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Lauren McKeon: Writing a book about feminism backlash forced a confrontation with skepticism


FrontmatterSeptember_LaurenMcKeon_CR-YuliScheidtFeminism is a done deal. At least, when I started working on F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism in 2014, that’s what everyone kept telling me. I quickly grew used to receiving incredulous looks whenever I told people my book project interrogated the rise of anti-feminism, particularly among women. Usually these looks were followed with an assertion that women’s rights had triumphed – and a long time ago, too. Those feminists who kept fighting were seen as picking at trivialities. They were whiners, sore winners, relics.

I got the idea that, to my skeptics, feminism was a little like Queen Elizabeth II: assured, seemingly indestructible, and perhaps a little old-fashioned. The skeptics seemed certain that anti-feminism would not rise again like some zombie horde, resurrected from the pages of Susan Faludi’s Backlash. Gender equality had won. Things were better than they’d ever been before. So, like, get over it.

I felt like returning these smug narratives with my own “Are you kidding me?” looks. Attacks on reproductive rights were becoming increasingly successful. Backlash simmered against survivors and anti-rape advocates. Gamergate was helping to build a battleground against women in technology. The men’s rights movement and its rhetoric had lurched into the mainstream. Studies consistently showed a dwindling number of women who identified with feminism. Those same studies also showed a steady uptick in the number of women who felt it was passé, bogus even. The connect-the-dots pattern seemed obvious. There was a bigger trend here – one that was worth exploring. I wondered what we had to gain – and lose – from our premature celebration of equality. What path did this denial put us all on?

Then Donald Trump happened. And Brexit. And Marine Le Pen. Plus an infinite number of daily, small-scale acts of extreme conservatism, isolationism, racism, sexism, hate. Suddenly, anti-feminism went from something bubbling in the underground to a mainstream topic. Or, perhaps rather a mainstream question: How did this happen? Reactions to my research shifted from polite dismissal (Is this really a thing?) to knowing nods (Of course you are investigating this worthy topic, please continue). At the same time, many of my interviews now opened with people asking me questions: Why are women so drawn to anti-feminism? How are they affecting policy? And on and on.

The reversal in people’s attitudes was heartening, although not exactly surprising. You no longer need a microscope to see the trend. (I mean, I still would have liked for my research to have been wrong – for all this rising division to have blown over like a bad storm.) As a magazine editor and longform journalist, I’m often writing and researching on the cusp of a trend. In many ways, that’s the essence of what we do as journalists: follow our research and our instincts toward a current of connected happenings, ones we think hold a deeper meaning in society, that will tell us something about ourselves as humans and how we live, interact, exist.

In the beginning, following a trend can feel like strange alchemy. You go to events, rallies, and club meetings, then return to your desk to pull together studies, statistics, and interviews. You’re analyzing, thinking, trying to make sense. Sometimes all the disparate parts come together to paint a bigger picture. Sometimes – probably more often – they don’t.

I started this project because I wanted to know more. I wanted to know the answers to all the questions people began asking me. I wanted to know if my hunches and my lingering unease would bear out. As journalists, we owe due diligence to our readers. At first, I employed my own skepticism until I could no longer ignore that, yes, this new, surging anti-feminism was both real and far-reaching. More than that, I felt I could add to the conversation. Sure, some people were so over feminism. But others, like me, were not. We wonder what is going on. We crave answers and insight. We see the trend, too, even if we can’t explain it.

Not everyone will agree that I’ve found the ultimate answer. That’s the beauty of trends. Part of the work is spotting them; the other part is interpreting them, deriving meaning, and then sharing what you’ve found. I’ve never wanted F-Bomb to be a definitive text on feminism and anti-feminism. I want it to start a conversation. For it to not be the answer, but an answer. I don’t see my role as a journalist and an author as being prescriptive. I’m trying to make room for people to disagree with me and with each other. But I hope that also means making room for them to change their minds, learn, and ask their own questions. After all, isn’t feminism about making the space for more women to be heard?

Lauren McKeon is the former editor of This Magazine and a contributing editor at Toronto Life. F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism is published by Goose Lane Editions.