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Antifeminism

Nature, Science, Religion, And Antifeminism

Antifeminists have appealed to both religious and scientific authority in defending male supremacy as "natural." The Abrahamic monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), like many of the world's religions, contain contradictions: they grew from liberatory roots but were shaped by the hierarchical and patriarchal environments of the societies they matured in. This is manifested in restrictions on women's actions, movement, contacts, dress, and worship as well as general dictates mandating female obedience. Feminists, ranging from the United States' Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826–1898) in the nineteenth century to Morocco's Fatima Mernissi (b. 1940) in the twenty-first, have identified established religion as a primary source of women's oppression while simultaneously providing feminist interpretations of cardinal religious texts to claim the liberatory traditions for women.

Established religions tend toward antifeminism because they have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. In contrast, religious fundamentalists are generally reactionary outsiders, opposing secular authority as well as conservative and liberal religious practices. Although much scholarship and most popular images portray fundamentalist movements as inherently antifeminist, other scholars and women within these movements have identified ways in which women have used fundamentalism to increase their power and freedom, if not actually to overthrow the male supremacy deeply encoded in most religious traditions. The historical record reveals that fundamentalist regimes, from Puritan Massachusetts to Afghanistan under the Taliban, have imposed severe restrictions on women, indicating that the feminist potential of religious fundamentalism is limited in practice.

As religion has aided antifeminist appeals to tradition, science and social science have provided more modern justifications for the subjection of women. Scientific antifeminism begins and ends with the assertion that "biology is destiny." Charles Darwin (1809–1882), the pioneer of evolutionary theory, believed that the female's primary role and the focus of her evolutionary adaptations was reproduction. The influential nineteenth-century social philosopher and social scientist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) held an even dimmer view of women's evolution, asserting that women had not taken part of the final step in human development, the acquisition of the ability to reason. Other scientists and pseudoscientists measured brain size, head bumps, musculature, and other characteristics to delineate women's supposed inferiority.

The belief that women had primarily (if not exclusively) evolved for reproduction was used to caution against their education and participation in almost all activities not directly connected to procreation and nurture. In this view, women who pursued other avenues were going against their nature, risking serious illness and damage to their reproductive capacity. At a time when "race suicide" anxiety was common among Northern and Western Europeans and the colonial project was underway, antifeminists depicted women's neglect of their reproductive nature as a selfish betrayal of their race and nation. The common diagnoses of "hysteria" given to a variety of mental, emotional, and physical symptoms drew on this analysis in that the "disease" was confined to women's child-bearing years and was often portrayed as a product of women's inferior, childlike nature. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of psychology, extended the (pseudo)scientific discourse on female inferiority by positing a phallocentric view of human nature. These versions of scientific antifeminism have fallen from favor, although echoes of them can still be discerned in discussions of gender difference. More common early in the twenty-first century are utilitarian social science arguments, offering anecdotal and statistical evidence that women who choose not to be wives and mothers are unhappy, that the children of working mothers are damaged, and that society suffers when women pursue any path but motherhood. Intellectual antifeminism in academia ranges from wholesale dismissal of feminist work to less obvious discrimination in publishing and career advancement.

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