Autor: Angela McRobbie

Anti-feminism, then and now

Menace and the threat of violence have a particular address to women. Welcome to a new phase of anti-feminism.

When Silvio Berlusconi was Prime Minister of Italy we got a taste of things to come in the USA. Media mogul, showman and willing to play the buffoon but always with a sense of menace, Berlusconi was Tony Soprano in real life, a man to whom women were inevitably little more than a piece of ass. Remember that moment caught on film when Michelle Obama seemed to flinch with discomfort at having, diplomatically, to shake hands with the man?

Berlusconi objected, with his whole being, to the rise of independent women. He was a man who wanted to turn the clock back to a time when women knew their place and were subservient as mothers, grandmothers, mistresses and show girls. To any woman of my generation there was something familiar about this kind of older man, aggrieved because he could no longer pinch a woman’s behind with impunity.

When forced to interact with powerful women on the world stage such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Berlusconi became the joker, poking fun at her, playing like a schoolboy and pulling ‘funny faces’ behind her back as though she was nothing more than a nanny figure, in effect saying ‘don’t expect me to take you seriously.’

Confronted with the reality of feminist voices he adopted a classic post-feminist stance, insulting and reviling feminists as unattractive, old and disgusting while at the same time promoting unqualified and stereotypically glamorous women into positions of power across his own government. He also hinted at a new form of ‘mediated’ fascism—a love of being in the spotlight while making relentless denunciations of the left and populist claims to represent the common man, always willing to skirt close to the edges of legality.

Now, some years later, Donald Trump’s victory displays these same characteristics on a much grander scale. Trump’s unapologetic sexism seems to give carte blanche to an insurgent patriarchy which can now re-assert itself with confidence, having previously been seen as dormant—so look out Angela Merkel, or British Prime Minister Theresa May, or Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland. Low level or ‘undiplomatic’ insults reflect a particular way of exercising power, a way of putting women in their place regardless of their party affiliation.

Since November 8 2016 many feminists have asked why so many white women voted for Trump. Is this indicative of women’s own misogyny? A good deal of ire has been directed at Hillary Clinton for espousing ‘elite white feminism’ while failing to connect with working class women across the United States. But large numbers of black and other ethnic minority women voted for Clinton, not just because of the racism shown during Trump’s candidacy but also because the fantasy of being a pre-feminist woman who is somehow protected by husbands or fathers and supported by a male breadwinner never had any traction with them—the racialized nature of the labour market rarely permitted a model comparable to this fantasy to emerge, so there was no thought of going back in time to being the archetypal 1950s housewife.

In any case, the argument that Clinton was out of touch with ordinary women voters who haven’t seen their real wages rise for decades still doesn’t explain why many of them were willing to vote for a man who is prepared to limit their rights to reproduction and thus impede their very ability to participate in the workplace on any kind of equal level with men. This phenomenon is only explicable if we take anti-feminism more fully into account.

Although anti-feminism is always changing its colours, it never goes away. As the writer and activist Susan Faludi documented in her important book Backlash, an angry oppositional movement of ‘moral majority’ adherents arose almost concurrently with the rise of liberal and socialist feminism in the USA. In my own book The Aftermath of Feminism I traced a later complexification of this backlash which seemed to have a less invidious, more progressive or even pro-women dynamic.

This movement entailed a new form of championing of women, and especially young women, on condition that they abandoned feminism as old hat, anachronistic and deeply unattractive—as something associated with old and seemingly embittered women from a past era—in favour of a ‘go-for-it’ pathway of female individualisation. This was the post-feminism of ambitious and competitive ‘Alpha Girls’ who could easily achieve their goals in the new meritocracy without the help of feminism.

During the period of Tony Blair’s governments in the UK this ethos pervaded political and popular culture. Feminism was put into cold storage as women were expected to be smiling and compliant ‘Blair babes.’ I recall this time well, when even female students who were otherwise interested in questions of work, employment, gender and sexuality nevertheless repudiated feminism feeling that they could do just as well without it. It was fashionable to affect a kind of ‘phallic femininity’ by acting like a young man, with a flask of whisky in the back pocket, happy to hang out in a lap-dancing club.

Nancy Fraser and others have accused some feminists of becoming complicit with the neoliberal order by advocating this kind of achievement-driven or ‘choice-based’ notion of female empowerment, a complex way of saying that they have sold out to capitalism by accepting a place in the sun that is offered to a select few. In the process, much of liberal feminism has morphed into a more overtly market-driven and competition-based idea of female success, though even this form of ‘neoliberal feminism’ may be anathema to the Trump worldview.

At the same time, there has also been a feminist renaissance that embraces many different types and forms of feminist campaigning and organising. The Everyday Sexism project is one of the best examples of how feminism has recently shown itself to be so needed. Equally important has been the web-activism of the last decade, like the F Word in the UK or the ways in which US feminists have galvanised to demonstrate against Trump’s infamous ‘pussy-grabbing’ comments. But what has taken almost all young and older feminists aback has been the level of abuse, violence and vitriol to which this new visibility has given rise.

Anti-feminism has now taken on a much more aggressive edge. This hostility has found a home on the internet, and it has moved from there onto the streets, as the terrible death of the MP Jo Cox has shown. Ostensibly Cox was killed because she aimed to stem the tide of hostility against immigrants and asylum seekers. But it also seems no accident that she was a woman. The catalogue of women campaigners, politicians and commentators who have received death threats that resulted in the need for police protection has risen steeply in the last 12 months. Sadly Cox didn’t get to the point of requesting that protection.

Menace and the threat of violence have a particular address to women, different from men who are squaring up to fight each other. Berlusconi belonged to the realm of the Godfather films in which women were slapped about for daring to confront the man of the house. Among his many statements in recent days, Trump has said, provocatively, that there is no need to be ‘scared,’ but the new backlash takes the form of an undisguised provocation to women who are willing to take a stance. The core of rights that were eventually won in regard to contraception and abortion are now more than ever before under threat. It is women themselves who will be forced to defend the freedoms which have had to be fought for from the early days of the ‘second wave’ of feminism.

We cannot yet tell how real this threat is, but faced by this latest backlash there’s an urgent need for women across the boundaries of class and ethnicity to take heed and find new ways of defending their rights, both for their own sakes and for their daughters as well as for their husbands, fathers and sons, for they also need to be reminded of how feminism has and will continue to enhance their lives.

Beitrag zuerst veröffentlicht auf opendemocracy.

Womens‘ Working Lives in the ‘New’ University

Is there room for any women other than the "exceptional woman", let alone women with children, in the new hyper-stratified university?

A few weeks ago the prize-winning French economist Thomas Piketty was interviewed for the Financial Times for the regular ‘Lunch with the FT’ interview profiles which typically include a copy of the bill inserted into the text. However on this occasion it was not the very modest bill which aroused my attention (Piketty insisted, presumably to save time from his working day, on eating at a local café) but rather the overall account of his working days. He told the journalist that to be an academic one really needed to be buried away writing or in the library from 9am to 7pm each day. He also referred in passing to the enjoyable family life he had, as a 50-something French academic. This included a second wife along with two daughters from his first marriage, ‘the girls’. These unremarkable facts somehow got stored in my feminist brain, especially the idea of being totally alone and able to work uninterrupted for up to 10 hours a day. As an academic I could hardly disagree, this is indeed what is required to do the job properly, as a feminist I thought that this working day surely relied on high levels of unseen support to shop, cook, and attend to the various aspects of domestic administration so that bills are paid, food is bought, clothes are collected from the dry cleaners, parents nights are attended and so on. In this case one might guess that Piketty leaves his home at 8am and returns at 8pm, and has perhaps done so throughout his entire working life.

Meanwhile I was also reading, as it happened, the biography of another French academic Jacques Derrida by Benoit Peeters. Derrida died aged 74 in 2004, he was generally hailed as a friend to feminism, but as his biographer described, his wife Marguerite (a psychoanalyst) looked after everything for the duration of their long marriage which included bringing up two sons, indeed Derrida had never once entered his local bank, he did not even know where it was. His wife obviously created a beautiful home which provided hospitality to many visiting scholars from across the world many of whom seemed to stay for weeks at a time. Even when on vacation Derrida expressed the need for time alone to work for several hours each morning followed by swimming and relaxation.

Given that women still bear the brunt of responsibility for running households and organising the school schedules of children and so on, the question I was asking myself was how can women academics ever hope to achieve success in their working lives when this kind of pattern is seen as not just normal but entirely unremarkable, especially in a sector deemed by and large to be well-disposed towards working parents? Deciding not to have children, and having a partner who is also an academic or at least very familiar with these kinds of schedules would seem like the obvious answer. But to concede to this demand would be to comply with some of the most retrogressive aspects of our sexually divided society. And university faculties need to be able to demonstrate to young people, male and female, that women can be just as inspiring teachers and researchers, and be able to live as enjoyable a domestic life as their male counterparts. If we do not actively endorse this principle then we may as well go back to how it was when I first went to university myself in 1969, with the assumption that the figure of the professor is male. In short female academics ought to be able to demonstrate to enthusiastic young women that it is possible to succeed and to have children. Otherwise feminism has failed.

Fifteen years ago, on the occasion of Stuart Hall’s retirement from the Open University I was invited to give a short talk as part of a day conference to mark the event. Where Stuart had been charting the move from Thatcherism to Blairism as part of a forming of a new right politics, what we now call neoliberalism, and where he saw the signs of this across the public sector including higher education under the guise of the ‘new managerialism’ I was at the time pre-occupied with how the new audit culture, and with what was then called the Research Assessment Exercise (now REF) impacted on young women in the academy who were trying to combine a career with motherhood. The RAE/REF introduced a rankings system whereby departments are measured and funds distributed according to the quality of the publications produced over a period of time by faculty. Alongside this there are other criteria that have to be met, including getting the research into the public realm and creating a rich research ‘environment’. In my talk I outlined the timelines for a ‘normal’ academic career through to post-doctoral research awards (perhaps aged 27) and then perhaps to a series of temporary posts (around the age of 28-33) leading, if all goes well and books and publications appear on time and grant applications are completed and the awards flow in, to a full time job perhaps aged 35. As it happens this is exactly the age I myself first was offered a full time job after 5 years of temporary jobs. Indeed earlier on aged 30 I had been lucky enough to get a full time post but it meant commuting weekly, a round trip of 200 miles, and I had a young child and a family life back home in Birmingham, so after a year I had to resign and return, with much anxiety, to the rounds of temporary posts until I was eventually offered another job nearer to home. It was precisely this kind of dilemma I remember discussing at the OU event, it may seem banal but the ideal career track in the academy especially one which carried all the laurels of prizes, awards, fellowships and a high volume of grants seemed to have been tailored around the image of the brilliant young man untrammelled by any of the fine details of domestic life. And if the young woman was to follow this pathway and plan the right time to have a child, then when would this right time be? The first few years of full time work (34-38) are marked by all kinds of expectations, and so it may be that just before getting to 40 having children could be embarked upon.

In the book Without Guarantees: In Honour of Stuart Hall I unpicked these fine details of RAE culture with an additional question uppermost in my mind. It was not so much the fairly minimum exclusion clauses for maternity or career interruptions, permitted by the Research Assessment Exercise, more the whole new vocabulary which had not just descended upon the world of the universities so much so that it had become literally part of everyday life, entering all of our professional conversations and our day to day vocabularies. It felt as though we had become to define ourselves in these very terms. ‘Am I a 3 or a 4?’ Since then and in the last decade other academics have dissected this dispositif of ‘excellence’ . They have described how this means not just fulfilling endless benchmarks against a grid of criteria which include leadership and achievement in teaching, administration and management (ie setting up new degrees) and in research, scholarship and publication, but also keeping a strict diary of everything that happens, all events attended, all papers given, all targets met with students, all the citations, radio slots etc, these too should be noted to be duly referred to in all annual performance reviews which in turn are connected to promotions and pay increments. The self-promotional rhetoric which now wraps its way round academic self-description has also become what Wendy Brown, in her recent book Undoing the Demos describes as a normative aspect of this new political rationality. Indeed it is a mark of self-responsibilisation to assume this boasting kind of stance. It is not just the number of books written but the ranking of the journal or publisher, it is not just the grants awarded but the prestige of the funding body, and so on. There is a requirement to be exceptional, and I would argue that only a truly exceptional young woman, one who was also lucky in her life-planning with a partner could have children and could survive this new style of university governmentality without falling apart.

The point of these various instruments which shape the working environment is to introduce higher levels of competition in the expectation that this triggers economic growth, innovation and a more entrepreneurial outlook. But what they also do is pathologise failure, if one is not excellent then one can only be at best mediocre and at worst bad at ones job. Again for young women these benchmarking strategies are all the more pernicious since they add yet more layers to the already many varieties of self-admonishment which target female insecurities, if only to be able to offer implausible ‘solutions’ available through the consumer culture. Through their teenage years girls are constantly encouraged to be ‘perfect’ and this gives rise to the pernicious culture of self-beratement.

Apart from the more obvious feminist strategies which would involve trying to find collaborative ways of countering the excellence regime in the university, there are perhaps other ways of resisting these forces. For over a decade for example, while my daughter was at school, I myself stayed in a near to the bottom of the ranks former polytechnic, where I could pace myself, do research on my own terms and enjoy the teaching. As it happened this time in a non-elite ‘new university’ worked out well, and I never regretted being there. Alternately one could insist that the right to go-slow for particular periods of the working life need not mean the defeatism of the ‘mommy track’. Indeed if Richard Sennett is right when he claims that the modern work regime has a corrosive effect on the individual, then for women embracing the idea of ordinariness may be good for the soul, while letting go of the drive to succeed, or to get the perfect ‘balance’ in life and work, could mean inventing new ways of thinking about work which replaces the logic of the talent led economy with the more commonplace idea of a ‘good job well done’. Often I have thought surely it should be enough to spend a morning teaching, an afternoon doing supervisions and some marking of essays and then go home and switch off and enjoy the children or indeed grandchildren, and help with home-work rather than feeling the need to return late night to the computer and to the completion of yet another peer–reviewed journal article.

This article originally was published at openDemocracy’s 50.50 on August 10th 2015.