The Folk-devilling of Feminism by Professor Carol Dyhouse

Feminists have long borne the brunt of satire in the media. In the early years of the last century, women who fought for the right to vote were depicted as bad-humoured harridans with sour faces and stringy hair. ‘Women’s Libbers’ of the 1970s and 1980s came in for similar treatment, being regularly caricatured as dungaree and woolly-hat wearing, cropped-headed man-haters. The satirical magazine Private Eye ran a regular feature headed ‘Loony Feminist Nonsense’ where ‘Wimmin’ were shown as baying for male blood. A typical cartoon showed gleeful, big-bummed women hovering with knives and intent over the genitals of trussed-up, pleading males.

By the 1990s some of the immediacy, effervescence, and playfulness of second-wave feminism had evaporated. There were disagreements between second and third wave feminists over language, race, and sexuality, and some feminist thinking had a tendency to become rather academic and obscure. There was much talk of ‘postfeminism’, implying that the movement had had its day.  Susan Faludi argued that a ‘backlash’ had set in, as conservatives argued that feminism had ‘gone too far’ and was undermining men.  The backlash was often bitter. Writer Linda Grant, in her book Sexing the Millennium: Women and the Sexual Revolution (1994), thought that relations between men and women ‘had turned murderous’. Many younger women were fearful of identifying as feminist in case they were perceived as anti-men.

Two studies by the Mass-Observation Project at the beginning of the decade provide insights into contemporary views. In 1990 Observers were asked to write about ‘Close Relationships’ and how these had changed; the following year they were invited to share their thoughts on gender and feminism in a directive entitled ’Women and Men’.

Most of the women replying to the Close Relationships directive highlighted the liberalization of attitudes to pre-marital sex, contraception, divorce and abortion. Most were in no doubt that women’s lives had improved immeasurably since the 1950s. But it is fascinating to compare these answers with the views expressed in the 1991 Women and Men study. This directive similarly probed attitudes to gender equality: writers were asked for their thoughts about ‘liberated women’ ‘the new man’ and feminism. But these particular prompts tended to polarise respondents and unleashed a torrent of antagonism, particularly from some of the older women, towards feminists and feminism.

Feminists were castigated as ‘too militant and aggressive’, ‘rampant man-haters’, constantly ‘ranting and raving about men’. Crude and unflattering stereotypes very similar to those so often found in the anti-suffrage literature of the 1900s abounded. Feminists were mocked for being ugly and devoid of humour. One woman suggested that they should be ducked as witches or sent off to a desert island.

These women’s responses cast feminists as witches or folk-devils. Nevertheless, the attitudes revealed in these two Mass Observation directives suggest a contradiction. They show a broad acceptance, and even a celebration of many of the gains associated with feminism and feminist campaigns since the 1970s, but a vilifying of feminists themselves. How are we to make sense of this?

Faludi’s concept of the backlash may go some way towards explaining the contradiction: there was much talk of boys’ ‘underachievement’ in the 1990s, of strains on the family, of women being ‘burned out’ for wanting to ‘have it all’, with feminism being regularly blamed for having ‘gone too far’. But the Observers don’t mention these concerns very much: it is feminists as a group that they abuse. Were these writers projecting anxiety about themselves, and about the choices they had made in their own lives, on to feminism? Were they urgently trying to reinforce what they might have understood as their own femininity, to reassure themselves, perhaps, that they might continue to bask in the light of male approval?  I suspect that all these factors were at work, particularly in the case of older women who had made choices in an era when women’s opportunities were limited, and equality barely existed.

Carol Dyhouse is a feminist historian and emeritus professor of history at the University of Sussex. Her most recent book, Love Lives: From Cinderella to Frozen has just been published by Oxford University Press. She has written extensively about the social history of women, education and popular culture. Her previous publications include Glamour: Women, History, Feminism (2011), Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women (2013), and Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire (2017). Photograph taken by the author.