Farewell to the Gargoyle Feminist?

From Rebecca Traister’s word processor to the Goddess’ ears:

The image of the feminist as a mirthless, hirsute, sex-averse succubus is a friendly-fire casualty of the Republican “war on women.” It’s a grave loss to conservatives, who have used this faithful foot soldier as a comfortably grotesque stand-in for the real people whose liberties they have sought to conscribe: women….

Painting those with a commitment to gender equality as brutish killers of buzzes and babies has been a useful tactic, not only in distracting the public from anti-feminist policy, but in sending messages to young people. Generations of kids, including my own 1990s cohort, have prefaced feminist statements with, “I’m not a feminist, but . . .” Sarah Michelle Gellar, who played girl-power icon Buffy Summers, once told a reporter that she hated the word “feminist” because it “brings up such horrible connotations and makes you think of women who don’t shave their legs.”

In activism, an image problem becomes a structural problem: Twisted but resonant stereotypes make women hesitant to identify with the movement to expand their rights. And if women won’t organize and advocate on their own behalf, the work of anti-feminists is done.

But the recent Republican incursions against women’s rights have been extreme enough to make women finally see beyond the wraith, to recognize that this battle is in fact about them. As presidential candidates sparred over birth control and state legislatures enacted punishing restrictions on reproductive rights and opposed equal-pay protections, newly vocal feminists resisted publicly. By doing so, they transformed the stereotype, putting youth, sex and humor on the side of the long-denigrated women’s movement. Conservatives such as Limbaugh, Foster Friess and Rick Santorum, dealing in sexual censoriousness and musty utterances, suddenly looked like the sexless relics of a bygone era, while the women shouting back at them presented a new, cool model of feminism — young, funny, socially nimble and appealing….

I don’t grok all her examples, but then, as an Old Person (second wave feminists, represent!), I know that I am not her target audience, either. I just hope she’s right that the caricature has finally passed its sell-by date.

The Ugly Humorless Anti-Sex(Yet-Secretly-Sexually-Voracious) Suffragette has been a media trope since at least the 1850s, when that generation’s version of the Responsible Liberal used it as a political weapon to undercut the call for civil rights from both women and African-Americans by playing one group against the other. It’s popped up every time women seemed to be making progress — in the 1870s during ‘Reconstruction’, again in the ‘Progressive’ Era (those ‘mill girls’), during the 1920s (flappers vs. old-fashioned bluestockings), after WWII when Rosie the Riveter was supposed to turn herself into June Cleaver, and of course in the 1970s. If you read the WaPo‘s “Top Comments”, those evergreen perennials “But what about individual rights, isn’t it also sexist to ignore the men?” and “Islamic women in the Middle East and victims of mass rape in the Congo have it really bad, therefore American women have no right to bitch about their little inconveniences” remain as popular as they were in the Stone/Stanton era, sad to say. You’d think the troglodytes would get tired of recycling the same tired whinges…

43 replies
  1. 1
    Mattminus says:

    Once you use the word “grok”, it’s redundant to point out that you’re an old person.

  2. 2
    YellowJournalism says:

    That “feminist” is a label that applies only to women is probably the biggest misconception. I had a professor in college get angry with a female classmate during a discussion when she did the “I’m not a feminist, but…” routine. He stopped her, asked her why not and declared himself a feminist. I loved the look on her face as this big, burley, heavy-bearded prof challenged her world view. He said something along he lines of how feminism is about breaking stereotypes and social boundaries for men as well as women.

  3. 3
    Cacti says:

    Rush Limbaugh scored an own-goal with his Sandra Fluke attacks, and helped bring about a tipping point in public opinion.

    People looked at Ms. Fluke and saw a bright, wholesome, girl next door type, that made people think “that could be my daughter”.

    Then they looked at the other side and saw a bald, sweaty, tub of lard, with no children of his own, and three failed marriages, making the most crass and vulgar attacks on her character.

  4. 4
    Alison says:

    The right always clings to their stereotypes – the same way they insist feminists are all hairy-legged man-hating abortioneers, they also are still ridiculously beholden to the caricature of gay men as lisping, effeminate ditzes, black men as loud angry dopes, etc etc. No matter how many examples belie their tropes, they never want to let go…because if they can be proven wrong on the superficials, then – HORRORS – maybe they are also wrong about the more substantive bullshit, like that feminists want to make men a new slave class, gay men prey on children, etc etc. They can’t stand the thought that they might be wrong on everything, thus they can’t handle admitting they’re wrong on anything.

  5. 5
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    You’d think the troglodytes would get tired of recycling the same tired whinges…

    Well, two reasons why not to get tired of them. They don’t have the creativity to come up with new ones, and the old ones have been, until recently, working. References to Bella Abzug fall on “who?” ears nowadays. Meanwhile, Sandra Fluke is a not unattractive young woman who isn’t out to pick up sailors along the harbor edge, and painting her that way was indeed the tub of lard kicking the ball into his own net.

  6. 6
    MariedeGournay says:

    @Alison: To quote my namesake: “Ignorance is the mother of presumption.”

    The ‘gargoyle’ feminist has been around as long as there have been women who wouldn’t ‘keep their mouths shut.’ Later in life, Gournay was depicted as a toothless old hag in 17th Century Paris plays, making fun of her ‘screechy’ calls for education reform. Namely that she called for girls to have access to it. The joyless vampire crone is was and will be the weapon of choice against ladies who make their complaints known. I am not optimistic that that blade will remain dull for long, but I am confident that the recent use of wit so many women have used against the recent attacks has always been the best counter. It’s so pleasing to see ridicule deployed against the bastards.

  7. 7
    Jamie says:

    “You’d think the troglodytes would get tired of recycling the same tired whinges…”

    To amplify VDE, they don’t care that the arguments are tired, they care if they work. The argument isn’t honest. It exists to further a goal. When it doesn’t work any more, suddenly, it’s the economy, stupid, what war on women? And anyway, democrats are the real oppressors!

    Make them own it. Repetition is key – just keep pointing out all of the anti-women shit, and even when it gets boring, keep doing it. Dog knows, they will keep coming up with creative new ways to hate on chicks, so there is endless new material. Republicans want women back to barefoot and pregnant*. Keep pointing it out.

    *some don’t care, and just want more tax breaks. Generally speaking, this subset can fly their daughters to an undisclosed location for a bit while she recovers from her earthy desires and youthful indiscretions.

  8. 8

    “sex-averse succubus”

    I get she’s going for the “ugly anti-sex crusader who secretly has huge sexual appetites” thing. (Slight tangent: it really is all about projection with these jamoakes, isn’t it?)

    So I get what she’s trying to sling down. But, what is a sex-averse succubus? Is that like a self-hating jew? A hydrophobic newt? Or just one that doesn’t take very much joy in succubusing? Or one that succubuses by other means; being a particularly enticing piece of cake, fer instance? OR – oh man – or what if it’s a succubus that uses love instead of sex to doom their victims. Have ’em head over heels, then threaten to leave if they don’t steal a nice rug to tie the living room together? Insidious.

  9. 9
    Older_Wiser says:

    I was almost 30 when I became a feminist, although I had been self-sustaining for years, a working class divorced mother w/2 kids, with no lack of male companionship if I wanted it. Most of the women I worked with in the women’s movement were younger and more educated than I was and had no kids of their own, but I learned from them, as they did from me, and we all learned from our predecessors. The generosity and spirit of these women made us beautiful human beings and enhanced the self-worth of all of us. We didn’t need consumer accoutrements to feel “worthy” but yes, there were even “lipstick lesbians” then, along with “earth mothers”, women of color, women from all walks of life. The number one complaint was that we did not feel valued by male dominated society, the one that trained us to compete against each other for the crumbs we were “granted” by men. And not only did we examine the role of women in society, we examined the class and race structures which serve to separate women as well.

    Sisterhood was powerful then, and it still is today, if we want it. I’m still proud, in my declining years, to call myself a feminist. And I’m proud of the feminist in the White House.

  10. 10
    Joey Maloney says:

    But, what is a sex-averse succubus? Is that like a self-hating jew? A hydrophobic newt? Or just one that doesn’t take very much joy in succubusing?

    Well, you know how it is, any job gets old after a few centuries. Just ask Anya.

  11. 11
    Suezboo says:

    Oh boy, is this the post where old feminists from the 70s get to say “Go, sisters, go.” If so, I’m saying it.If not, bugger it, I’m still saying it.

  12. 12
    Marcellus Shale, Public Dick says:

    wait, what if a guy wants bella abzug in the street, and pamela desbarres in the bedroom?

  13. 13
    the fugitive uterus says:

    I thought Rush invented the concept of hairy, dour, men-hating feminists being so sexually voracious that they walk funny.

    They hate men so much they fuck their eyeballs out any chance they get.

  14. 14
    the fugitive uterus says:

    @Marcellus Shale, Public Dick: you made me look up Pamela Desbarres but that was pretty funny

  15. 15
    geg6 says:

    Second Waver here, representing!

    I remember reading SMG saying that shit about not being a (shudder!) feminist. Which is one reason I hated that stupid show. There were several other reasons, but she’s an idiot and I hate stupid, self-hating women like her.

    As to the topic, the ugly hairy feminist has always been a lie. Back when we were out burning our bras and agitating for the passage of the ERA, none of us in my bunch were ugly or hairy. Unless you count growing our hair long so we could try to look like Gloria Steinem “hairy”.

  16. 16
    the fugitive uterus says:

    @Older_Wiser: I am almost 50 and, personally, I thank you for what you have done on my behalf.

    My standard line is, “Nice going, Jan Brewer! Way to pay back all those women who fought for your right to be a suck-ass governor!”

    And, yes, that’s the thanks you normally get.

    But I humbly say, “thank you”

  17. 17
    KCinDC says:

    @Both Sides Do It, I think she just doesn’t know what a succubus is. Maybe she was thinking of “harpy”?

  18. 18
    WereBear says:

    @the fugitive uterus: My standard line is, “Nice going, Jan Brewer! Way to pay back all those women who fought for your right to be a suck-ass governor!”

    I love that. It so beautifully sums up the Republican women who used the feminist movement to climb to where they are and start kicking other women in the head from their new perch.

    Heck, I was a teenager when the ERA was being fought over, and I still got the ridiculousness of all these right wing women screaming that women shouldn’t be doing… what they, themselves, were busy doing.

  19. 19
    Neddie Jingo says:

    This Mothers’ Day, we visited the former DC penitentiary in Lorton, VA., now converted to an art space. Fascinating place, highly recommended if you’re local. Some really good artists on display.

    But what fascinated me and, it goes without saying, the female members of my family, was the prison museum (Block 9, about a quarter of the way down, if you’re thinking of visiting).

    In it, we learn that in 1912, Women’s Suffragists protesting Woodrow Wilson’s indifference to their agitation for the vote (Occupy Wilson’s Pants!), were violently imprisoned in the women’s section at Lorton. These weren’t anarchists, or communists, or members of the Professional Left, but rather ordinary women from rather ordinary walks of life who had the temerity to think that is was unfair that, although they participated in society, paid taxes, contributed labor and what have you, they had no say in the direction of that society.

    They staged a hunger strike.

    They were force-fed. Can’t have starved distaff martyrs loafing about. Frightens the horses.

    In 1912, this procedure consisted of tying the hunger-striker to a chair, forcing a rubber tube up her nose and down into her esophagus, and pouring raw, beaten eggs down a funnel, through the tube, and into her stomach. Common results were copious bleeding from the nose, and violent vomiting — while the procedure was ongoing. Nightmare doesn’t even begin to describe it. Day after day after day of it.

    Frankly, think I’d rather be waterboarded.

    So think about that. Within living memory, a mere hundred years ago, society was so badly threatened by women demanding to vote — to vote!!! — that we tortured them when they wouldn’t behave according to the standards we demanded of them. A hundred years ago. Two of my lifetimes. Yeah, the movies were all black and white and jumpy-fast. The photographs look ancient and alienating. But we tortured women for wanting to vote 50 years before I was born. Vietnam is less distant in time from now.

    We may not acknowledge it explicitly, but the revulsion we feel at Virginia’s horrible invasive ultrasound proposal, and the nauseating ugliness that surrounded it, is exactly the same revulsion I experienced at the Lorton Prison Museum’s display of forced feeding. The impulse on display is the same: Women have only the rights granted them. Anything else is, well, “mirthless, hirsute, sex-averse succubi” doing what they do.

    X-, Y-, Z-wave feminists, you owe yourselves a visit to the Lorton Prison Museum. Refresh your anger. Reload your memories. Then come back. Back to now.

  20. 20
    Ash Can says:

    Gads, I hope the term “feminist” is being rehabilitated. Count me among those who bang their heads against a wall whenever they hear younger people who are obviously feminists insist that they aren’t. I want to seek out every person in their lives who taught them that feminism is a bad thing and smack them around until they re-learn their entire English vocabularies.

    And yes, the anti-ERA women were a trip and a half. I didn’t understand them then and I don’t understand them now. Maybe because I just don’t have a mindset that’s set to self-destruct.

  21. 21
    WereBear says:

    @Ash Can: See, they cannot shake the “compete with other women for the crumbs” mentality. So they happily concur with keeping other women down, as long as they have found a secret tunnel to avoid such things.

    And right wing men grant it because it serves their sick purposes to have token women to deflect criticism.

    I see Justice Thomas that way; it might be why he seems ready to explode at any moment when I catch public glimpses of him. He got the money, the job, the women; he was a flatout womanizer like so many in DC, with no consequences at all. The Republicans pushed him all the way to the top while he didn’t even have to be careful about showing he was a jerk.

    You’d think he’d be the happiest man on Earth. And yet, he is so obviously not.

  22. 22
    Darkrose says:


    Unless you count growing our hair long so we could try to look like Gloria Steinem “hairy”.

    I was pretty young during the 70’s, but I remember everyone was pretty hairy.

  23. 23
    brantl says:

    You’d think the troglodytes would get tired of recycling the same tired whinges…

    They’re conservatives, what was good enough for great-to-the-nth, homopithicus grandad, is good enough for them, even if they wouldn’t have fire to read it by, in the evening…..

  24. 24
    Steve says:

    Always been a feminist. I don’t shave my legs, either.

  25. 25
    Kay says:

    I liked the piece too, because I haven’t been able to decide or articulate why this time around feels different, less crouched and defensive, and I do think this is part of it:

    The popular dismantling of entrenched feminist stereotypes began, perhaps, not with the feminist movement itself, but in comedy. Performers such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Wanda Sykes, Samantha Bee and Kristen Schaal have happily made gender politics part of their acts. In March, Schaal even performed Republican policy as stand-up on “The Daily Show”: “What’s the difference between a fertilized egg, a corporation and a woman? One of them isn’t considered a person in Oklahoma.”

    It’s also been interesting to watch the response to the humor, which has been so ungenerous and pinched and crabby. It’s great how women were subject to conservative “humor” for years, decades, but conservatives have an absolute, whiny fit when it’s turned around on them. All of a sudden the Feminazi HA HA HA crowd are all deep, earnest thinkers who want only the best for us, and are being portrayed unfairly.

  26. 26
    Paul in KY says:

    @Neddie Jingo: Same thing happened in England during the drive for women’s voting rights.

  27. 27
    Svensker says:

    “Islamic women in the Middle East and victims of mass rape in the Congo have it really bad, therefore American women have no right to bitch about their little inconveniences”

    I get this from my wingnut cousin all the time. Not only does it denigrate women but it has the added bonus of demonstrating the foulness of the filthy Mooslim — yet another reason to bomb Iran! Yay!

  28. 28
    Corbin Dallas Multipass says:

    The Straw Feminist by Feminist Frequency.

    Great video depicting this Trope.

  29. 29
    catclub says:

    @Alison: “man-hating abortioneers”

    great band names candidate

  30. 30
    middlewest says:

    Second-wavers still blaming everyone else but themselves for driving a generation of women away from feminism, I see. It’s alright, they’re not relevant anymore.

  31. 31
    sparrow says:

    @Ash Can: As a member of the Z-wave (? I guess, I’m 28), let me say that you are right to bring up the definitions. Remember that a lot of us were raised in the snake nest. I had extremely conservative parents, and a very constrained up-bringing. I grew up in a suburb in one of the reddest states in the US. This informed my entire worldview and while yes, as an adult, it is my duty to question and form my own opinions, it takes a while to come out after 18 years of (essentially) brainwashing and reprogram away the visceral feelings that attend some words. For a long time “liberal” or “democrat” WERE dirty words to me. Feminist too, conjured up an image of an angry, bra-burning, screaming woman. Of course, if you had asked me, I would have staunchly defended the rights of women and expressed gratitude for the past fights of same (cognitive dissonance, yes, I remember it fondly). Now, ten years later, I am a feminist (and also a pinko commie liberal)… and I will use that word and defend it every chance I can get.

  32. 32
    PIGL says:

    @Suezboo: we’re only in our 50s. Not young, one must admit, but not exactly old. Not yet.

  33. 33
    Mark says:

    What Steve said (and YellowJournalism too.) There may not have been too many feminist men back when Ms. magazine was widely-available, but today you have plenty of adult men like me who were raised by feminist moms.

    As I try to wrap my head around all of the women my age I know who start out in the workforce but suddenly covet big diamonds, change their names and then plan to stop working when they have kids, I really hope that someone recognizes that men are essential to breaking down white male privilege.

  34. 34
    Enhanced Voting Techniques says:

    I don’t know, the thing I remember in the ’80s the Feminists got these anti-harassment laws passed, which was really good because it protected everyone from douch bag bosses. Then in the early ’90s there was this group calling themselves feminists that basically wanted to castrate men as far as I could figure out and then ran off and allied themselves with the religious right because the religious right hated sex too. End result was Ann Coulter.

  35. 35
    quannlace says:

    Yup, since the 1850’s at least. The first reaction is the pat-on-the-head, the ‘don’t worry your pretty head about it dear.” Along with the ‘the hand that rocks the cradle,’ crapola. Then when that doesn’t work, they move into ‘women’s rights are threats to…the family, marriage, traditional roles.’ If women have equal rights it’ll turn them into men! Or as it was put in British novels at the time, ‘they’ll unsex themselves.” which is such a weird phrase.

  36. 36
    bago says:

    It seems like an excellent metaphor to establish a wedge issue between the financiers and the moralists would be to heighten the divide of the place of government. Financiers want the government out of their pocket, and moralists want government through the pocket, through the panties, and jammed into vaginas. The resultant confusion would be very entertaining.

  37. 37


    I love her to death but I don’t think Kristen Schaal had much to do with anything

    Unless it was being the most consistently funny part of Flight of the Conchords

    I am reminded though of the argument that pernicious social groups can continue for decades and appear as robust as you’d like, then start collapsing when they perceive themselves as being ridiculed or being treated not different as anyone else by the man in the street.

    The Ku Klux Klan started Kollapsing when some social activist, – Stuart something? – started mass publishing the secret greeting rituals and signs of KKK members (three fingers hanging over a belt pointing down, etc) and making jokes about them. It took all the fun out of it for the rank-and-file when they kept hearing schoolkids all make the same jokes and of seeing three fingers over belt loops everywhere they went.

    I think a similar type thing might be happening with conservative ideological/media tribe identification. If you can’t even casually mention what you saw on Hannity last night without being laughed at, what’s the point? If middle schoolers are all talking about Obama being a socialist and not recoiling in horror but just tossing it around casually, what’s the point?

    So in that sense humor in general probably has something to do with what we’re seeing. And the Daily Show as well, if only in a diffuse way.

    Schaal, though, nah.

  38. 38
    Ash Can says:

    @sparrow: Thank goodness for people like you. :) The corollary to “you are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts” is “you are also not entitled to your own dictionary.” The terms “conservative” and “liberal” may be distorted beyond redemption at this point, but I would truly mourn the loss of the word “feminism.”

  39. 39
    ThresherK says:

    @Cacti: People looked at Ms. Fluke that way.

    You know who also might say “That could be my daughter he’s slagging on”?

    Our media overlords. Their daughters get into Georgetown, Columbia, Penn and such, and they’re of the socioeconomic strata that is used to birth control simply existing as an option, like adding bacon to a cheeseburger, rather than something they have to hope they can get somewhere*.

    The idea of our insular media overlords not knowing how the rest of the country lives may be working for us instead of against us.

    (*Unlike a poor 13-y.o. in RealAmerica dependent on whether her teabagger lege has shut down PP yet.)

  40. 40
    Rafer Janders says:

    @Both Sides Do It:

    The Ku Klux Klan started Kollapsing when some social activist, – Stuart something? – started mass publishing the secret greeting rituals and signs of KKK members (three fingers hanging over a belt pointing down, etc) and making jokes about them.

    It was the wonderfully named Stetson Kennedy. The man was an American hero. Link to his wiki below:


  41. 41
    ErikaF says:

    @Both Sides Do It: A big part of the KKK collapse was the Superman radio show. Since the radio show not only was one of the most listened to, kids and adults idolized Superman as a symbol of America. Thus Superman’s enemies were America’s enemies. Stuart (can’t remember his name either) fed the writers of the radio show the secret passwords and signs of the KKK, so when kids copied the signs as regarded the KKK as Superman’s enemy, the writing was on the wall for the KKK.

    The Ugly Gargoyle Suffagette image is also on the way out. Since the advent of independent powerful women in the media (real and unreal), that image is beginning to pass away. And now that the image of the important man who must put women in their place is not a powerful and kindly man (aka Superman), but Rush Limbaugh… well, the writing is on the wall.

  42. 42
    Splitting Image says:

    Thanks for linking that article.

    Regarding the “second wave” feminists pushing away the younger crowd, that kind of depends on what you consider “second wave” doesn’t it?

    I got interested in feminism as a teenager in the 1980s when I started reading books like The Feminine Mystique and Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. I got very disillusioned with the movement in the early ’90s when I started meeting college kids who frankly weren’t interested in sharing the movement with anyone vaginally-challenged. By then the “movement” had degenerated into attacks on pornography that were indistinguishable from those made by the likes of Phyllis Shlafly and the local government spending valuable time coming up with a gender-neutral word for “manhole”. (I wish I were kidding.)

    I basically gave up calling myself a feminist around that time. The fact that anti-porn crusaders like Catherine McKinnon never seemed to me to be any different from the Phyllis Shlaflys of the world and that newcomers like Camille Paglia and Naomi Wolf seemed to be either grifters or lightweights didn’t diminish the achievements of Steinem or Betty Friedan, but it did make me feel that there wasn’t much point to the movement anymore.

    As a man, it always made sense to me that the concept of “feminism” would start to peter out as inequality became more gender-neutral and further progress would require more and more men getting involved with the feminist movement. I’ve always assumed that a lot of women felt the same way. By the ’90s it seemed that the real heirs of the second wave were the ones not calling themselves feminists any more, sort of like how the heirs of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony wouldn’t be caught dead in today’s Republican party.

    I also think that a lot of women assumed that no one would be stupid enough to try to take some of the basic gains the feminist movement had made away from them, and until recently, no one had really tried. The result of re-opening the debates that second-wave feminism was supposed to have closed has made second-wave feminism relevant again. I agree that the fact that the anti-sex crusaders are once again on the opposite side has helped undo the damage the late second wave or early third wave feminists did to the movement.

  43. 43
    someofparts says:

    Feels so odd to be watching feminist battle from the sidelines. Yep, I’m representing for the gargoyles.

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