Watching the BBC drama Mrs America about the 1970s fight for the Equal Rights Amendment is a reminder that progress is rarely permanent and that feminist battles for women's liberation always attract backlash, as well as open hatred and disdain.
In the show, the right-wing Republican and anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly does battle with second-wave feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and Betty Friedan. Whatever your views on feminism, I would implore you to watch it. It is incredible television.
But something occurred to me right in the middle of the first episode. The Schlafly character reminded me of some of the so-called feminists of today. In the current climate of trans activists demanding total capitulation, like Schlafly, some women are happy to barter our hard-won gains in order to be seen as 'nice'.
In the 1970s, any sensible person would be on the side of the feminists as opposed to those trying to prevent women’s equal rights under the law. Schlafly, whatever her motivations, was an enemy to other women. She put the interests of men before her own, both politically and personally. So do some of the trans-activists of today. Much as they would deplore Schlafly's racism and other bigotry, these women have much more in common with the Republican anti-feminist than they would ever admit.
In putting the fight for trans rights above and beyond women, these activists are ‘doing a Schlafly’. While we all support the human rights of transgender people, real feminists ensure women are protected in their politics – recent activists, similar to Schlafly, are fighting against feminists.
As the late Andrea Dworkin wrote in Right Wing Women published in 1978:
“Women are trained to need men, not sexually but metaphysically. Women are brought up to be the void that needs filling, the absence that needs presence. Women are brought up to fear men and to know that they must please men and to understand that they cannot survive without the help of men richer and stronger than they can be themselves, on their own.
Women who insist that feminists are rubbish if we focus on women – those born female as opposed to trans women – in our campaigning won’t admit that they are caving in to men’s demands. Whether it is by supporting the bearded dudes that bully feminists and even try to get them sacked when we refuse to tow the approved line on trans rights or pushing forward policies that would undermine women’s sex-based rights that our foremothers fought so long and hard to secure.
And there are other similarities between these women and the Schlafly brigade. Schlafly and other anti-feminist, right-wing women argued that gender was hard-wired, except she would have called it ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. The latest wave of trans activists, in particular the academic crew, buy into the theory that girls have ‘pink brains’ and boys ‘blue brains’ and that if a boy plays with dollies and tea-sets then they must be trans and really identify as a girl.
Schlafly took up the cause of defeating the ERA because her ambition of holding elected office had failed following pressure from her husband who wanted a stay-at-home wife. Many mediocre feminist writers and academics do just the same in adopting the ‘trans women are women’ mantra. In putting trans rights above those of 3.5 billion women, these women are buying into an ideology that would have them as the oppressor and not the oppressed.
As Andrea Dworkin said, 'Schlafly, in her written and spoken work, does not acknowledge experiencing any of the difficulties that tear women apart.'
In a debate with Schlafly at Stanford University in 1982, the feminist lawyer Catharine MacKinnon tried to help Schlafly understand that she had been discriminated against as a woman: 'Mrs Schlafly tells us that being a woman has not gotten in her way,' said MacKinnon. This is what the trans allies tell us all the time; that women benefit from 'cis-privilege' and therefore have no oppression in relation to trans women.
Just as the 'stop the ERA' movement enabled some deeply traditional women to get out of the kitchen and into public life, so has the extreme trans-activist campaign helped mediocre feminist academics find a place in a world where they would normally fade into oblivion. Both the 'stop the ERA' campaign and the campaign to remove all women's sex-based rights in law are deeply anti-feminist and destructive.
The fact that it is not possible to be seen as a supporter of trans people's human rights, as all feminists are or at least should be, unless we fully capitulate and take the metaphorical – and sometimes literal – boot in the face shows how extreme trans activists, enabled by their handmaiden allies, are nothing but a misogynistic men’s rights movement.