The New York Times opinion section this weekend features a thoughtful piece by Jill Filipovic on the obstacles to feminism in today’s America. Noting the remarkable but unfinished progress that women have made educationally and professionally, Filipovic articulates an end goal that is not only feministic, but humanistic. Society, she argues, needs “more fluid gender roles that allow individuals to do what they’re good at instead of what’s socially prescribed.” This means not only allowing women into realms traditionally reserved for men, but vice versa as well. “Men don’t need more masculine posturing. . . What they need is to make their own move toward gender equality, to break down the stereotypes and fetters of masculinity.”
Few humanists would disagree with such statements – stubborn opposition to the idea of evolving male gender roles not only hinders progress, it also fuels reactionary phenomena such as the Trump candidacy – but Filipovic’s thesis nevertheless misfires on one important point. That is, it's difficult to read the piece without concluding that men, and especially white men, are the sole culprits. “The men feminism left behind pose a threat to the country as a whole,” she warns. To such men, the diminishment of exclusive white male predominance "has simply become intolerable." Alluding to the racism so prevalent among Trump supporters, she notes that the GOP nominee "offers dislocated white men convenient scapegoats” such as Muslims and Mexicans.
All of this is true, as is Filipovic’s statement that “[i]t’s tempting to write off people who refuse to evolve.” But something is amiss here: there is little in the article to suggest that those who “refuse to evolve” are any individuals other than white men. The piece is silent about a critically important fact: opposition to evolving gender roles stems not so much from the psyches of white men, but from the cultural sources that cut across demographics of sex, race, class, and ethnicity. Outdated cultural authorities and traditions, with conservative religion leading the way, are the fiercest opponents of gender equality, and women propagate them as much as men.
Yes, white men have dominated American society historically, and as a category they are often more resistant to change than others, but it would be dangerously simplistic, and downright inaccurate, to frame the issue as one of white men versus everyone else. White men are have long been on the receiving end of much privilege due to outdated thinking on gender roles, but it would be erroneous to assume that they are the primary driving force behind such thinking.
The most shocking development of the 2016 presidential campaign is not the rise of the Donald Trump, but the fact that even among women Trump has trailed Hillary Clinton by only about 10 to 12 percentage points in national polls. Despite numerous revelations of Trump's brazenly misogynistic views, almost half the women polled are still voting for him!
If you’re trying to understand what kind of woman would support a Trump candidacy, look at two factors: religion and education. White evangelicals favored Trump in the poll by a margin of 79 to 15 percent. Women without college degrees, meanwhile, supported Trump over Clinton almost two to one, 61 to 32 percent.
Even more on point on the issue of gender roles, another recent survey indicates that one in four women in America agree with this statement: “These days society seems to punish men for acting like men.” Clearly there are important cultural forces, beyond men alone, feeding the resistance to change. Interestingly, about 43 percent of Republicans—and they're not all men—agree with that statement, compared to 26 percent of Democrats.
But religion was an even bigger factor. The survey noted that white evangelical Protestants were most in agreement with the statement (45 percent), whereas other religious categories and the religiously unaffiliated strongly disagreed. With an even wider gap, 64 percent of Republicans agree with the statement “Society as a whole has become too soft and feminine,” compared to only 28 percent of Democrats. The report didn't break down that question according to religion, but given the religious makeup of the parties we can draw some assumptions.
There's no question that white men have issues with gender roles, but they aren't alone. The underlying problem is not so much men versus women, but progressive thinking versus defiant intransigence. That’s not to suggest that “progressive” men can truly understand the experiences and difficulties women face in society—the most we can say is that we realize that sexism is deeply rooted and dangerous in numerous ways, but we certainly don’t live with it as women do—but it highlights, accurately, that the real resistance is entrenched in cultural forces that are not primarily defined by sex.
It’s important to recognize the cultural foundations upon which resistance to gender equality rests, because no solution will work if it is based on inaccurate assumptions. The recent death of Phyllis Schlafly, who once reportedly said, “Feminism is doomed to failure because it is based on an attempt to repeal and restructure human nature,” should remind us of this. Few would disagree that it was Schlafly, as much as any man, who was responsible for blocking passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. It’s noteworthy that, like so many anti-feminists, Schlafly also scorned “evolutionists”—that is, those who advocate for accurate science.
If society is to work toward the humanistic and feministic goals of gender equality, the real foe needs to be identified. Sure, men play a major role in the narrative, often the role of antagonist, but the real opponents are the cultural forces that fervently resist progress. As the numbers show, many of these intense and committed opponents of gender equality have roots firmly planted in conservative religion, and many of them are women. From a humanist viewpoint, open criticism of such cultural forces is a key step to breaking down barriers to progress.