In a recent piece for conservative news outlet The Daily Wire, Kassy Dillon made a bold statement: ‘radical feminists think…they are somehow saving women, but in reality, they are doing nothing but embarrassing themselves.’ Joanna Williams made a similar claim in her piece for the American Conservative: ‘now it’s Feminism from which women need liberating.’ The idea that the Feminist Movement is failing, or that it already succeeded and is no longer necessary, has become increasingly prevalent across right-wing media. Even some left-wing thinkers have turned their back on the ‘fourth wave’ of Feminism because of its perceived radical nature. But just how radical is 21st century Feminism? And just what does it mean for a movement to fail? Feminism is an old movement and has undeniably changed in the last two centuries. But does that mean it has run its course?
In ‘Fourth Wave Feminism: Why No One Escapes’, Williams presents the idea that the women’s liberation movement during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s was the last real period of feminist progress. She asserts that the experiences of privileged and marginalised women are so different that gender is no longer a common denominator, and that the real enemy now is not men, but the way in which the Feminist Movement encourages women to self-victimise. Feminists today, she claims, ‘walk the corridors of power,’ but refuse to admit to the elevated position they occupy. From this perspective, Feminism has achieved its goals and it is now up to women to revel in their victory.
The Feminist Movement can be looked at in four waves, from its conception during the late 1700s to its current incarnation, (the transitional periods between the phases are debated, but the existence of four distinct chapters is largely agreed upon). The goals of the first wave of Feminism were very simple: obtain basic rights for women. It was also the longest wave, beginning in around 1790 and not ending until the 1940s or ’50s. During that period, property and voting rights were chief among the issues discussed. In the 1960s, the focus shifted onto reproductive issues and workplace rights. The 1990s then saw a rise on the importance placed on individualism and diversity. The fourth wave, often thought to have begun around 2008, is centred around fighting harassment and unequal opportunity for women. Each of these waves of Feminism is distinct; to consider their differences under the blanket term of ‘Feminism’ is vague and imprecise. The amount of variety within the movement makes it impossible to determine failure or success.
Assuming the Feminist Movement has achieved its goals, as Williams does, fails to account for changes that were made to society while the movement was growing. One could easily examine the first wave of Feminism and conclude that it achieved its aims. Women can vote. We can own property. The second wave was largely successful as well, if examined from the narrow perspective of objectives completed. Women have much better access to contraception and many more opportunities in the workplace than they did before 1960. But society has evolved. With the rise of technology and new contributions to intellectual discussion, such as intersectionality in 1989, for example, our perspectives have become vastly different and ever-changing. Issues that did not exist during earlier waves have now become central points for discussion, (think up-skirting and virtual harassment). It could easily be argued that Feminism cannot be considered as one movement at all, as virtually nothing links the waves except the eventual goal of gender equality. To say that the movement has already been successful paints an overly simple picture and fails to recognise the heavily nuanced nature of the fight for women’s rights.
Both Williams and Dillon attack modern Feminism, but Dillon spends less time considering whether Feminism has been a success in a historical context. Instead, she offers a caustic critique of the fourth wave and its methods of achieving equality. Her tone is one that can be observed often, scattered throughout anti-feminist media and indeed, in a significant amount of anti-protest media in history. She uses the women who have interrupted the ongoing Kavanaugh supreme court hearings as examples to support her claim that the Feminist Movement is now irrational and ignorant. She argues that the real way to make change is by voting instead of protesting, and by interrupting the hearings in which feminists demonstrate that the movement has failed.
Dillon’s article and perspective are reminiscent of several historical thinkers who denounce a movement due to their own prejudice (sometimes subconscious), rather than because they have a well-reasoned disagreement. One such thinker is William Dunning, who created the Dunning School of thought regarding Reconstruction in the United States, (for those who are unfamiliar, Reconstruction was America’s attempt at rebuilding a more equal nation after the Civil War). In the early 1900s, he asserted that reconstruction had been an utter failure, during which African Americans were used as political pawns by the North and South and were sorely mistreated. Reconstruction was a complicated period and like the Feminist Movement, is very hard to categorise as good or bad. Rather than present an attempt at unbiased history, Dunning allowed his racial prejudice to colour his opinion and failed to note all the successes African American citizens achieved following the Civil War. The erasure of success from a movement removes agency from the marginalised individuals taking part in the movements. No one can read the future. Even 150 years after Reconstruction, it is still fairly impossible for historians to decide whether it failed or succeeded. Likewise, attempting to know now if Feminism is succeeding or failing is a feat no writer can accomplish. Publishing pieces that loudly proclaim one side of the argument without much evidence accomplishes one thing: destabilisation of the movement by decreasing support. Dillon writing that Feminism is a failure or that protest doesn’t work (spoiler alert: it does), is an expert method of stagnating the success of the fourth wave.
I have already spoken about my relationship with the #metoo movement and how I am disappointed by the lack of real action following the words. But it has not been entirely in vain; what #metoo has done is ensured that women stay in the centre of attention and that their voices are continually heard. In a political environment where the loudest ones are the most successful, keeping the spotlight on the fourth wave of the Feminist Movement is crucial. There are always lulls between periods of progress – the 1950s saw barely any forward motion at all. But change was happening slowly, and it allowed for the burst of activity and victory during the second wave. What Dillon and Williams are observing may be a similar lull, but the success of a movement as long-living and multifaceted as the Feminist Movement cannot be decide by a few years, a decade, or even a century.