The Empire Strikes Back

We thought women would break new ground in 2016. We were wrong.

Clinton Supporters in London, England
American Democratic Party supporters react to the news that Donald Trump has won the state of Florida at the Democrats Abroad election night party in London on Nov. 9.

Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Like many journalists who write about the intersections of gender and politics, I was asked to draft an essay in advance of election night about the meaning of Hillary Clinton’s expected victory. I felt a superstitious unease—despite the pollsters’ assurances, I had always been terrified about the outcome—but I banged something out. The piece, excruciating to read now, discussed the significance of Clinton running on an explicitly feminist platform and winning thanks to women’s votes. I wrote about her promise to assemble a half-female Cabinet. “Her victory is a sign that the gender hierarchy that has always been fundamental to our society—that has always been fundamental to most societies—is starting to collapse,” I wrote just before Nov. 8. “In America, men no longer rule.”

Obviously, I was very wrong. Instead of the year that the highest glass ceiling shattered, 2016 might go down as the year the feminist bubble burst. In America, men have always ruled, and right now I wonder if they always will.

For the last couple of years, feminism has been both ubiquitous and improbably glamorous, its pop culture currency symbolized by Beyoncé silhouetted before a giant glowing FEMINIST sign at the 2014 Video Music Awards. On television, women went from ornaments to protagonists, starring in a slew of raunchy comedies in which men were often afterthoughts. Feminist polemics became a staple of fashion magazines. Female college students demanded standards of sexual consent that were often unfathomable to their elders. In my little corner of Brooklyn, ambient feminism appeared to influence the way fashionable young women dressed. They wore oversized shirtdresses or loose wide-legged pants and chunky shoes, clothes for doing things rather than displaying oneself. Last year, the New York Times ran a trend piece about hip young women rejecting thongs in favor of comfortable underwear. Female masochism, it seemed, was falling out of style.

Young women rebelled against the small indignities that make even the most privileged female lives taxing. They defined condescending lectures from poorly informed men as mansplaining. They named the male entitlement to public space that leaves women on trains and airplanes hunched into corners: manspreading. Sometimes the new feminism flirted with triviality and absurdity, but even its silliest manifestations were evidence of a revolution of rising expectations. It was as if the war for parity was nearly won, and what was left was a mopping-up operation.

I never wore one of those T-shirts proclaiming “The Future is Female,” but I came close to believing it. Certainly, I’ve always known that many women don’t identify as feminists, and don’t see their interests as being bound up with those of womankind. But in 2016, the polls foretold a history-making gender gap. Donald Trump’s bombastic campaign seemed like the terminal stage of aggrieved American machismo rather than simply the terminal stage of America.

In the days before election, I kept returning to a 4,000-word essay by Christopher Caldwell that the Weekly Standard ran 20 years ago. Titled “The Feminization of America,” it was meant to be apocalyptic, but it gave me a giddy hope. “Women are now thought to have more in common with other women than they do with men of similar ethnicity, religion, or income level, their interests coinciding more with those of other women than with those of their own fathers and brothers and husbands and sons,” Caldwell wrote with palpable alarm. “Women now constitute a class – a dominant class.” It wasn’t true in 1996, but in 2016 the world that Caldwell warned of was just visible on the horizon. It seemed significant that his piece both began and ended by griping about Hillary Clinton.

For 25 years, after all, Clinton was reviled as a synecdoche for unseemly female ambition. That’s part of what made her candidacy so fraught. If she’d become president, it would have been in the teeth of widespread male opposition; even the models that showed her winning had her losing the majority of men. She proposed policies that would have increased women’s power and autonomy at every level of society: equal pay, paid family leave, subsidized child care, abortion rights. For all her manifold faults, her election would have both signified progress toward gender equality and made more such progress possible. Before Nov. 8, it looked as if the arc of history was bending toward women.

Trump’s victory has obliterated this narrative. In many ways it was a fluke; had a few thousand votes in a few Rust Belt states gone another way, we’d be talking about Clinton’s popular vote landslide and the decisive defeat of Trumpian reaction. However freakishly contingent his triumph, it forecloses the future feminists imagined at least for a long while. We’re going be blown backward so far that this irredeemably shitty year may someday look like a lost feminist golden age. The very idea that women are equal citizens, that barriers to their full human flourishing should be identified and removed, is now up for grabs. A pastor warming up the crowd at a post-election Trump rally in Louisiana promised that with Trump in office, the White House would be a place “where men know who men are, women know who women are.” The massive power of the American state is about to be marshaled to put women in their place.

We might well lose Roe v. Wade in the next four years. Trump has said the issue would then go back to the states, but there’s no reason to think that Republicans would settle for anything less than a national ban. There is a particular insult at the thought of a sybarite like Trump, who still won’t say whether he’s ever paid for an abortion himself, imposing a regime of forced birth on American women. When and if Trump strips us of bodily autonomy, there won’t be any illusions that he’s doing it to protect life or the family or sexual morality. It will be because he has power, and women’s hopes and plans for their own lives don’t matter to him at all.

Controlling the course of our own lives is going to get harder in many different ways. We can say goodbye to Department of Education pressure on colleges to address campus rape. We can expect the end of federal aid for Planned Parenthood and of federal government action to promote equal pay and fight sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination. The Women’s Bureau, the one department in the federal government tasked with responding to the needs of women in the workforce, will now fall under the aegis of former Carl’s Jr. honcho Andrew Puzder, whose company is known for commercials featuring near-naked women in orgasmic communion with sandwiches. “I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis,” he said. “I think it’s very American.” Like top Trump adviser Steve Bannon, Puzder has also been accused of assaulting his now-ex wife.

In Achieving Our Country, a 1998 book much discussed since Trump’s election, Richard Rorty discussed how culture would change after the ascension of an American strongman. “Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion,” he wrote, adding, “All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back.” This will likely prove prescient. Under an administration hostile to women’s equality and contemptuous of modern political norms, the way we live will slowly start to change.

With colleges no longer worried about federal action on campus rape, enforcement will loosen up, and college men will realize they can emulate the president of the United States with impunity. The same will happen in many workplaces. Trump will be able to appoint a new chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency where a woman would file a complaint if she’s fired for getting pregnant, or if her boss, say, grabs her by the pussy. As avenues of redress for sexual discrimination and harassment close off, men who’ve been stewing about political correctness will discover a pleasing new latitude in their relations with women. Women who’ve fallen out of the habit of survival flirting will relearn it.

It remains to be seen how the culture at large reacts to these changes. My nightmare is a particularly vicious reprise of the phenomenon Susan Faludi described in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, which looked at the multifaceted assault on feminism during the Reagan years. Faludi analyzed how, as women lost ground politically in the 1980s, feminism itself was treated as the cause of their growing distress. A great many indicators of female advancement plunged during Reagan’s reign. Wrote Faludi: “Government and private surveys are showing that women’s already vast representation in the lowliest occupations is rising, their tiny presence in higher-paying trade and craft jobs stalled or backsliding, their minuscule representation in upper management posts stagnant or falling, and their pay dropping in the very occupations where they have made the most ‘progress.’ ”

Meanwhile, women were told over and over again, and sometimes came to believe, that they were unhappy because they’d put too much stock in equality. “Backlash-era conventional wisdom blames the women’s movement for American women’s ‘exhaustion,’ ” Faludi wrote. “The feminists have pushed forward too fast, backlash pundits say; they have brought too much change too soon and have worn women out.”*

If a new backlash comes, some women will embrace it. The uphill struggle for freedom and equality can be enervating. Many women find comfort and consolation in being provided for by a man—or in the dream of being provided for by a man—and are sick of feminists making them feel guilty. Others know how to negotiate the male power structure without challenging it, like Ivanka Trump. In a time of backlash, women will redouble their efforts to accommodate men, and the culture will celebrate their choice in making that accommodation. The backlash, wrote Faludi, “manipulates a system of rewards and punishments, elevating women who follow its rules, isolating those who don’t.”

People who are committed to gender equality will try to salvage what they can of the last 40 years of progress. They’ll try to maintain their morale, but living in total opposition to the zeitgeist is hard. In the defining drama of our time, a woman who was the most qualified person ever to run for president lost to a man who was the least. That can’t help but reverberate through the culture, changing our sense of what is possible for women. My abiding fear is that the idea of women running the world will start to seem like an innocent, dated dream, akin to communes, lesbian separatism, and spelling “women” as “womyn.” Someday I’ll tell my daughter about the time we all thought the future was female. I hope she doesn’t laugh at our naïveté.

*Correction, Dec. 27, 2016: This article originally misquoted a line in Susan Faludi’s Backlash. She wrote that backlash pundits say feminists “have brought too much change too soon.” (Return.)

Read more of Double X’s 2016 year-in-review coverage.