Why the next wave of feminism is conservative
At a recent dinner, an MP told me a story that says a lot about the current state of feminism. One of his constituents had come to his cabinet in distress. She had children at a local elementary school, she said, and had been alarmed to discover that the school’s sex education curriculum contained explicit details she considered extremely inappropriate. She was aware of the mainstream culture in which teenagers — especially girls — are sexualized at an increasingly young age, and she didn’t want that for her own children.
But parents are increasingly powerless against progressive schools, and having missed college, this woman felt anxious. She was intimidated by the prospect of speaking with her children’s manager. She did not understand the progressive jargon used by the professors and was troubled by their moral certainty. His plea to his MP was therefore this: help me protect my children, tell me what to say.
Who do you think she would do better with: a left-wing or a right-wing parliamentarian? The answer, to me, is not obvious. I’m the director of The Other Half, a nonpartisan feminist think tank founded with the express intention of representing the interests of women like this voter, women who don’t know how to protect their children. And when I say ‘non-partisan’, I really mean it: my experience of SW1 is that party affiliation tells you next to nothing about a person’s attitude towards issues such as pornography, child abuse and violence against women.
Feminism in the second half of the 20th century was strongly associated with the left, since it emerged from the American civil rights movements of the 1960s. But it was not always so. There have been many periods in which feminism of a much more conservative flavor has dominated. I believe that we are now entering another of these periods.
This shift to the right is the result of two phenomena, both linked to the advent of the Internet. First, there was the politicization of otherwise apolitical women during Britain’s Great Terf War which began in the early 2010s – a war which is now over, incidentally, with the “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists” ( who generally prefer to describe themselves as “gender critics”) very clearly victorious.
Witness the fall this month of Mermaids, a charity whose stated aim is to represent the interests of transgender children and their families and which was, until recently, the crown jewel of activism British trans, attracting funds from the National Lottery and –profile of Sussex and BBC support.
But in early October, it was revealed that one of Mermaids’ administrators had spoken at an event organized by a pedophile support group, while another member of staff had been caught sharing photos of himself online wearing a schoolgirl skirt in a sexualized pose. This scandal follows the discovery that staff at Mermaids had offered breast bands to children without the knowledge or consent of their parents. In PMQs on October 12, then Prime Minister Liz Truss appeared to support a police investigation into these activities, and a Charity Commission investigation is already underway.
The Anonymous Women of Mumsnet weren’t surprised at all by the Sirens’ revelations. In fact, they helped bring them to light. Described sneeringly by US media as the ‘ground zero of British transphobia’, users of Britain’s most popular parenting messaging forum have had their suspicions about the charity for some time and made their own behind-the-scenes detective work in popular resistance to the radical ambitions of the trans activist movement. It has been a war against the most earthly material reality – the amputated toilets, penises and breasts of unhappy teenage girls. But it’s also a war fought almost entirely online. The trans movement grew out of the internet, and its opposite movement grew out of the same.
Mumsnetters, as their name suggests, are overwhelmingly mothers, the most natural and instinctive defenders of children. And here is the second technological factor in the right shift of feminism. “The problem with socialism”, as Oscar Wilde said, “is that it takes too many evenings”. The same goes for feminism – at least until recently. The second wave of the 1970s and 1980s was conceived and led by a small group of young women who spent a lot of time with each other, including sometimes living under the same roof, thinking, writing and working on their utopian vision. . It is no coincidence that most of them did not have children, because being pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen was hardly compatible with a movement that demanded so much time and energy from its activists.
But how about pregnant and barefoot with a smartphone? The early battles of Britain’s Great Terf War were fought by left-wing feminists, many of whom were affiliated with the labor movement. But the popularity of platforms like Mumsnet has meant that these people have been joined by a much larger and once much calmer group of women: mothers from widely diverse backgrounds who feel the same fear for their children as described by the anxious voter, and who have just been able to participate in public debate via the Internet.
Given that they were drawn outside of mainstream activist circles and that having children is known to make people more conservative, it should come as no surprise to find that these newcomers to the feminist movement are not necessarily of the left – a fact that has created a lot of conflict within the gender-critical ranks. For, of course, it was the left that looked kindly on male sex offenders housed in women’s prisons, and the left that tried to get down to dismantling women’s sports and women-only spaces. This fact is not lost on gender-critical left-wing feminists. But they interpret the past behavior of their political allies as a moment of madness, which is being remedied by a much-needed return to “real” leftist politics.
Other feminists see the issue quite differently. To the right of the gender-critical movement is activist and mother of three Kellie Jay Keen, also known as Posie Parker, who is both an extraordinarily charismatic activist and a divisive figure: “a legend” or ” a Poundshop Marine Le Pen”. , depending on your point of view.
Keen is able to speak to a central England who would never have previously identified as a feminist in any way (a majority of British women do not define themselves as such), and she attracts what one reviewer describes as an energy “mass, populist” – a description she would probably take as a compliment. More than anyone, Keen is emblematic of the current direction of British feminism away from the academic left.
And she is a queen of political display. Public events organized by Keen and his allies invariably attract the attention of trans activists, and images of clashes between the groups are widely shared online, further energizing his base. In one of these videos, we see Keen’s calm response to a hooded male figure hovering over her, enraged. Dressed in a viper green jumpsuit, with platinum hair in her signature Marilyn Monroe ensemble, she waves a snarling finger at the protester (“That’s not a woman, that’s a very mean boy”?) – then turns to the camera.
Some feminists have taken to calling women activists dressed in black “the Black Pampers”, which pretty much sums up the phenomenon. What we’re really seeing here, both online and offline, are teenagers screaming in the faces of women their mother’s age. Mothers – and their hatred – are at the center of the action.
To say that this new right-wing feminist movement is maternal does not mean that it is cuddly. Keen is maternal like a bear is maternal, which is to say, merciless. Fearless aggression in the face of a threat to her young is an adaptive response we share with all female mammals. It’s a powerful instinct, and now all mothers can participate, even if they’re housebound or with a baby cradled in one arm.
There’s a prisssy middle-aged character in The simpsons whose slogan is: ‘Does anyone not want to think about children?’ The character is meant to poke fun at the kind of female concerns that the show’s writers think are overdone and histrionic. But the question is now very serious. This constituent who came to her MP, desperate to know how to protect her children, was only asking what women across the country were beginning to ask. Any party that believes itself fit for power will have to have an answer.
SPECTATOR.CO.UK/TV Louise Perry and Julie Bindel on the rise of right-wing feminism.