Before the smoke had cleared after the terrorist attacks of September 11, Americans were already asking, “Why do they hate us?” The question felt useless, even whiny. It was also unanswerable, since “our” specific attackers were dead. Yet it persisted. It persisted because of a sense that even with those particular haters gone, the hate itself was lethal, and whoever “they” had been, there was plenty more in store for “us.” Some people speculated guiltily, from the left, about how we might have prompted the hatred with our imperialism. Many more speculated indignantly, buoyed by belligerent patriotism. The question didn’t get us anywhere. In fact, it cemented our national paranoia and sense of victimhood, always a reactionary consciousness. Nevertheless, since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, feminists have been asking, on behalf of women, the same thing about men: Why do “they” hate “us”?
In Kate Manne’s 2018 study of misogyny, Down Girl, the philosopher identifies pervasive hatred of women as a central problem facing society. Manne extensively discusses Elliot Rodger, the angry young incel who, in 2014, killed six people and injured 14 others in a shooting near Santa Barbara, an act that he explained as the result of his rage at having been sexually rejected throughout his life. Manne’s book ends with Hillary Clinton’s defeat and Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, events Manne insists were also fueled by hatred of women. This view has suffused the liberal feminist mainstream. Right after Trump’s election, Salon published an essay by Amanda Marcotte calling Clinton’s loss a “Misogyny Apocalypse,” blaming white men “consumed with resentment at being expected to treat women and racial minorities as equals.” When #MeToo fervor began a year later, Rebecca Solnit voiced assumptions common to her milieu. Of Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Bill O’Reilly, even mass killers, she wrote, they “are the norms, not the aberrations. This is a society still permeated and shaped and limited by misogyny, among other afflictions.” Jill Filipovic has blamed misogyny not only for Trump’s presidency but also for phenomena as disparate as anti-abortion politics and the far left’s preference for Bernie Sanders over Elizabeth Warren.
No doubt some men do hate women. Yet it’s odd to read the 2016 election as a victory for misogyny. Before Hillary Clinton was defeated in the general election, she first won the nomination of her party, beating a vigorous opponent who had passionate supporters at the grass roots. Though she was favored by the party establishment, sometimes unfairly, she also won the nomination the way a person is supposed to, by getting more votes in more primaries. In the general election, she won the popular vote by almost three million. There couldn’t be more conclusive proof that more Americans wanted her to be president than wanted Donald Trump.
The outcome of the election was less a display of woman-hating than a symptom of a serious structural problem. The electoral college, an institution intended to preserve slave owners’ power and property, still upholds white supremacy by disproportionately representing sparsely populated rural white states such as Wyoming and Idaho, places where conservatism reigns and solidarity among citizens is perhaps undermined by living too far from their neighbors. Hatred of Hillary Clinton could indeed have an ugly, misogynist tinge, as when MAGA hat wearers chanted “Lock her up” at Trump rallies. But it’s dubious to insist that misogyny was the decisive factor in shaping voting patterns when the candidate who won the popular vote—a far better measure of how people feel than the number of electors—was a woman.
Nonetheless, today’s liberal feminists remain passionately invested in the idea of misogyny’s pervasiveness, a conviction that often leads them to fixate with special laser force on progressive men. If misogyny is everywhere, it is not enough to see it in Roy Moore, an extremist Christian fundamentalist who had to be banned from the local mall for creeping on teenage girls. One must zero in, with equal fervor, on the anonymous Bernie bro on the internet who disliked Hillary Clinton a bit too much, and the sexual proclivities of any liberal man deemed to have institutional power, whether in Hollywood, Congress, or the art world.
Indeed, an emphasis on misogyny lends itself to a fixation on men and all the weird, gross things they do, from jacking off into plants to raping, choking, and killing women. It contributes to a view of sexuality that is unrelentingly dark and violent, narrowly heterosexual, and mostly hopeless. And it gives us an unmistakable thrill. We take satisfaction in denouncing the hatred of women. Who wouldn’t? Women should obviously be celebrated, not despised. Misogyny is an easy thing to condemn. Our outrage, in current media industry jargon, “does well” on the internet, meaning that when we are consumed by strong feelings, we do a lot of posting, clicking, and sharing.
Manne’s view of misogyny is better theorized than most. She sees it not as a set of bad attitudes or moral failings but as the enforcement mechanism for patriarchy, the system that gives men power over women. Men hate women who violate patriarchy’s rules: women who seek power too baldly, women who are too slutty, women who don’t act feminine enough. The observation is plainly true, but where does such thinking take us? Can we legislate the feelings men hold in their minds or hearts? How does one fight an emotion?
The feminists of the second wave were less preoccupied with misogyny. Though they wrote about rape and violence, they were not so much interested in sex pests and sickos as in how humans might experience life—including sex—without patriarchy or capitalism. Where contemporary feminists are almost morbidly obsessed with men and their foibles, the second wave was compelled by women and their potential. “The cunt,” Germaine Greer wrote in 1970 in The Female Eunuch, a book the publisher marketed as “the ultimate word on sexual freedom,” “must come into its own.”
Given this emphasis, it’s peculiar that second-wave feminists have in recent decades been tagged as puritanical, anti-sex penis-haters, a myth that could only be sustained by widespread failure to read their books. The second-wave feminists were exuberantly lusty, and desire was central to their often utopian thinking. Indeed, feminist intellectuals of the 1970s ardently believed that after the feminist revolution, everyone would have better sex. Shulamith Firestone, author of the 1970 classic The Dialectic of Sex, agreed with Freud on at least one thing: the centrality of sexuality to our society’s problems. But where Freud saw no solution to human unhappiness in this arena, Firestone envisioned the end of patriarchy. In consciousness-raising sessions, feminists questioned the male supremacy influencing how most humans copulated. Out of such sessions came books like Anne Koedt’s Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm, published the same year as Firestone’s treatise. Greer made fun of Koedt (“One wonders just whom Miss Koedt has gone to bed with”), but she was just as eager as her comrades to reimagine this sphere of life. Sexuality, Greer wrote, “must be rescued from the traffic between powerful and powerless, masterful and mastered … to become a form of communication between potent, gentle, tender people.”
The second-wavers acknowledged that much of what their contemporary society found sexy or romantic depended on the subjugation of women. But they placed great hope in the erotic future. In 1949, the foundational intellectual of the movement, Simone de Beauvoir (to whom Firestone dedicated her Dialectic), wrote:
Assuredly there are certain forms of the sexual adventure which will be lost in the world of tomorrow. But that does not mean that love, happiness, poetry, dream will be banished from it…. New relations of flesh and sentiment of which we have no conception will arise between the sexes; already, indeed, there have appeared between men and women friendships, rivalries, complicities, comradeships—chaste or sensual—which past centuries could not have conceived….
It is nonsense to assert that revelry, vice, ecstasy, passion, would become impossible if man and woman were equal in concrete matters; the contradictions that put the flesh in opposition to the spirit, the instant to time, the swoon of immanence to the challenge of transcendence, the absolute of pleasure to the nothingness of forgetting, will never be resolved…. On the contrary, when we abolish the slavery of half of humanity … the human couple will find its true form.
Second-wave feminism was powered by desire, erotic but also something more broadly libidinal: The drive, as Greer wrote, to “have something to desire, something to make, something to achieve and at last something genuine to give.” All these lusts powered a collective longing for—and vision of—a better society. Feminist intellectuals explained their views in radical terms. “Women’s liberation,” Greer wrote, “if it abolishes the patriarchal family, will abolish a necessary substructure of the authoritarian state, and once that withers away Marx will have come true willy-nilly, so let’s get on with it…. It goes much further than equal pay for equal work, for it ought to revolutionize the conditions of work completely.”
Firestone’s utopian vision was wonderfully, even absurdly, detailed. She pictured a world free of both capitalist wage labor and patriarchy, and the abolition of the nuclear family. Pregnancy would not be the only way to reproduce; indeed, it would be rendered obsolete by technology (though she imagined that some people might still want to try it out, as a kind of retro kick). Everyone’s material needs would be met. Everyone would live in small communes, with contracts renewable every decade or so. Each commune would include a mix of children and adults. Children could petition to leave if they didn’t like the grown-ups to whom they’d been assigned. All adults—men and women alike—would care for the children. Because everyone would have young people in their lives, no one would have to join a couple or become pregnant in order to raise kids. Everyone could have sex with anyone, if they liked—because, she wrote, there would “no longer be any reason not to.”
Much of this vision remains appealing, but some of Firestone’s ideas are so wrong by current standards that one cringes to imagine the swift cancellation they would incur today. Firestone saw children as an oppressed class and believed in their radical equality. In her vision of the post-patriarchal society, kids would be allowed to have sex, too, including with adults (even their biological parents) if they so chose. For reasons of physical convenience, she imagined, most people would choose lovers of their own size.
Firestone believed that in such a society, sex would become part of all close relationships. Taboos on homosexuality would disappear. Sex would not be limited to genital fun, nor to monogamous pairs. In fact, contrary to de Beauvoir’s suggestion that the couple would come into its own once we were free of capitalism and patriarchy, Firestone thought we would finally evolve beyond it. “The specifics need not concern us here,” she wrote. “We need only set up the preconditions for a free sexuality: whatever forms it took would be assuredly an improvement on what we have now, ‘natural’ in the truest sense…. Love and sexuality would be reintegrated, flowing unimpeded.”
Writing about this intoxicating moment later, in 1999, Greer recalled that she and many of her cohort had been embarrassed by the contemptuous phrase “women’s lib,” short for “women’s liberation.” Yet she realized that it had signified something essential:
When the name “Libbers” was dropped for “Feminists” we were all relieved. What none of us noticed was that the ideal of liberation was fading out with the word. We were settling for equality.… Women’s liberation did not see the female’s potential in terms of the male’s actual; the visionary feminists of the late sixties and early seventies knew that women could never find freedom by agreeing to live the lives of unfree men…. Liberationists sought the world over for clues to what women’s lives could be like if they were free to define their own values, order their own priorities and decide their own fates.
Freud argued that in children, sexual curiosity is linked to intellectual curiosity. This is almost certainly true of adults as well—and perhaps of whole cultures. Revisiting such feminist classics, it’s hard to deny that today we are in a comparatively low-inquiry moment. Could a creative weirdo like Shulamith Firestone—or such systemic, visionary thinking, free of piety and cant—emerge from our era? In addition to writing books, second-wave activists once occupied a magazine editor’s office, 100 strong, for eleven hours, physically intimidating him, smoking his cigars, and demanding his resignation. Contemporary feminists, by contrast, are more likely to take offense than to give offense. Where current feminism focuses on ridding the workplace of sexual expression, Firestone dreamed of a world where we wouldn’t work at all and would have sex with whomever we pleased. Intellectually and libidinally, it feels like we are in a dry spell.
The lens of misogyny is part of our problem. It forecloses big dreams of political change. Even its leading theorists find little to be done about it. In her conclusion, Manne throws her hands up. “What could possibly change any of this?” she asks with a despairing shrug. “I give up. I wish I could offer a more hopeful message.”
No wonder contemporary feminism is more likely to reference Beyoncé than Freud or Marx. We are all about giving and receiving affirmation, from our “You Go Girl” internet style to the titles of our self-help books (Girl, Stop Apologizing; You Are a F*cking Awesome Mom; You Are a Badass; You Are a Mogul). If our problems are unsolvable and sex mostly a series of atrocities, all we’ve got is self-care: They hate us. So we have to love ourselves.
Yet the intractability of misogyny is precisely its appeal. This absence of solutions feels apolitical, but it is not. The mainstream feminist movement is rooted in the conviction that, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “there is no alternative” to American-style capitalism. A parallel exists in the liberal tendency to fixate on racism as a pervasive force in our common life, an impulse the left political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. has criticized. Racial and economic inequality, Reed argues, are material injustices that can be struggled over and sometimes ameliorated, while racism in itself has no solution. Racism and misogyny are easy to condemn. For those who oppose it, bigotry is a renewable resource of righteousness.
Mainstream feminism proposes misogyny as the root cause of all its major concerns: sexual harassment, violence against women, the presidency of Donald Trump. But pervasive hatred of women hardly explains everything, and in any case may not even be the most serious problem we face. Consider low wages; discrimination based on race, sex, or pregnancy; lack of childcare and reproductive health care—might these material pressures not affect most women’s lives more than misogyny does? We can’t end patriarchy and capitalism in a day, but fighting the forces that keep them in place nearly always makes women’s lives better. Indeed, the more economic security we have, the easier it is to get away from the bad boyfriends and bad bosses whose misogyny is most likely to hurt us. And with more social solidarity and support available for everyone, society would probably produce fewer dangerous sad sacks like Elliot Rodger. No doubt they wouldn’t completely disappear. But neoliberal America, it’s worth noting, produces a lot more Isla Vista–style massacres than most other rich countries do.
Nevertheless, those fretting the most about misogyny view efforts at large-scale social transformation with hostility. They were deeply attached to a politician who urged her husband, President Bill Clinton, to enact policies throwing poor women off welfare. As secretary of state, Hillary engaged in reckless right-wing regime change in Honduras, events that led to continuing violence in that country, including an ongoing epidemic of femicide. In response to calls for single-payer health care and other reforms that would vastly improve women’s lives, she insisted, “We’re not Denmark.” In their books and on Twitter, misogyny feminists write dismissively of perhaps the only nationally known politician who has been calling for such reforms for years. They’re pretty sure Bernie Sanders hates women, or that at least a lot of his followers do.
Of course, some liberal feminists seem to feel invigorated by Trump’s odious attitudes, galvanized to donate to his opponents or knock on doors to garner support for them. Tresa Undem, a pollster who tracks gender issues, recently told The New York Times that in focus groups, voters now refer to “misogyny” and “patriarchy,” words that before Trump’s election had never come up in such settings. Yet the most explicitly anti-misogyny candidate was Kirsten Gillibrand, and her campaign didn’t go anywhere; she has already dropped out. Moralistic scolding did not convince Republican women to vote against Trump in 2016 and seems unlikely to do so again. This is no doubt partly because misogyny is so normal as to feel unremarkable, eliciting more eye rolls than gasps. But it’s also because many people, including many women, find it prissy and uptight to take offense at bad words and sexual vulgarity. Such trivialities, the thinking goes, don’t merit the breath wasted on them.
The banner of anti-misogyny has proved politically limited even in its ability to nail the worst perpetrators. Harvey Weinstein will probably walk. Jeffrey Epstein is dead, but his death seems, if anything, a defeat of justice, freeing him from the humiliation of a trial and, worse, letting so many of his far more powerful associates off the hook (hello, Bill Clinton). We may even see Donald Trump not only go unpunished but also get reelected, perhaps once again by a majority of white women.
Equally saliently, misogyny is not limited to conservatives. Dwelling on Trump’s woman-hating can seem hypocritical when you consider the rest of the political class. Epstein’s elaborate links to Democratic politicians and other members of the liberal establishment make it look, bafflingly, like the paranoid fantasies of QAnon or Pizzagate have come true. Misogyny is too widespread and bipartisan a problem, too psychological, too ineffable, to warrant an electoral remedy. And for most people, even women, the stakes are too low. Most of us (thank God) won’t be killed by a mass shooter. Many don’t particularly care how men we don’t know feel about us. We are going to vote for the person who we’re convinced will make our lives better, not the person who hates us the least.
To be sure, Firestone’s utopian calls to abolish the nuclear family wouldn’t be any more electorally popular today than liberal condemnations of misogyny. And the second wave haven’t been right about everything, by any means. Greer, for instance, has in recent years been justly criticized for her cruel and wrongheaded comments about trans women, an ongoing controversy that has cast a shadow on her international reputation. But we will only be as powerful and transformative as the second-wave feminists when we adopt their ambition, envisioning a society without patriarchy and capitalism and fighting to restructure our institutions accordingly. Misogyny is bad, but perhaps the ideals of contemporary mainstream feminism—that we not be raped, strangled, or forced to endure another four years of Trump—are not good enough.
If we can’t change how men feel about women, we can surely change the context in which women experience those feelings. When we lead more comfortable, secure lives, we face less danger from the horror in the hearts and minds of our fellow humans. Yet judging from the demographic of people who appear to care most about misogyny now—namely white women of the professional-managerial class—the more secure we are, the more we seem to be bothered by what other people are thinking about us. The conclusion seems inevitable: Worrying about woman-hating is a privilege, though I must say it doesn’t look like much fun.