With Trump, a Renewed Call to Radical Feminist Men
By Robert Jensen
Published in YES! Magazine · November, 2016
Our task is to reject men’s claim to control women’s reproductive power and sexuality, while calling out White supremacy and a widening equality gap.
About 8 p.m. on Election Day, I got an email from my editor in Australia letting me know the press had received the first copies of my new book, The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men.
“Books look good! Not so sure about election,” she wrote, reflecting the interest in—and fear about—our presidential contest around the world.
Within hours, the power of patriarchy was on display like few expected. The most openly misogynistic presidential candidate in modern history had won an election that many thought—or desperately hoped—he couldn’t win precisely because of his longstanding open contempt for women’s struggle to be fully human. Certainly blatant, ugly sexism would make his candidacy unacceptable to a majority of U.S. voters, right?
My book’s title had always been aspirational—I am arguing for the end of patriarchy, not predicting its imminent demise. But even in a society structured by institutionalized male dominance, it’s hard for many to imagine living with the endorsement of woman-hating conveyed by “President Trump.”
That makes the book’s subtitle more important than ever. While it may seem odd to pitch radical feminism to men—especially since not all feminist women embrace that radical perspective—it should be one of the key aspects of a progressive resistance to Trumpism, along with challenges to reactionary policies on race, economics, foreign policy, and environment.
We have of course made important progress in challenging men’s illegitimate authority in the past century. But the Trump campaign made it painfully obvious that men’s routine sexual exploitation of women, which is possible only in a society in which men believe themselves to be naturally dominant over women, remains deeply entrenched. The ease with which so many men embraced Trump’s celebration of his abusive behavior, and so many women were willing to excuse it, is evidence of the strength of patriarchal values and norms.
Women’s status can change over time, and there are differences in status accorded to women depending on other variables. But as historian Judith Bennett has pointed out, these ups and downs have not transformed women as a group in relationship to men—societies operate within a “patriarchal equilibrium” in which only privileged men can lay claim to that full humanity, defined as the unconstrained ability to develop fully their human potential. Men with less privilege must settle for less, and some will even be accorded lower status than some women (especially those men who lack national, race, or class privilege; gender is not the only axis of inequality). But in this kind of dynamically stable system of power, women never are granted full and unchallenged humanity.
Why is radical feminism necessary? First, don’t be scared off by the term “radical,” which is not a synonym for crazy but rather means going to the root, taking seriously the systems and structures of power that make individuals’ sexism possible. Radical feminists offer compelling critiques of men’s sexual exploitation of women, in both interpersonal and commercial contexts.
Decades ago, radical feminists helped us understand that sexual assault and domestic violence were the predictable result of men’s claim to control women in patriarchy. If we hope to reduce rates of rape and partner violence, we have to challenge patriarchy. Likewise, radical feminists developed a compelling analysis of the sexual exploitation industries (prostitution, pornography, stripping), the ways men routinely buy and sell women’s bodies for sex. The idea that men should be able to buy sexual pleasure in this way is a product of patriarchy.
Although Hillary Clinton spoke frequently about breaking the glass ceiling and her candidacy was certainly a milestone, we should not be naive and imagine that any mainstream politician or party will speak honestly about the problem of the enduring power of patriarchy. But this moment can open up new possibilities for movements already hard at work, and our task is to face the difficult work necessary to reject men’s claim to control women’s reproductive power and sexuality, the heart of patriarchy.
Radical feminism recognizes that the threats to real equality and freedom for women can, and have come, from the right and the left. Attempts to erode women’s reproductive rights generally come from conservative, typically religious, people and movements. Attempts to expand the exploitation of women’s sexuality come from liberal, typically secular, people and movements. Right and left are too often flip sides of the same patriarchal coin. Conservatives tend to want to give specific men (husbands and fathers) control of women’s bodies, while liberals tend to seek to make women’s bodies as widely available to as many men as possible, for example by treating the buying and selling of women as simply “sex work.”
Sadly, Trump offers the worst of both conservative and liberal patriarchy.
It’s been said over and over and bears repeating: What’s more important than Donald J. Trump are the forces that make it possible for Trump to be taken seriously. But too rarely has his contempt for women been marked as a feature of patriarchy that requires a radical feminist response.
There will be countless policy battles for progressive people—men and women—to fight in coming years, which should be guided by radical critiques not only of patriarchy but also of White supremacy and the widening inequality in a capitalist economy that is committing ecocide through a rapacious attack on the larger living world.
What are some of those battles? Protecting reproductive rights at the grassroots, including support for women who can’t afford abortions; reinvigorating the radical feminist analysis in the mainstream anti-rape movement; challenging the way that men’s sexual exploitation of women in the commercial sex industry has become normalized. Those are places to start, along with the intersectional work of making critiques of White supremacy a part of every project; challenging capitalism’s corrosive effects on both our sense of self and the possibility of real democracy; and opposing any efforts for the United States to unleash its military to control the politics of the developing world.
Finally, if we cannot honestly face the multiple, cascading ecological crises that threaten the planet’s ecosystem, then our efforts to promote justice within the human family will be literally drowned in the long term. Climate change, sustainable agriculture, alternative energy, urban farming—all are places to create a different way of being in the world.
There is no shortage of projects worth our time. A decent human future depends on our willingness to get radical.