Misogyny Unbound

Forget all the talk about Mexican walls and putting Muslims under constant surveillance. Never mind the blow-hard bloviations about trade with China and carpet-bombing Syria. When we look back on this dismal campaign season we'll notice how the real theme of 2016 was the way in which good, old-fashioned misogyny made a roaring comeback. Like a deadening bass-drum, it has functioned as the backbeat of 2016 to such an extent that we hardly hear it anymore.

One fully expected an anti-feminist agenda from the Republican Party. After all, the GOP has been in the business of attacking women's rights since the 1980s. Things turned ugly enough during that decade that Susan Faludi felt compelled to write her incisive book Backlash in 1991. Nowadays the subtitle of that book sounds quaint, in a sad kind of way: "The Undeclared War Against American Women." Twenty-five years after the book appeared, there is nothing "undeclared" about it.

Since 1991 we've had Republican lawmakers give us dissertations on the distinction between "real" rape and, well, some other kind. We watched as Sandra Fluke was called all sorts of vile names by the right-wing noise machine because she had the temerity to argue before Congress that birth control ought to be covered by health insurance plans. Heck, in 1991 Rush Limbaugh hadn't yet regularly begun to use the term "feminazi" to characterize any woman who disagreed with him.

So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at the level of anti-woman - dare I say it? - hysteria unleashed this year because Hilary Clinton is going to win the Democratic nomination for president. Still, while I fully expected most discussion of Clinton to revolve around her hair and her wardrobe, I did not anticipate a GOP debate that turned into a mine's-bigger-than-yours frat house event, nor an exchange over the relative hotness of potential GOP first ladies. Who says the GOP doesn't care about women?!

We have Donald Trump to thank for some this. He is the archetype of what we used to call a "sexist pig," and I'm really not sure why that phrase has gone out of circulation. His attitudes about women are pure Archie Bunker, only 40 years later, without the satire, and fueled by the arrogance that only inherited money gives an otherwise small man. Splashing about in the dank sewers of American political discourse, The Donald has helped domesticate the kind of casual misogyny some of us had hoped was now gone from American politics.

Don't lay misogyny 2016-style solely at Trump's feet, however. Actions, as the old cliché goes, speak louder than words, even words as loud as Trump's. And Republican politicians, especially at the state level, have been engaged in a large-scale, coordinated and largely successful assault on women's health and reproduction. Taking a short break from his Oscar-worthy turn as a voice of moderation, John Kasich made a brief stop in Ohio a few weeks ago to sign yet another bill de-funding Planned Parenthood. Hardly anyone blinked.

More dispiriting than all of this from the Gyn-O-Phobes, however, has been the way feminist issues (and yes, Hilary Clinton too) have been treated by so-called progressives. The Bernie Sanders campaign, so we keep hearing, has stimulated a lively debate over who is the "real" progressive. There is now a heads-nod-in-unison consensus that Bernie has forced Hilary to be more "progressive" in her positions.

About some issues perhaps, but not about feminist ones. The condescending implication here is that feminist issues - of the sort Hilary Clinton has worked for her entire life - are really just second-class parts of the progressive agenda. To be a committed feminist, apparently, doesn't really count as progressive. Two events from the legislative trenches to illustrate the point.

When North Carolina recently passed its ridiculous bathroom bill, outrage ensued. The LGBTQ community mobilized and the private sector, more and more on the side of the angels on these issues, began to hit the state where it counted. PayPal decided not to open a facility there, and the NBA is still threatening to move next season's All-Star game out of Charlotte.

Meanwhile, at roughly the same moment, Indiana's Republican Governor Mike Pence signed an anti-choice bill so extreme even some conservatives in the Indiana legislature voted against it. The bill could criminalize miscarriages and still-births (it isn't really clear), and it otherwise subjects pregnant women to such a litany of harassments, humiliations and possible prosecutions that it essentially put the state in charge of all pregnant women. Heard any calls for a national boycott of Indiana? Cue the crickets.

The feminist movement was created in part as a reaction to the relentless sexism progressive women in the New Left endured from their male counterparts in the 1960s. Those men were too busy being progressive to be bothered with women's issues. Frustrated with this, Mary King and Casey Hayden wrote that "all the problems of women functioning in society as equal human beings are among the most basic that people face." That was in 1965. Fifty years later, feminism still seems to take a back seat to other people's definitions of progressivism.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.