Defining Feminism And Antifeminism
Historically and conceptually, feminism precedes antifeminism, which arises as a reaction against and repudiation of feminism and can only be defined on that basis. The definition of feminism offered by the historian Linda Gordon has the requisite balance of precision and suppleness to serve as a starting point: "Feminism is a critique of male supremacy, formed and offered in the light of a will to change it, which in turn assumes a conviction that it is changeable" (quoted in Cott, pp. 4–5). Antifeminism, then, repudiates critiques of male supremacy and resists efforts to eliminate it (often accompanied by dismissal of the idea that change is possible). Note that this definition of antifeminism limits its reference to reactions against critiques of gender-based hierarchies and efforts to relieve the oppression of women. In this way, antifeminism is distinguished from the related concepts of male chauvinism, sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, and androcentism, all of which can exist in the absence of feminism.
The origins of modern feminism and antifeminism are primarily found in the European Enlightenment. Among the earliest and most influential works of Enlightenment feminism was Mary Wollstonecraft's (1759–1797) A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Her innovation was to include women in the Enlightenment ideal of autonomous individualism and to extend the critique of rule by divine right to men's subordination of women. Initially, A Vindication of the Rights of Women was praised in the majority of publications that took notice and largely ignored by more conservative journals. The disclosure of Wollstonecraft's transgressive sexual history in a memoir posthumously published by her husband then brought increased attention from conservative commentators who, in their denunciations, pioneered a common tactic of antifeminist discourse by linking her ideas to her behavior and then labeling both "immoral."
In a pattern that continues to the present, much of early antifeminism was both an authentic manifestation of opposition to the dismantling of male supremacy and an effective weapon against women and men seeking larger transformations in social, religious, moral, economic, and political relations. Wollstonecraft and the generations of feminists she inspired have most often been affiliated with radical movements such as abolition, free love, Jacobinism, Perfectionism, Communism, temperance, transcendentalism, antimilitarism, and other less-than-popular causes. These associations have provoked and shaped antifeminist reactions. For example, the anticommunist movements following the world wars utilized often tenuous connections between feminists and communists to condemn both. Near the end of the twentieth century, the U.S. radio personality Rush Limbaugh created the term feminazi as an all-encompassing epithet to discredit liberal activist women. In practice, the two functions of antifeminism, as a means and as an end, have complemented and enhanced one another.
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