Naomi Schaefer Riley of the New York Post is excited, because she believes that feminism is finally, finally on its last legs. Her piece arguing this, titled “Scenes From the Feminist Implosion,” starts from a strange premise. Riley references a recent New Yorker article by Michelle Goldberg, in which Goldberg chronicles an academic debate between transgender people and a small cadre of self-described “radical feminists” who oppose transgenderism. Riley uses this academic debate to argue that “modern feminism is in crisis” and about to collapse. But there’s no real reason to think that Goldberg’s story, which chronicles a fight that is basically unknown to the larger public, has any impact at all on what most people think about when they think “feminism.”
Riley writes that you need “look no further” than Goldberg’s piece to see that this obscure battle between two academic feminist factions suggests an impending feminist implosion. Readers who actually bothered to read Goldberg’s piece, however, would get a very different impression. “The dispute began more than forty years ago, at the height of the second-wave feminist movement,” Goldberg writes. If the fight between transgender activists and radical feminists was going to destroy feminism, surely it would have done so long ago. If anything, this debate has only become more marginalized and academic since the ‘70s. Even Riley admits “the RadFem women are apparently in the minority” and that the transgender activists are winning.
Riley uses the existence of an ugly intra-leftist battle in academic circles to draw conclusions about what women, as a group, think about feminism. She argues that “more and more women seem to be jumping the feminist ship” and “know that this ideology has nothing to do with their lives.” She further cites a Tumblr called Women Against Feminism as evidence of the implosion, even though there’s nothing new about women being marshaled to attack feminism, usually by making a bunch of accusations that have nothing to do with how feminism looks in the real world. Phyllis Schlafly, anyone?
Intra-feminist battles, particularly in academia, have been a part of the movement from the beginning, but the public face of feminism usually has arguments that are more straightforward and less based in theory: that rape is wrong, birth control is good, equal pay is necessary. Riley may not grasp that feminism is bigger than what women’s studies majors are up to, but the truth is that mainstream, nonacademic feminism is not losing women at all. On the contrary, feminist arguments are winning people over. For instance, this research by the Council on Contemporary Families shows a gradual but generally steady climb in the general public’s approval of feminist ideas. For instance, in 1977, 66 percent of Americans felt it was better if husbands worked while women stayed home with the kids. Now that number is reversed, with 63 percent of Americans believing it’s just as good if both parents work. Riley argues that “women have suffered as a result of a culture that sees casual sex as empowering,” a purposefully vague phrasing that allows you to define “casual” however you wish. Nonetheless, we can safely say that Americans have generally chilled out significantly about the idea that women pursue sexual pleasure for its own sake. Gallup polling shows that 66 percent of Americans think premarital sex is fine, up from even 53 percent in 2001. (Of course, 95 percent of us actually have done it.)
But hey, you can probably figure this out without even looking at statistics, despite the tendency of right-wing publications to periodically declare the impending death of feminism. After all, Beyoncé has a hit song that samples Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie extolling the virtues of feminism, suggesting there is a popular conception of feminist ideals that is in no danger of imploding.