Illiberal Feminism Is Running Amok

Illiberal feminists have decided the best way to win is by demonizing and silencing opponents, rather than making a better argument.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

When men disagree with illiberal feminists, a favored silencing tactic is to accuse them of “mansplaining.” The term grew out of a fairly brilliant 2008 essay by feminist writer Rebecca Solnit, who described the exquisitely annoying feeling of having a certain type of man condescendingly lecture a woman on a topic about which he knows very little—in this case Solnit’s own book. This is certainly a phenomenon I and millions of other women have experienced, and it can be maddening. But the illiberal feminists have forged the notion of “mansplaining” into a weapon to silence any man who expresses an opinion at odds with feminist orthodoxy.

How it works is relatively simple. A pro-life man who talks about abortion with a pro-choice woman is “mansplaining.” (But a “pro-choice” man agreeing with a pro-choice woman is not.) The Atlantic accused Texas Governor Rick Perry of “classic mansplaining” after he criticized Wendy Davis’s thirteen-hour filibuster to prevent a vote on a bill that would have placed restrictions on abortion. His offending comment? He noted, “It’s just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.” Perry was referencing the fact that Davis had experienced an unplanned pregnancy while a teenager, which resulted in the birth of her first daughter.

Marin Cogan at GQ accused Mitt Romney of trying to “mansplain [his] way to the White House” during his 2012 presidential run. The examples she raised—his complaints about bureaucratic red tape or criticism about how security was being handled at the London Olympics—were standard political fare recast as “mansplaining.” New York magazine accused Republican Senator Ted Cruz of “mansplaining” to Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein when he made a conservative point about the Second Amendment during a hearing. accused Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin of “mansplaining” to incoming Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin when he told a local paper, “Hopefully I can sit down and lay out for her my best understanding of the federal budget because they’re simply the facts,” he told the Chippewa Herald. “Hopefully she’ll agree with what the facts are and work toward common sense solutions.”

Illiberal feminists turn simple ideological disagreements, whether about the federal budget or the Second Amendment or anything else, into excuses to engage in character assassination, dismissing their opponents as sexists. Conservatives are their favorite targets, but any dissident can land in their crosshairs.

In their ideological zeal, the feminists of the illiberal left don’t seem to realize how they’ve given feminism a bad name. According to a 2013 Huffington Post/YouGov poll only 23 percent of American women said they would identify as a “feminist,” despite the fact that majorities of male and female respondents said “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.”29 Even among Democrats, the “feminist” label is in low repute: only 32 percent applied the term to themselves.

Still, illiberal feminists wield a perverse power among academics and media pundits who take for granted the feminists’ outrageous claim that female dissidents from the illiberal left arent actually women.

Feminist writer Naomi Wolf once described the foreign-policy analysis of Jeane Kirkpatrick as being “uninflected by the experiences of the female body.” Feminist icon Gloria Steinem called former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison a “female impersonator.” Patricia Ireland, former president of the National Organization for Women, once instructed Democrats to vote only for “authentic” (translation: pro–abortion rights) female political candidates. During the 2010 midterm election season, Democratic Congresswoman Janis Baird Sontany of Tennessee said of her GOP colleagues, “You have to lift their skirts to find out if they are women. You sure can’t find out by how they vote.” In August 2010, liberal talk show host Stephanie Miller laughed uproariously when a female guest on her show said that if she ever met conservative columnist Michelle Malkin, “I would kick [her] right in the nuts,” and warned, “Wear a cup, lady.” Ann Coulter is routinely referred to as “Mann Coulter” on liberal blogs.

Dehumanizing slurs have routinely been used against Sarah Palin. In 2011, Gloria Steinem snarked that, “Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann . . . are on my list of ‘the women only a man could love.’” Her comment echoed the illiberal feminist attacks during the 2008 election, when Palin was derided by the Huffington Post as “Bush in lipstick.” Wendy Doniger blogged at the Washington Post that Palin’s “greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman.”36 Cintra Wilson wrote during the tsunami of anti-Palin hysteria in 2008, “Sarah Palin may be a lady, but she ain’t no woman.” Get it? “Real women” are pro-abortion Democrats. And conservative women? Well, while reigning as the uber-liberal at Current TV, Keith Olbermann said on his show that conservative columnist S. E. Cupp should herself have been aborted.

In 2012, when I criticized liberal men for their sexist attacks against conservative women in a Daily Beast column, Keith Olbermann went nuts. He proclaimed on his show that people should ignore me because I was a “house tamed liberal at Fox News,” comparing me to slaves forced to conform to the will of their masters. He took to Twitter to continue his attacks, and his followers jumped in, saying I was a “wind-up toy,” a “bobblehead,” and “just another brainless plastic doll Fox puts on camera to appease the horned up 60-year-old white dudes at home.” Olbermann never tried to refute anything I wrote; in fact, by his behavior he only added to my column’s many examples of liberal men making vicious sexist statements.

Character assassination was the method of discourse favored by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy; and it was a tenet of the liberal creed to resist such tactics. But Olbermann and his ilk are happy to use delegitimizing and demonizing tactics in an effort to further their ideological causes.

Strangely, while illiberal feminists treat conservative women as men in drag, men who identify as women are treated as women. At Mount Holyoke College in 2015, a student theatre group canceled its scheduled performance of The Vagina Monologues because it was too “reductionist and exclusive.” Who did this feminist masterpiece exclude? According to an e-mail sent to explain the decision, “At its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman. . . . Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions.” The play’s author, Eve Ensler, defended her work, saying in an interview that it wasn’t meant to speak for all women and that “Women with and without vaginas need a voice.”

When illiberal feminists aren’t delegitimizing female dissenters from their worldview as fake women, they are portraying them in such a hyper-sexualized way that they are reduced to nonhuman objects. Avoiding classic sexist stereotypes would seem to be the minimum expected of avowed feminists. Psychology Today42 reported in 2010 on multiple studies that found that “focusing on a woman’s appearance (fully dressed) is enough for . . . men and women . . . to dehumanize a woman. . . . [P]eople assign female targets less ‘human nature traits’ when focus is on their appearance.” The human traits that these men and women were seen as lacking include the ability to think, express emotions, or even feel pain.43 They noted that a key study on the issue found that when “women were dressed sexually. . . . people implicitly associated them more with animals.”

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Illiberal feminists don’t need Psychology Today to tell them that treating women as sex objects is dehumanizing. Feminist scholars have been arguing this for decades.

Yet, in her 2011 Elle piece titled “The Best and the Rightest,” writer Nina Burleigh described conservative women who were on the rise as, “right-wing girl Millennials” who were following “in the high heels of the former governor of Alaska.” One woman, she wrote, moved “from chair to podium with the lithe, twitchy ease of a big cat, hazel-eyed and trailing a honey-colored mane, all 20 tawny years of her packed into a skintight electric blue stretch-satin cocktail dress.” Another woman was described as, “A curvaceous, dark-haired 25-year-old . . . [with] a diamond-studded cross dangling above very visible cleavage.”

When Senator Joni Ernst—a GOP rising star—delivered the State of the Union response in January 2015, MSNBC host Ronan Farrow tweeted, “Joni Ernst delivering response in the style of an in-flight safety video.” And again, pretending to quote her: “‘We’ll also cut wasteful spending and balance the budget’ [pantomimes latching shut safety belt].” This attempt to dismiss her as a serious person echoed comments made by then-Senator Tom Harkin who was campaigning for Ernst’s opponent in her 2014 race to fill Harkin’s seat. “In this Senate race, I’ve been watching some of these ads,” Harkin said. “And there’s sort of this sense that, ‘Well, I hear so much about Joni Ernst. She is really attractive, and she sounds nice.’ . . . Well, I got to thinking about that,” he said. “I don’t care if she’s as good looking as Taylor Swift or as nice as Mr. Rogers, but if she votes like [Minnesota Congresswoman] Michele Bachmann, she’s wrong for the state of Iowa.” Pretty Republican women are apparently interchangeable, but it’s worth noting that Joni Ernst is, among other things, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and had served in the Iowa State Senate. She is, in other words, more than just a pretty face, and certainly entitled to political opinions that differ from Tom Harkin’s.

In a 2008 piece, Cintra Wilson referred to Sarah Palin as a “Christian Stepford wife in a ‘sexy librarian’ costume” and the GOP’s “hardcore pornographic centerfold spread.” Daily Kos, a leading liberal blog, ran a mock Playboy cover featuring the forty-four-year-old then-governor of Alaska. The Huffington Post ran a photo montage of Palin— only the second woman to join a presidential ticket—headlined “Former Beauty Queen, Future VP?” MSNBC ran a November 2009 segment showing photo-shopped pictures of Palin wearing an American flag bikini and holding a rifle; and one of her wearing a tight black miniskirt. When they flashed on the screen, the host noted, “She’s hot.” MSNBC apologized later for not alerting viewers that the pictures were photo-shopped, but offered no apology for the sexist segment.

In a column headlined “Forget the tea party—what about the crumpets?” Gene Lyons wrote that, “The most entertaining aspect of the 2010 election season has been the rise of the right-wing cuties— political celebrities whose main qualification is looking terrific on television. From where I sit, in a comfortable chair in front of the tube, the GOP Cupcake Factor has enlivened an otherwise dreary campaign season.” Liberal British comedian Russell Brand explained that the only reason Sarah Palin has any appeal is, “People want to f-ck her.” During the 2008 campaign, Paul Hackett, a high-profile but unsuccessful former Democratic congressional candidate in Ohio, suggested that Democrats run against the McCain/Palin ticket by pointing out that Palin “accidentally got pregnant at age 43 and the tax payers of Alaska have to pay for the care of her disabled child.” “War on Women,” anyone? And so much for being “pro-choice.”

In April 2014 actress Kirsten Dunst, who describes herself as a feminist, told the UK edition of Harpers Bazaar, “I feel like the feminine has been a little undervalued.”

“We all have to get our own jobs and make our own money, but staying at home, nurturing, being the mother, cooking—it’s a valuable thing my mom created,” she added. She also praised men: “Sometimes, you need your knight in shining armor,” she said. “I’m sorry. You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That’s why relationships work.”

The illiberal feminists were enraged. Jezebel ran a story saying that Dunst, an “actress and blonde who looks good in clothes,” is “not paid to write gender theory so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that she’s kind of dumb about it.” On Twitter, a few illiberal feminists wrote that, “She should just keep quiet. I wasn’t aware Kirsten Dunst could be more unlikable” and suggested Dunst be added to “the list of famous women who should never be allowed to talk near young girls. Ever.” Since Dunst didn’t say the right thing, she was labeled a sex object with no brains and essentially told to keep her pretty little mouth shut.

In her Elle hit piece on young conservative women, Nina Burleigh added insult to infantilizing. Not content with labeling the half dozen conservative women as “girls,” she dubbed them “Baby Palins.” Karin Agness, one of the women featured in the article, pointed out in a piece for National Review that “Rather than try to understand how some women could be conservative and the arguments we have against feminism, it is often much easier to explain us all away as ‘Baby Palins.’ The Palin brand has been so damaged by the media that the ‘Baby Palin’ label serves the purpose of quickly stereotyping and delegitimizing us at the same time.”

In May 2010, Palin rocked the feminist establishment when she asserted in a speech to the Susan B. Anthony List that there is an “emerging, conservative, feminist identity.” She dubbed this “Western Feminism.” Illiberal feminists circled the wagons to begin the process of delegitimizing her. Gloria Steinem declared to Katie Couric that Palin was not a feminist because “you can’t be a feminist who says that other women can’t [have an abortion] and criminalizes abortion.”

Never mind that many of the Suffragettes, the first American feminists, were anti-abortion, or that feminism is supposed to be about women making “choices” which should include the choice to decide their own beliefs. Feminist writer Amanda Marcotte asserted: “You look at someone like Sarah Palin trying to wear . . . [the feminist] mantle, and you see the flaw in trying to be a so-called conservative feminist, which is that you’re not very pro-women.” Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing, blasted “the fake feminism of Sarah Palin” in the Washington Post, and argued, “Given that so-called conservative feminists don’t support women’s rights, how can they paint their movement as pro-woman? Why are they not being laughed out of the room?”

The demonizing continued unabated. Steinem told New York magazine that conservative women leaders like Bachmann and Palin are “there to oppose the women’s movement. That’s their job. . . . it’s inevitable. . . . there have always been women like this.” Note the distinction Steinem is making with “women like this.” Conservative women don’t just have differing opinions, they are double agents pretending to care about women while their real plan is to destroy women’s rights. This echoed something Steinem said to me when I told her I was writing a profile of Bachmann for Elle magazine: “Who are the people who are putting these women—Palin and Bachmann—up to running?” Steinem asked. Then she answered her question: “It’s men who want them to run.”

There really is no winning with the illiberal feminists. They become enraged when the “wrong” people call themselves feminist, but then turn contemptuous when a woman says she isn’t. In Nina Burleigh’s Elle profile of conservative women, she blasted her subjects for saying they were not feminists. She wrote, “Behold the new face of conservative womanhood. Young women [who] are the unintended, some might say ungrateful, daughters of feminism. . . .” Perplexed as to why these under-thirty-five women “who pride themselves on being totally modern” might not identify with a movement that treats conservative women like garbage, she landed on a theory. It was “politics and ambition” that drove them to say they weren’t feminists because, “Feminist bashing remains the surest way to earn cred in the conservative movement, and ‘feminist’ is an easy, all-purpose insult. . . .”

When actress Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting (Penny on the Big Bang Theory) told Redbook magazine that she didn’t consider herself a feminist, the illiberal left turned on her, calling her a “talentless bitch” and telling her “Being a feminist is about wanting equality. If you don’t believe in equality, you’re a shit human.” It became such a controversy that the actress prostrated herself before the illiberal mob, which was duly reported in the Associated Press under the headline, “Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting apologizes for comments on feminism.”

For Ann Romney it was a Mother’s Day 2012 op-ed for USA Today that celebrated motherhood. She closed her piece with this: “Women wear many hats in their lives. Daughter, sister, student, breadwinner. But no matter where we are or what we’re doing, one hat that moms never take off is the crown of motherhood. There is no crown more glorious.” Dissing the column on MSNBC, Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist Michelle Goldberg called Romney “insufferable” as other “pro-women” panelists giggled as she said the phrase “crown of motherhood” reminded her of Hitler and Stalin. This saccharine op-ed written for Mother’s Day was, claimed Goldberg, just like when authoritarian societies gave awards to women who had big families. In a column responding to people upset with her comparison of Ann Romney to two of the worst mass murderers in history, Goldberg doubled down on the demonization, writing, “bombastic odes to traditional maternity have a sinister ring, especially when they come from people who want to curtail women’s rights.”