Opinion: The US Supreme Court’s decision to overthrow Roe v Wade has, not surprisingly, already been widely condemned not only within the US but around the world. Many have expressed shock and surprise at the passing of this legislative initiative. The writing, however, has been on the wall a long time. Fifty years, in fact.
In the 1970s feminists fought hard battles as they struggled to have women recognised as human subjects with equal rights to men.
They were not the first to express such a radical aim. Think back to the suffragists of the 19th century, and to earlier writers such as Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively who advocated for women to receive equal education to men. The latter also argued that inequality was a social creation based on prejudice and sought “an image of marriage modeled on the lines of higher friendship and based on equality, choice, complementarity, mutual esteem, and concern for character”.
She was dismissed as “a hyena in petticoats”, notions of equality and mutual esteem rejected in favour of maintaining division and the existing hierarchies of power. One can only imagine Wollstonecraft’s despair had she known that 200 years later women were still being advised that “a good wife always knows her place” (The Good Wife’s Guide, 1955), while one of the best-selling books of the 1970s included such marriage-enhancing advice as having the happy housewife greet her husband at the door wrapped only in clingwrap (The Total Woman, 1973).
The more growing numbers of women rejected their submissive position, the more opposition and misinterpretation they faced. Feminists were vilified as angry harridans who needed putting back in their rightful place.
While terminology referring to ‘sex wars’ is polarising and unacceptably militaristic, the phrase usefully reflects the intensity of the battles fought and hints at high casualty numbers. At this point in the 21st century, hailed by many as a post-feminist era dominated by #MeToo empowerment, it is easy to be duped by individual gains into believing overall victory has been won. The enemy, however, is still very much at large.
Polarising rhetoric frequently labels feminists as man-haters motivated by vengeful desires to reverse patriarchy’s most fundamental hierarchy and position women on top. This depiction is itself a misogynistic construction aimed at maintaining the current gender hierarchy. It reflects the fear abusers hold that one day those they have victimised will rise up against them and relish subjecting them to the same kinds of terror.
Biblical encouragement justifying the taking of an eye for an eye reinforces this fear, making it difficult to envisage alternative scenarios. Against this backdrop it is no surprise feminist gains provoke vitriolic responses in those who fear blindness is imminent.
The past 50 years, and particularly the past five, have been terrifying for the men who subscribe to such rhetoric. For many, the writing was on the wall back in 1985 when Aotearoa New Zealand was one of the first countries to pass legislation removing a husband’s immunity to rape charges by ‘his’ wife. An old ‘joke’ lamenting who can a man rape if he can’t rape his wife said it all. Men were used to having control over women’s bodies – and their voices.
As increasing numbers of women have sought to break the silence around men’s violence, efforts to suppress them have ramped up. The thousands of women living within coercive and violent relationships know this as a daily reality. Resisting male power is dangerous, at times fatal. Despite half a century of legal reforms and successes, safety for women remains more an aspirational goal than a guaranteed reality.
Today the backlash against feminism has been fortified by the opportunities the internet and social media provide for global networks of misogyny to form and flourish. Technology cannot be viewed as a neutral and apolitical medium when it exists within a social context still defined by gender inequality. It is no accident that historically the more women fought to be treated as subjects possessing human rights, the more their voices were silenced and their bodies objectified.
We are confronted this century with the curious co-existence of significant feminist gains occurring on one hand while on the other girls’ and women’s bodies are more terrifyingly objectified and sexualised than ever. How can gender equality advance when the juggernaut of online pornography constantly tells men a woman exists as an object on whom he can enact whatever mix of fantasy, misogyny, and aggression he chooses?
Notions of ownership and entitlement today remain well-entrenched within the mindsets of many, reinforcing women’s object-status and position as ‘other’. Patriarchy is fuelled by the maintenance of division and survives through the reproduction of hierarchies of power. At this moment in our gender history it is more imperative than ever to resist narratives informed by patriarchal mindsets. For it is this mindset that is the ‘enemy’ to us all, the harms it has done to men and masculinity evident in the harms then perpetrated on women.
The US Supreme Court has given us the latest example of how patriarchy is attempting to reassert itself in the aftermath of #MeToo. My hope is that this will, in the course of time, be seen as one of its death rattles.