Anti-feminists, ‘tradwives’, and men’s rights advocates – why some women oppose gender equality (and what to do about it).
When we talk about women’s activism, the first thing that comes to mind is feminist activism such as the #MeToo movement or Women’s March 4 Justice against the sexual harassment of women, aiming to advance gender equality or responding to gender discrimination. However, not all women engage in or even support feminist activism. On the contrary, some women actively oppose initiatives advancing gender equality. For example, groups of conservative women came together in the past to oppose the suffragist movement and legislation granting abortion rights.
More recently, the most visible examples of such reactionary activism include the advocacy of women’s groups who claim that progress on gender equality has gone ‘too far’ and that this progress has come at the cost of men. Probably the most famous example in Australia is men’s rights advocate Bettina Arndt who, in her recent book under the telling title ‘#MenToo’, explains “what’s really happening to men and boys in this anti-male culture”.
To take a few quotes from Arndt’s book, she variously claims:
We live in a society where women’s wants and needs receive constant attention, a society which frowns on any discussion of men missing out
I’ve long been speaking out about the tilting of laws, practises and regulations to unfairly advantage women at the expense of men.
Other examples of feminist backlash include women who stood up to ‘protect’ prominent men from sexual harassment and rape allegations: in 2018 over 100 prominent French women signed an open letter denouncing the #MeToo as a “puritanical witch-hunt against men”. In another open letter, 65 American women defended the US Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, against alleged rape accusations.
Finally, the two most striking examples of this phenomenon are the recent emergence of the ‘tradwives’, women who advocate for the return to the traditional division of gender roles with a woman being the homemaker and a man being the main breadwinner in the family, and young white and physically attractive women active within supremacist movements such as alt-right that push explicitly anti-feminist and misogynistic messages.
As a woman and a feminist researcher looking at these women with a mix of horror (can we ever achieve gender equality if not only men but also women actively resist social change?) and disbelief (what are they even thinking?!), I set myself on a mission to understand why women engage in such actions, and to make sense of how it is possible that we, as women, are so different from each other.
My research has given me two ways to answer this conundrum. In a paper published recently in the European Journal of Social Psychology, my collaborators and I showed that women in the UK and in the US who endorse traditional gender roles, values, and beliefs (such as the belief that women should be provided for and protected by men, become wives, homemakers and mothers) and identify as a ‘traditional woman’ do not see gender discrimination as a real issue women are facing.
Actually, we found they are more concerned that feminism and gender equality policies pose a threat to traditional gender values. These women are also likely to engage in actions protecting traditional division of gender roles and reinforcing gender inequalities, rather than actions empowering other women.
We wanted to look more deeply into this and in a follow-up piece of research, we show that a considerable proportion of women support actions that preserve male privilege—such as initiatives ‘protecting’ men from sexual harassment allegations—because they genuinely believe that men are the socially disadvantaged group. This is a sense that men are victimised by the feminist movement and gender equality policies are leading to reverse discrimination.
The key takeaway is that women might oppose gender equality initiatives when they believe they threaten their traditional worldview or come at the cost of men.
While some ideological differences between various groups of women might be simply impossible to reconcile (as seems to be the case with ongoing abortion debates in countries such as the US and Poland), our findings carry a couple of practical implications for gender equality advocates:
- To tackle the perceived threat to traditional gender roles, gender equality policies can be framed as incorporating the needs and values of both progressive and traditional women. While a lot of feminist advocacy is framed around women’s choices, it is often implicitly assumed that these choices align with a progressive, rather than a traditional worldview.
- Similar to men, some women might see gender equality initiatives through the lens of a zero-sum game unfairly benefitting women at the cost of men. It is therefore crucial to frame proposed gender equality programs or policies as benefitting women and men. This point is particularly important for women concerned about the close men in their lives, such as male romantic partners or their sons.
- Finally, women might oppose some gender equality initiatives not necessarily because these initiatives contradict their broader traditional worldview, but because they perceive them as having negative consequences for men. In such cases, advocacy should focus on the minimisation of those (either anticipated or real) negative impacts rather than on convincing women to the benefits of gender equality itself.
- Feature image is a stock photo