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We were told the big battles had been won. They hadn't.
We were told a lie about feminism. We were told that it had won.
By “we,” I mean women like me—the mostly white, mostly middle-class millennials who grew up in the 90s and 2000s. Our moms worked; we wore cheap Spice Girls-branded jewelry from the mall. When I was a kid, gender egalitarianism seemed to be taken for granted as a shared value, and the message issued by adults to little girls like me was relentlessly optimistic. Girls can do anything now, we were told. You can do anything. Looking back on this with hindsight, decades later, I can see how the aggressive insistence of this message betrayed a certain insecurity in the adults who delivered it; maybe us kids weren’t the ones they were trying to convince. But at the time, it didn’t occur to me not to believe it.
In my defense, I was hardly alone in this kind of complacency. Most of the smart thinking in that era held that the postwar rights revolution would hold, that the social gains of once-marginalized groups would continue, and that time would drag the country toward greater equality. Feminism, like anti-racism, was supposedly a normative value—something that only a weak and marginal fringe would openly contest. Maybe this satisfaction was especially premature for the women’s rights movement, which was seen as especially entrenched and powerful—so powerful, in fact, that voices that were hardly marginal at all openly questioned whether it needed to be rolled back. Still, the job of us little girls, we were told, was not to fight for women’s rights to reap the benefits of freer lives and expanded horizons that had already been secured for us.
Call it Potemkin feminism: it was all surface and no substance. Like the false villages that General Potemkin built in Crimea, to make a region ravaged and depopulated by war seem rich and thriving, the nominal security of feminist gains in culture and in the law, that I was assured of as a little girl turned out to be little more than a flimsy façade. What we were meant to think was a thriving and triumphant feminist era concealed the ruins of a movement that had by then already been depleted by a relentless assault.
In the story presented by Potemkin feminism, the women’s movement ended precisely because it was victorious. The Suffragettes, with their high necked lace and giant bird nests of hair, had won the vote, and with it, we were told, an end to the abridgments of women’s citizenship that had been doled out on the basis of their sex. We weren't supposed to ask too many questions about whether they’d achieved all they set out to, or whether Black women were left behind. The second wave, rendered in the cultural memory as thin white women swaying long-haired and braless in sunglasses, had maybe been a little excessive, with their street demonstrations and consciousness raising, but everyone was supposed to concede that they were right, even if we were now all in agreement that they were also a little annoying. They’d gotten abortion rights, and they’d gotten the pill. In the workforce, they’d gotten some women to ascend past the cleaning staff and the secretarial pool. Somewhere in there had been Rosie the Riveter, and now we could buy her image on a refrigerator magnet.
Women’s victory was allegedly evidenced in the cultural residue of feminism, a cultural residue that concealed feminism’s lack of real institutional power. As the aughts stretched into the’10s, feminism became trendy as a pop culture meme and marketing device. Beyonce performed on a giant set with the word FEMINIST projected behind her dancing silhouette. Straight women began wearing tee shirts emblazoned with the word FEMME. All of this was supposed to be evidence of the triumph of feminist hegemony, signals that feminist values had now become American values. In that version of the story, the version that solidified into conventional wisdom as 2015 rounded the corner in to 2016, it did not matter that the rightwing attack on women’s rights was becoming ever more emboldened. Its hypervisibility in pop culture made feminism appear powerful—and made attacks on it seem virtuous—even as the movement itself was on the back foot. The Supreme Court was only a heartbeat away from overturning Roe v. Wade, but clearly feminism was undefeated, the thinking went, because you could buy an ironic votive candle of Ruth Bader Ginsberg at an Urban Outfitters.
But what had really happened over the past 30 years was that feminism gained cultural cachet precisely at the same time that it lost political power—in fact, it seems not unreasonable to conclude that feminism was able to become popular as a slogan precisely because it had been so thoroughly hollowed out of political influence.
During the Reagan era, institutions like NOW, which had been built by the Second Wave to push a feminist agenda in Washington, found doors closed to them. Those feminists who had managed to shoulder their way into the federal bureaucracy were pushed out, and women’s nonprofits were choked of grant money. In 1992, the Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey enabled states to impose labyrinthine obstacles on women seeking abortions, and cruel, extortionate costs on clinics that tried to provide them. This meant that the remaining feminist institutions, like Planned Parenthood, had to further deplete their dwindling reserves of money and energy in order to continuously fight these laws. In one of the feminist movement’s last great triumphs, sexual harassment in the workplace had been made illegal under federal civil rights law in 1987. But the government body meant to enforce sexual harassment law, the EEOC, was toothless, underfunded, and not infrequently led by right-wing ideological misogynists. Not that women were surging into the workforce anyway: Since reaching a peak of 60.2% in March of 2000, women’s participation in the paid labor force has been slowly but steadily declining. For decades, the media has issued one bromide after another about how feminism had gone too far, even as the movement’s few and hard-won gains have been relentlessly rolled back.
Feminists and their institutions have faced decades of budget cuts, decades of litigation, and decades of relentless attacks from the right, with only tepid, intermittent, and conditional defenses from the left. It has become popular, in recent years, to say that it was feminist organizations who failed to preserve the movement, feminists themselves who lost their nerve. But they also lost their funding.
Meanwhile, men’s attitudes towards women’s liberation remained stagnant—or they soured. As for the women, more and more of them identified as feminists, but many seemed not to have a solid grasp on exactly what that identity meant. And why would they? With the organized feminist movement now long since defanged, defunded, and dismantled by the forces of the New Right, they didn’t have much instruction. In her 2013 single “Flawless,” Beyonce quoted the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “Feminist: A person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” Not bad, as far as definitions go, but a bit imprecise about who needs to be made equal to whom, and just what that equality would entail. Other missionaries of feminism’s cultural clout seemed even more confused. Katy Perry, avowing herself as a feminist, said, “I used to not really understand what that word meant. And now that I do, it just means that I love myself as a female and I also love men.” It’s an understanding of feminism so capacious and cloying that almost by definition it cannot be attached to any concrete political demand.
It’s not that ordinary woman didn’t have a great hunger for real feminist progress—they did, especially as the fiction of Potemkin feminism became more transparent during the Trump administration. It’s that there was no longer any large feminist organizations capable of harnessing their anger into action. And so, instead of policy, women were offered platitudes, presented with contentless celebrity fluff and mealy-mouthed PR in place of a political movement for their own freedom.
In light of this, it becomes clear that feminism became culturally visible not because pop culture reflected the movement’s power, but because pop culture was the only remaining avenue left for women to voice their dissatisfaction with their own continued oppression.
I’m not sure when I stopped believing in Potemkin feminism. Maybe it was in the routine coming of age disappointments that happen to little girls, in those years when you realize that the permissiveness granted to your brothers will not be granted to you. Maybe it was when I went to college, and saw a bunch of aging male professors sleeping with their young female students; maybe it was when I started working, and saw a bunch of aging male bosses sleeping with their female assistants. Maybe it was, embarrassingly enough, the 2016 election.
But at some point, it became impossible for me to ignore that sexism shaped the laws and institutions I lived under and within; impossible to ignore that the women in my life had fewer choices and got fewer chances than the men did. The promises of a feminist future that had been made to me were hopeful, but empty. If a brighter, less violent, and more dignified future had once been possible for women, then that possibility had been taken from us. It would need to be won again.
In many ways, Potemkin feminism was a tempting story, because it asked so little of us. We were meant to think that feminism had become powerful—too powerful, according to many—and that it had therefore become unnecessary.
It is necessary now.