Right after the 2016 election, liberals collectively (and justifiably) lost their shit. They started clinging to any explanation of how we got here–and who was to blame–even if it didn’t really make much sense. They blamed the economic anxiety of poor whites, even though fear of racial diversity predicted a vote for Trump far more reliably than any economic factor. They bought into the hysteria about the “liberal echo chamber” to the point that the New York Times felt pressured to overcorrect and hire an illogical conservative who can’t even accept the word of 99% of scientists. But most curiously, liberals completely forgot that oppressed groups are not monoliths, and that individual members can be just as racist/sexist/anything-ist as your average old white man.
Case in point: this article from the feminist site Jezebel that ran the day after the election, which claimed that the fact that white people overwhelmingly voted for Trump proved that white supremacy is alive and well. So far, so good. But then, there was this little gem:
This is not about how much America hates women or how sexist America is, because it’s clear that white women helped facilitate Trump’s win. The majority of them, who cared more about maintaining their privilege than their freedom to choose, used minorities as sacrificial property in the process.
I call all of the bullshit on this. Did white women vote for Donald Trump in order to maintain white supremacy in this country? Yes, most likely. Should they be held accountable for their collective racism? Absolutely. Does any of this mean that the election wasn’t at all about sexism or, even more ridiculously, that America doesn’t hate women? Literally zero percent.
The fact that white women voted for Trump doesn’t change the fact that millions of people voted for a man who bragged about committing sexual assault. Even if racism was a more prominent factor in this election (which it almost certainly was), for 46% of American voters, blatant misogyny wasn’t a dealbreaker. The fact that white women voted to preserve their race privilege doesn’t do a damn thing to change that.
I already ranted in my last post that minorities were born into the same society as everyone else, and so are (almost) just as likely to have internalized prejudice. In the same vein, anti-feminist women have been fighting against their own progress just as long as feminist women have been fighting for it. From Phyllis Schlafly to Ann Coulter to Tomi Lahren, there has always been an intelligent, articulate, perfectly-coiffed woman who served as the far-right’s token mouthpiece, and used their elevated position to argue against equality for their own gender.
Never has this figure been brought to fictional life with more detail and sensitivity than Serena-Joy in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. While the buzzy Hulu adaptation often blunts Margaret Atwood’s subtly horrific dystopia to the point of ineffectiveness, its depiction of this figure–the female public face of oppression–is refreshingly nuanced. Like Schlafly, Coulter, Lahren, and so many others, Serena-Joy is an outspoken, frighteningly zealous, and utterly hypocritical true believer. She advocates for “traditional gender roles” by writing books, conducting scholarship, and making public appearances, all of which were made possible by the women’s rights movement. She quite literally leaves the home to argue that women should stay at home.
In the novel, Serena-Joy was an older woman beyond her childbearing years, but it was a canny departure to cast the younger, Aryan-looking Yvonne Strahovski in the role, if only because she is the picture of a conservative mouthpiece. She’s a young, white blonde who enjoys both the privileges of the wealthy intellectual elite and the dubious benefits of conventional feminine beauty and strict gender conformity. She tells us, “Never mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness,” which sounds feminist at first blush, but is actually a pithy version of the modern-day conservative woman’s mantra: “It’s fine if society condescendingly views women as the gentler, fairer, more nurturing sex, so long as we want to be seen that way. We’re empowered because we choose to fulfill our biological destinies in the private sphere.”
As I’ve written before, conservatives have become experts at co-opting liberal language for their own agendas, and the anti-feminist movement is no exception. Conservatives believe (or pretend to believe) that feminism means women can do anything they’d like with impunity. Criticizing Ivanka Trump, for example, is inherently anti-feminist because she’s a career woman; or, as The Federalist puts it, “Claws Out for Ivanka Trump Show Liberal Love for Women Is a Sham.” (Pro tip: liberal values don’t demand that we “love” every individual woman. That’s less like feminism and more like a lobotomy.) Tomi Lahren herself once said, “The true intention of feminism will be restored when women stop bringing each other down out of jealousy, pettiness and self righteous BS.” Because the “true intention” of feminism is apparently a get-out-of-jail-free card for all women, even the overtly racist, morally bankrupt ones.
Just like Tomi and all of the conservative women before her, Serena-Joy wraps herself in the cloak of feminism (or, to call it by the Orwellian term she uses, “domestic feminism”) and perverts the notion of “choice” to justify oppressing other women. The fifth episode, “A Woman’s Place” revealed that Serena-Joy quite literally wrote the book on Gilead’s institutionalized gender oppression, but in a brilliant stroke, framed it as the women’s choice. Women should choose to be wives and mothers at the exclusion of everything else, not because they’re second-class citizens, but because it’s a hallowed duty that only women can perform.
Meanwhile, the day after the Women’s March, a meme started making the rounds among conservatives that read:
“Our generation is becoming so busy trying to prove that women can do what men can do that women are losing their uniqueness. Women weren’t created to do everything a man can do. Women were created to do everything a man can’t do.”
This meme is especially revealing, because it echoes every prominent anti-feminist woman through the ages. Women aren’t less than, they argue, simply different. They have different natures, and different skills. Where men should be respected for running the public aspects of society, women should be revered for their angelic devotion to their families, for making it all happen behind-the-scenes. (Behind every “great” man is a “wonderful” woman, amirite?) Mothers are the most important, beloved people in society, so why do feminists hate them so much? As Phyllis Schlafly once said, “What I am defending is the real rights of women. A woman should have the right to be in the home as a wife and mother.”
As a longtime feminist, this sentiment makes my blood boil. There is, of course, no such thing as separate but equal, and as long as men and women are valued for “different” things, women will be valued less. But at the same time, if you’re not a feminist, then it’s easy to buy into the fallacious argument that feminism will actually take away “privileges” for women. During the fight for women’s suffrage, conservative women in the Northern California Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage stated that they feared “political equality will deprive us of special privileges hitherto accorded to us by law.” Once women get the vote, they argued, political concerns will take away from time with their children. They’ll have less time to do gender-normative “philanthropy” (a tradition that lives on in the form of sorority bake sales). They’ll be included in the draft. They may achieve equal status, but they will lose their “special” status.
“The life of the average woman is not so ordered as to give her first hand knowledge of those things which are the essentials of sound government,” said leading anti-suffragette Josephine Dodge, who worked to establish daycare centers for poor mothers who were forced to work outside the home. “She is worthily employed in other departments of life, and the vote will not help her fulfill her obligations therein.”
From the days of women’s suffrage up until now, the anti-feminist movement has been fueled by women who subscribe to the “princess” narrative, who don’t want to lose the opportunity to be “cherished” by their partners and, by extension, society at large. In other words, they are mostly women who are reaping the benefits of status privilege as well as all of the perceived “benefits” of traditional femininity. According to political scientist Corrine McConnaughy, author of the 2013 book The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment (via NPR), anti-suffragettes were “generally women of wealth, privilege, social status and even political power. In short, they were women who were doing, comparatively, quite well under the existing system, with incentives to hang onto a system that privileged them.” Just as Phyllis Schlafly wrote books and gave public speeches about why women should stay in the home, these women use their influence to ensure that they can maintain their “special” status, at the expense of the basic rights of less privileged women.
According to her newly revealed backstory, Serena-Joy had a nearly perfect life pre-Gilead. She had a career she genuinely loved, and was also the cherished wife of a prominent man. To put it in typical patronizing “girl-power” terms, she could “bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.” Her racial and economic privilege paved the way to a successful career in academia, while her looks allowed her to play the “princess” in her demeanor and personality. She was a “traditional wife” only in the most superficial of ways, since she had her own life and a husband who actually deferred to her on intellectual matters. She had passionate sex with her husband while they breathlessly quoted Scripture as foreplay. She had the rare privilege of being a three-dimensional person within a patriarchal structure, and so she assumed that all women have that opportunity. She assumed that traditional values can’t be the enemy, simply because she found a way to find happiness and limited power within their strictures. She set out to create a new world that would adhere to her family’s values, knowing that some women would suffer horrible, dehumanizing fates. But it wouldn’t be her–or so she thought.
If a recurring theme among Trump supporters is, “It can’t happen here,” then a recurring theme among minority and/or economically disadvantaged Trump supporters is, “It can’t happen to me.” From that wife of an undocumented immigrant who assumed that only the “bad” immigrants would be deported, to all of the Trump supporters on Trump Regrets who are shocked and appalled that he would follow through with one of his main campaign promises and take away their health insurance, they have an unassailable sense of their own safety. They divide the world into “good” people and “bad” people, and vote for the candidate that they believe will exclusively punish the “bad” people for their deviant value systems. Like Serena-Joy, women who voted for Trump were trying to create a new world that was more suitable for them and their families, knowing that “bad” women (single mothers, poor women who need abortions, women who are slutty enough to be sexually assaulted) would suffer. They voted for a man who bragged about sexual coercion, because his victims’ suffering will never directly affect them (or because women tend to lie about that kind of thing anyway). They voted for a regime that would restrict abortion rights, because most are either married or wealthy (or both) and will never need Planned Parenthood for basic healthcare. They voted for mothers to be ripped apart from their children while screaming about “family values,” because they believe their families will benefit from restricted immigration rights.
Serena-Joy serves not only as a symbol of these women, but as a direct warning to them. By the end of “A Woman’s Place,” we learn that Serena-Joy’s book created a monster that mutated beyond her control. She wanted to create a new world, but it didn’t look like this. Or, more accurately, it didn’t look like this for her. She said that women should prioritize being a wife and mother above all else, but never dreamed that she would quite literally only be a Wife. She knew that some women would be enslaved, but she never thought she wouldn’t be able to claim credit for her own ideas, or even read her own book. Although the sharp writing and performance makes it easy to empathize with her, it’s more difficult to sympathize, because this is the logical end of her own values. Through Serena-Joy, The Handmaid’s Tale is discreetly telling conservative, anti-feminist women: Be careful what you wish for.