The overwhelming majority of American women endorse gender equality, but don’t necessarily call themselves ‘feminists’. What drives this antipathy? What’s so objectionable about public safety and equal pay?
Neoclassical economists would emphasise financial interests. Stay-at-home mothers may see feminists as threatening their husband’s earnings. But this is too materialist. It fails to explain divergent perceptions of sexist discrimination.
To understand this paradox, I went to Alabama. Barbecues begin with prayer, gender pay gaps loom large (33%), and Trump attracts huge crowds. My first port of call was a predominantly white town with a median household income of $55,000, smart SUVs, soaring population, and highly-rated schools. For a more diverse perspective, I moved to Montgomery. In total, I interviewed 53 people from across the socio-economic and political spectrum.
My neighbours have been wonderfully kind, caring and welcoming. We chatted in their homes, roadside diners, volunteer groups, community college and of course Church.
The conservative women I interviewed were typically articulate, assertive and great admirers of Katie Britt (the new Republican senator). Many struggled with sexism, however. A senior bureaucrat has persevered to disprove her presumed incompetence. Meanwhile, a barmaid got frustrated when men didn’t listen to her knowledge of liquor. One cashier was promoted to manager, but then disrespected by co-workers. Yet despite discrimination, they still described feminists as wanting to ‘cut men down’.
Why do so many American women perceive feminists as ‘toxic’?
I suggest that feminists and conservatives have antithetical views on almost everything. Socially segregated, cross-over is infrequent. This begets misperceptions and animosity. When right-wing media lambasts feminists, loyal viewers nod along. As a result, feminist analyses of sexual harassment fail to gain traction.
1) Feminists and Conservatives endorse irreconcilable ideologies
For starters, we need to understand conservatives’s broader political priorities: national security, immigration and the economy. They champion patriotism, hard work, individual responsibility, strict parenting, respect for authority, group loyalty, and moral purity. Our world is dangerous, they want a border wall.
These attitudes are strongly correlated with racism. The stronger their white identity, the more Americans champions a strong leader, patriotic athletes, confederate memorials, and deportation of illegal immigrants. ‘Progressive Activists’ are at the other extreme. They are often ashamed to be American, actively promote public welfare, and endorse feminism.
The following data comes from “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarised Landscape” (a nationally representative public opinion survey).
When it comes to gender, Devoted Conservatives and Progressive Activists are polar opposites. While the former emphasise individual responsibility and hard work, Progressives see structural obstacles.
Social segregation perpetuates misperceptions and animosity
Devoted Conservatives and Progressive Activists are not only ideologically polarised but also socially segregated. Highly-educated Democrats have very few Republican friends. In Alabama’s small towns, everyone sings from the same hymn sheet. Meetings at the Rotary Club begin with prayer and the pledge of allegiance. In Baptist Bible Study, everyone is aghast by institutional reforms to accommodate queerness. Some are privately critical, but usually self-censor or move to liberal cities.
Conservatives gravitate towards conservative media, in which opposing viewpoints are depicted as hateful caricatures:
“Feminists believe marriage and motherhood are oppressive”, declares an opinion writer for Fox News. “Thus, the abolition of both is the primary goal. That’s why they are compulsively driven to make abortion and day care universally available to all women—and taxpayer funded”.
Polarised media fuels misperceptions and animosity. Those who have recently posted political content under-estimate common ground. Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh’s listeners have very distorted views of what progressives really think.
Both extremes are politically vocal, they shout the loudest. Moderates (the numerical majority) are more disengaged and seldom heard. As a result, most Americans tend to overestimate ideological polarisation.
The greater an American’s political partisanship, the more they misjudge and despise. Both Democrats and Republicans see their opponents as threats. 92% of Devoted Conservatives believe that feminists just attack men. Republicans tend to presume that Democrats are unconcerned about protecting men from false accusations. This is incorrect.
Since conservatives cluster together, their views reverberate in echo chambers. Friends and favoured media all regard feminists as man-hating. In ideological ecosystems of like-minded others, people rarely need to justify their slurs. Pejorative stereotypes are seldom challenged with demands for substantiation.
Although conservative women are grappling with many feminist concerns (like public safety, male violence and disrespect at work), they rarely talk to each other. Polarisation, social segregation and distorted media consumption inhibit conversations about structural inequalities. 90% of Devoted Conservatives deny sexism, as shown below.
77% of Devoted Conservative men say that women are actually more protected than men. Only 22% of Conservative women believe that men are more protected than women.
Conservative women cherish the flag and the cross. Feminists typically reject both; their analyses of secondary issues (like workplace discrimination) thus fail to resonate. But these attitudinal differences do not explain visceral hatred. Anti-feminism must be understood as part of a larger ecosystem of ideological polarisation, social segregation, and misperceptions. Media organisations and political machines that benefit from outrage and tribal conflict add fuel to this fire.
Acknowledgements: I am extremely grateful to the men and women of Alabama who welcomed me to their homes, showed tremendous care, and helped improve my understanding.