What can the tea party learn from the modern feminist movement?
Before you react with incredulity, consider that both movements have come to be viewed as outside the mainstream and hostile to dissenters and society at large.
Were someone to ask if you are a feminist, you’d probably say no, like the overwhelming majority of Americans, including more than 75 percent of women, who eschewed the characterization in a 2013 Huffington Post/YouGov poll.
Most Americans bear a similar aversion to today’s tea party, of which only 30 percent held a favorable view in a Pew poll conducted in October.
What has relegated both movements to dwell in the dark corners of the public consciousness has little to do with what they actually stand for. (Raise your hand if you support equality and representative government!)
Instead, feminism, like the tea party, has failed to retain more mainstream support largely because vocal and often misguided members have co-opted the movement and perpetuated a fundamental misunderstanding of its long-held principles.
This has only served to misinform and undermine the movement’s purposes, origins and ultimate goals.
Feminism, in particular, is laboring under self-inflicted misconceptions that provide valuable insight into how social movements can veer off course and how they can come back.
Tea partyers, take note.
Many contemporary self-identified feminists portray a movement that would be unrecognizable to its founders, but its failure to appeal to the majority of women is an even bigger problem.
Abandoning its once-sweeping, lofty objectives, modern feminism has been narrowly focused. It presents the world as a zero-sum game: Men and women are battling for finite resources, seeking “not just equality but precise, numerical equivalence,” as unabashedly confused feminist Kay S. Hymowitz put it.
That kind of “equality of outcomes” fails to resonate with many mainstream women because it gives no consideration to personal strengths and choices and the underlying differences between the sexes that drive them.
Like the tea party, feminism’s loudest defenders are motivated by highly divisive and controversial causes, propelled by a penchant for victimization, and direct their ire toward the half of the population whose support they will eventually need – but only when they are not attacking each other. As writer Esther J. Cepeda points out, “There’s been a fair amount of bashing – perpetrated by women themselves – when certain women have openly declared themselves as non-feminists.”
Note to the tea party: Alienating potential members is usually a path to extinction.
Some members of the pundit class like New York Times columnist Charles Blow assert that “it’s very important for everyone to be a feminist.” But universal conversion is unlikely to happen while turbulence and confusion about the moniker and its underlying ethos persists.
So its time to redefine the movement.
For Freedom Feminism author Christina Hoff Sommers, that means returning to its origins. She argues that a better understanding of the historical context in which the feminist movement developed might be its saving grace.
She explains that the two schools of feminist thought that evolved simultaneously – egalitarian feminism, which sought liberation by shedding traditional gender roles, and social or maternal feminism, which sought respect and influence by embracing femininity and gender roles – have served the interests of all women best when they were united in their goals and tactics.
Successful modern feminism should replicate this marriage of movements so that no woman feels left behind.
“Anyone who cares about improving the status of women around the world should be working to create a women’s movement that resonates with women,” Sommers says.
The “reality-based, male-respecting, judicious feminism,” that Sommers calls for would be true to its origins, inside the mainstream and welcoming to all – liberal, conservative, moderates and yes, even men.
That’s a recipe for success that would benefit any worthwhile movement – including the tea party.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.