Last week at the World Economic Forum, women’s rights seemed at the top of the agenda. The ritzy forum’s seven co-chairs were all women (even though they remained vastly outnumbered by men at the annual gathering of the global elite). Discussions about sexual harassment, pay inequity and systemic abuses were ubiquitous. A dedicated lounge — dubbed the “Female Quotient” — featured pictures of Hillary Clinton on the walls and coffee-bar chats on female leadership and collaboration.
In a warmly received speech, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the rolling cultural conversation in the West on harassment in the workplace and entrenched gender inequities. “MeToo, TimesUp, the Women’s March — these movements tell us that we need to have a critical discussion on women’s rights, equality and power dynamics of gender,” he said. “Sexual harassment, for example, in business and in government, is a systemic problem and it is unacceptable. As leaders we need to recognize and to act to show that truly time is up.”
Trudeau tweeted, “Education is the key to empowering more women around the world. That’s why we’re supporting @GPforEducation and calling on men — in business and government — to do the same.”
Trudeau, of course, happily identifies as a feminist. He assembled a half-female cabinet when he took office, a move he said was an overdue reflection of the times. But there are plenty of other world leaders who don’t quite seem to agree.
That group’s most conspicuous member is President Donald Trump. “I wouldn’t say I’m a feminist,” Trump said in an interview with British broadcaster Piers Morgan that aired over the weekend. “I mean, I think that would be, maybe, going too far. I’m for women, I’m for men, I’m for everyone.”
The couched statement is not surprising for Trump, who decries traditionally leftist causes for their supposed “political correctness.” The president is a poster child for the unapologetic man — loud, proud and unbowed — especially given the slew of allegations surrounding his history of apparently predatory and misogynistic behavior.
Trump tweeted, ”.@cher--I don’t wear a ‘rug’-it’s mine. And I promise not to talk about your massive plastic surgeries that didn’t work.”
Trump tweeted, ”.@ariannahuff is unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man- he made a good decision.”
But Trump’s suggestion that he’s “for everyone” is not as benign as he makes it sound. “Trump and many of his supporters … have reduced feminism to an ideology rooted in hostility toward men,” my colleague Eugene Scott wrote. “In telling Morgan that he is not a feminist because he is ‘for men,’ the president reinforces the belief prevalent among critics of feminism that to be ‘for women’ means to be ‘against men.’ ”
As Scott goes on to explain, this is not a narrative unique to Trump. On the American right, myriad women invoke the “anti-men” argument when pushing back against “left-wing” feminism. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said last year that she was “neither anti-male or pro-abortion,” and hence not a “classical” feminist. “Trump’s steadfast rejection of feminism will continue to endear him to his base — something he appears deeply mindful of when formulating policies on cultural issues,” Scott observed.
Like clockwork, far-right British gadfly Nigel Farage echoed the president’s line, saying he was not a feminist and didn’t even understand “what it means” to be one.
Indeed, you don’t have to look hard to see the political appeal of anti-feminism in many parts of the world. A host of illiberal governments have rooted a kind of anti-feminism at the core of their nationalist platforms. In Poland, a right-wing nationalist government has pushed a controversial abortion law, carried out raids on certain women’s rights groups and moved to strip funding from them on the grounds that they discriminated against men — because they only support female survivors of domestic violence. In the Philippines, brash President Rodrigo Duterte — the recipient of repeated praise from Trump — has crafted his political image through years of jocular machismo, including unseemly rape jokes.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shepherded his own nationalist project with appeals to a mystical idea of womanhood. “Our religion [Islam] has defined a position for women: motherhood,” Erdogan said in 2014, in a speech where he insisted women could not be placed on an “equal footing” with men. “Some people can understand this, while others can’t. You cannot explain this to feminists because they don’t accept the concept of motherhood.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has propagated a nationalism cloaked in traditional, Christian values. Analysts point to a resolutely anti-feminist set of female lieutenants appointed in various positions by Putin, who play a crucial role in furthering a conservative, religious agenda. “Putin’s anti-feminists champion repressive, controversial laws and practices,” wrote Ekaterina Sokirianskaia of the International Crisis Group last year. “These include: restrictions on rallies and demonstrations; the ‘foreign agents’ law that paralyzed and stigmatized NGOs with foreign funding; curbs on civic freedoms and intellectual debates; and support for the state’s intervention in citizens’ privacy.”
This may seem a world away from Trump’s America, but it’s a reflection of a broader phenomenon: right-wing governments all wielding anti-feminism as a political cudgel. The enduring reality of the moment is that it remains a profoundly effective tactic.
But, in the United States at least, there’s a brewing backlash. A historic number of female candidates are competing for major office in the 2018 midterm elections. As of last week, 325 women were nonincumbent candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, along with 72 female members seeking re-election, according to NBC News. The vast majority of them are Democrats, moved to enter politics in the wake of Trump’s rise to power. Whether they succeed in bringing a new wave of American women to power or not, they may find themselves confronted by an all-too-familiar opponent.
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.