Bella Abzug on the 50th anniversary of women winning the vote in the United States. (Keystone/Getty Images)

How Feminism Got Hijacked

The movement that once declared “I am woman, hear me roar” can no longer define what a woman is. What happened?

“Pregnant people at much higher risk of breakthrough Covid,” The Washington Post recently declared. This was in keeping with the newspaper’s official new language policy: “If we say pregnant women, we exclude those who are transgender and nonbinary.”

“I’m not a biologist,” Ketanji Brown Jackson, the next Supreme Court justice and a formerly pregnant person herself, told her Senate inquisitors while trying to explain why she couldn’t define “woman.”

“It’s a very contested space at the moment,” explained Australian Health Secretary Brendan Murphy—a nephrologist, a doctor of medicine—when he was asked the same question at a hearing in Melbourne. “We’re happy to provide our working definition.”

The meaning of “woman,” the Labor Party’s Anneliese Dodds, in Britain, observed, “depended on context.” (Never mind that Dodds oversees the party’s women’s agenda.) 

“I think people get themselves down rabbit holes on this one,” Labor’s Yvette Cooper added the next day, March 8, International Women’s Day. She declined to follow suit.

What were normal people—those who did not have any trouble defining woman, those who found talk of “pregnant people” and “contested spaces” and “rabbit holes” baffling—to make of this obvious discomfort with “women”? 

Jackson, Dodds and Cooper—and, no doubt, every individual formerly or currently capable of becoming pregnant on the masthead at The Washington Post—would call themselves feminists. Champions of women’s rights. (So, too, one imagines, would Dr. Murphy.) Once upon a time, it was women like them who proudly declared, I am woman, hear me roar. It was women like them who stood up for women and womanhood. 

But now these exemplars of female empowerment—educated, sophisticated, wielding enormous influence—seemed to have forgotten what “woman” meant. Or whether it was okay to say “woman.” Or whether “woman” was a dirty word. 

It wasn’t simply about language. It was about how we think about and treat women. For nearly 2,500 years—from Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” to Seneca Falls to Anita Hill to #MeToo—women had been fighting, clawing their way out of an ancient, deeply repressive, often violent misogyny. But now that they were finally on the cusp of the Promised Land, they were turning their backs on all that progress. They were erasing themselves. 

How we got from there to here is the story of an unbelievable hijacking. Two, actually.

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It was only five decades ago, in the 1970s, that women—mostly white, middle-class and from places like New York, Boston and north London, and fed up with being sidelined by their comrades on the left—forged a new movement. They called it Women’s Liberation.

At the start, Women’s Liberation was seen as the domain of women with money—like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and, in the United Kingdom, Germaine Greer and Rosie Boycott. But soon it became the movement of everyday mothers, daughters, wives, working women, poor women, and women regularly beaten up by their boyfriends and husbands. 

They embodied a politics of action: protesting, writing, lobbying, setting up shelters. They formed sprawling, nationwide organizations like the National Organization of Women, the National Abortion Campaign and the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault. 

And at the center of their politics was an awareness of their physicality, a keen understanding that the challenges women faced were bound up with the bodies they had been born into. Exploitation at home and at work, the threat of sexual violence, unequal pay—all that was a function of their sex. 

Nothing better summed up the ethos of Women’s Liberation than “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” which was published in 1973 by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. Every feminist had a copy or had read one. It sold something like four million copies. It was a bible. That’s because “Our Bodies, Ourselves” rejected the old, Puritan discomforts with female sexuality that, feminists argued, had prevented women from realizing themselves, and empowered women by educating them about their own bodies

By the 1980s, women had won several key victories. Equal pay was the law (if not always the reality). No-fault divorce was widespread. Abortion was safe and legal. Women were now going to college, getting mortgages, playing competitive sports and having casual sex. In the United States, they were running for president, and they were getting elected to the House and Senate in record numbers. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.

In the wake of all these breakthroughs, the movement began to lose steam. It contracted, then it splintered, and a vacuum opened up. Academics took over—hijacked—the cause.

There was an obvious irony: It was women’s liberationists who had successfully made women a topic worthy of academic scholarship. But now that the feminist professoriat had the luxury of not worrying about the very concrete issues the older feminists had fought for, feminist professors spent their days reflecting on their feminism—exploring, reimagining and rejecting old orthodoxies.

“As soon as the academics got hold of feminism, they ruined it,” said Kathleen Stock, a feminist philosophy professor formerly of the University of Sussex and the author of “Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism.” “It should be and is a grassroots movement about women and their interests. Academics just took it away from them.”

It wasn’t just that these academics took it upon themselves to develop fiendishly complex theories about women, dressed up in a fiendishly complex language. It was that this hyper-intellectualized feminism, by embracing this hyper-intellectualized language, excluded most women. It transformed feminism from activism to theory, from the concrete to the abstract, from a movement that sought to liberate women from the discriminations imposed on them by their sex to a school of thought that was less interested in sex than gender

Sex, to the academics, was outdated. It was crude, fleshy, obvious—the stuff of everyday women everywhere. Gender, on the other hand, was fascinating—the starting point for an endless theorizing that, with each passing paper or book or conference, became more abstruse, more removed from the daily challenges faced by ordinary women.

There was Belgian theorist Chantal Mouffe, who argued that women were mere “nodal points” in a gender “discourse.” And UCLA law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who argued that the female gender was simply a nexus of interlocking oppressions, or “intersectionality.” And Cambridge anthropologist Henrietta Moore, who insisted that the idea of woman was not a universal category, that it was dependent on culture, that it was smaller than previously thought. And gender theorist Judith Butler, whose seminal text “Gender Trouble” was published in 1990 and asserted that biological sex was a fiction.

The new, abstracted feminism had little interest in changing political or economic reality, as the older, grittier feminism had. It was like a fancy garment that only the well off—those who had gone to college and lived in big cities and were fluent in the new vernacular—could afford. Or knew to buy. “It’s the upper middle classes trying to control the language of people they consider to be below them,” Stock said.

Julie Bindel, the radical feminist activist and author of “Feminism for Women” put it this way: “Posh bastards have subverted everything to support their cotton wool existence, where individualism is everything, where class has been completely destroyed—and replaced by the most meaningless identities.”

For the next quarter-century, this Post-Feminist Feminism, which had, at best, an attenuated connection to real living, breathing, working, menstruating, breastfeeding women, remained mostly confined to campus. Then, in the 2010s, the transgender movement happened.

Jock Semple, center right, tries to rip the number off Kathrine Switzer’s shirt and remove her from the Boston Marathon. Switzer's friends intervened, allowing her to make her getaway to become the first woman to "officially" run the race in April 1967. (Paul Connell/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

It is not an accident that the rise of gender ideology coincides with the long anticipated petering out of the feminist cause.

That’s because the rise of the one and the decline of the other are closely linked with our fetishization of identity. The fight for transgender rights over and above that of biological women’s rights, just like the war on systemic racism, jibes perfectly with our new identity politics.

Unfortunately, identity politics cannot content itself with simply defending women’s rights or LGBT rights or the rights of black people to be treated equally under the law. It must persist indefinitely in its quest for ever-narrowing identities. (The ever-expanding acronym of gay and gay-adjacent and vaguely, distantly, not really in any way connected communities, with its helpful plus sign at the end, neatly illustrates as much.) Everyone is entitled to an identity, or a plethora of identities, and each identity must be bespoke—individualized—and any attempt to rein in the pursuit of identity runs counter to the never-ending fight for inclusivity. Even if that inclusivity undermines the rights of other people. Like women.

This dynamic, with the most marginal interest trumping all others, easily took over a feminism long primed by whacky postmodern ideas like Butler’s—paving the way for its second, related hijacking. This one by biological males.

Consider the sad, telling case of Lia Thomas, the 22-year-old transgender woman who recently won the NCAA Division I 500-yard freestyle championship.

The NCAA’s decision to let Thomas compete on the women’s team was a clear signal: It was choosing transgender women over the biological women the team was created for. It was saying it agreed with all the trans activists and “feminists” that there was no real difference between trans women and biological women, especially after a year or two on testosterone blockers, a position scientists have shown to be false. It ignored the yowls of dismay from biological female athletes and their parents. 

Nor did the NCAA run into much, if any, interference. The women’s groups that, not long ago, would have vociferously opposed the sidelining of women athletes were silent. That included the most prominent of them all, the National Organization of Women, which has traded in its tireless campaigning on behalf of women for advocacy for policies that “promote an anti-racist and intersectional feminist agenda.”

Nancy Hogshead Makar, an American swimmer who won three gold medals at the 1984 Olympics and is the CEO of Champion Women, which fights for equality in sports, said, “A lot of women feel very abandoned by women’s groups.”

And so Post-Feminist Feminism has morphed into a dark, strange Anti-Feminism. Anti-Feminism borrows from the language of liberation, but it’s not about liberating women. It’s about pushing women out of college sports. It’s about telling girls they aren’t lesbians or tomboys, but in fact men struggling to find themselves. 

It is the madness that led a storied American newspaper to run an anti-woman (or de-woman-ed) headline—garnering roughly 1,400 comments (almost all negative) before shutting down the comments section. It is the trap that ensnared a Supreme Court nominee, who had acquitted herself with great aplomb and suddenly found herself at the end of an ideological cul de sac. To attempt an answer, any answer, to the question—Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?—would be to re-center women, biological sex, the concrete, mundane experience of ordinary, boring, bourgeois and working-class and very poor women the world over. It would be to attempt to undo the hijacking of the feminist cause and to return it to the people for whom that cause was created so many decades ago.

Returning the cause to the people for whom it was created is the only way to save it, and to stop the many discriminations that girls and women still face: domestic violence; the economic and psychological penalty of having babies; the manifold hurts and crimes visited upon countless women in non-Western countries simply for being women. For now, doing anything about all of that is a fantasy. First, we have to honor the actual meaning of words, like woman. We have to insist that those meanings are important. We have to go back, again, to first principles. That is the only way forward.

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