American Women Have Always Been Mocked
It is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which codified into Constitutional law a woman’s right to vote. As politicians all over the US honor Susan B Anthony and male leaders pretend they would NOT have mocked these same women had they been around 100 years ago, it’s time to reflect on the long American tradition of laughing at female activists.
The idea that female activists, suffragettes, feminists and campaigners are always ugly has existed in the US for over a 100 years now. Famous journalist and commentator HL Mencken believed (apparently unironically) that simply pushing for equal rights turned a woman ugly. In a diary entry written in 1942, Mencken describes going to a political dinner (he calls it a “festival of liberals”) and being disgusted by the suffragettes present. “I was impressed once more with the dreadful effect of moral endeavor upon the female form divine. Most of the women were uplifters of one sort or another, and four-fifths of them were hideous- in fact, there were several who seemed almost inhuman.” The concept that feminism is driven not by an honest wish for equal rights but a subconscious bitterness over a lack of attention from men has been persistent in popular culture.
The mockery of feminism is as American as the apple pie baked by a decent woman who knows to restrict herself to the kitchen. The form of the mockery, however, has evolved over the decades in rather interesting ways. During the height of the Suffragette movement the mockery involves fear of gender inversion. American society was scared of the image of the woman bread winner and the stay-at-home father. The themes of anti-Suffragette newspaper illustrations were clear: If you were a man who let your wife become a Suffragette you would lose your manhood. If you were a woman who became a Suffragette, you were either an ugly old shrew or a neglectful wife and mother.
Many of the stereotypes of suffragettes that emerged in the early twentieth century have persisted today, with perhaps the exception of the stereotype of gender role inversion. The male fear of being emasculated and forced to do housework as a result of women’s suffrage has become very old-fashioned. By the late 20th century most households had become reliant on two incomes. The idea that a husband, while off work, should take care of the kids and the housework while his wife works is seen as normal among Millenials and even Generation X. “Why is the dad angry that he has to take care of his own kids?” most commenters ask on blogs featuring old anti-Suffragette cartoons. When I go do work, many of my male colleagues not only accept that their girlfriends work they get indignant when the women in their lives DON’T work. “You’ve been ‘looking’ for a job for two months now!” I remember one young man say irritably over the phone to his wife, “I’m working extra shifts. How are we gonna pay the bills?”
Other themes of mockery imply that women do not have the emotional stability or maturity to be involved in society’s most important decisions. This theme has endured, unlike the fear of gender inversion theme. Should women be allowed to select the most powerful leaders in our country? Should women be judges or mayors? Should women be allowed to serve in the military? Should women even be allowed to become president? Are women equal members of society, or merely shrieking ninnies who scream at men in order to make up for the lack of gravitas inherent in their weaker gender?
Thus, as we celebrate 100 years of women’s Suffrage on this anniversary of the 19th amendment, we women know that there is a certain hollowness to the victory. We know that those men talking in elevated tones about Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton have been raised in the same America that we have, an America that has a long history of mocking women. Words are cheap, but when it comes to actions- such as the 2016 election or the nomination of Senator Kamala Harris as VP- the mockery tends to win.