous new situation worldwide. The happy medium has been thrown off its high horse. But women’s rights are more than decoration in a democracy. Equal rights for men and women means curtailing the rights of the strongest and taking on the powerful, if necessary.
How to wake Sleeping Beauty up?
There is something specific about womanhood in the protected spaces that are Western societies: Here women have power. In them, female vulnerability is a background melody: It exists, but quietly. This truth is not easy for feminism, because the plaintive, angry and marginalized role was virtually made for it. Now the movement will probably have to deal with the fact that it boxed itself in.
Maybe feminism can overcome other signs of inertia and stop relying on trickle-down effects: Just because a few women in the upper third of society today can talk about their vaginas without shame, that doesn’t mean women at the bottom are better off. The new feminist issues are the same old issues: Poverty, violence, lowly paid work, the trafficking of women. Issues that were declared resolved, perhaps a little too quickly.
In its early days, feminism was suspected of being a party pooper, of having no idea about sex. It’s possible that in later years, the movement was a little bit too focused on disproving that, and of showing off how cool it actually was. That is understandable – but the timing could not have been worse.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org