Last weekend’s Women’s March did not mark the end of the feminism era, but the beginning of a new age of resistance says Joyce McMillan
Flicking through images of last Saturday’s huge Women’s March, as it spread through city after city across the globe, I came across a picture from Toronto of a strikingly large and absurd pink hat, framing the remarkable face of the great Canadian novelist, Margaret Attwood. Attwood is perhaps most famous for her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which imagined a future United States taken over by a strongly religious and patriarchal right wing who reduce women to the status of chattels, forbidden to read, to vote, or to exercise any control over their own fertility.
At the time of its publication, The Handmaid’s Tale seemed like an extreme vision, and mercifully it still does; although there was always just enough that was recognisable about it, in the more conservative and religious sections of American society, to make it seem like a warning, as well as a powerful piece of fiction. And so it’s hardly surprising that when the picture emerged, on Monday, of Donald Trump signing a reinstatement of the “global gag” on abortion advice offered by women’s health organisations worldwide which receive US funding, and doing so surrounded by a heavy phalanx of middle-aged men in suits, millions of women felt a shudder of recognition; as if something very old, and very frightening, had just come alive again, and begun to flex its muscles.
That Trump chose to make this move on the first working day of his presidency was no surprise, of course. It was obvious throughout his campaign that opposition to feminism, and to many of the gains it has made, was one of the key planks of his platform, the more so because of the incendiary levels of hatred directed by Trump and his supporters at his opponent, the lifelong feminist Hillary Clinton. It only takes a single glance at Trump’s family photographs to register the extraordinarily strict appearance code that seems to apply to women in his inner circle; like so many 21st century Stepford Wives, they must all have the same pin-thin model figures, the same long, straight, blondish hair, and the same fixed smiles, aided by botox and surgery. And if Trump’s private attitudes to women seem to offer them only strictly conditional acceptance, then the content of his campaign - with its outbursts of physical disgust against women journalists and Hillary Clinton, and the famous “locker-room” tape - made it clear that for him, women are primarily sexual objects, to be discussed or dismissed in those terms.
Nor, in global terms, is Donald Trump alone. Wherever backlash-style right-wing politics gains strength, from France and Germany to Poland and Hungary, women are always in the front line of the struggle, their bodies often the very battle-ground over which it is fought. In Russia, as part of the backlash against “western values”, the Duma has just re-legalised some forms of domestic violence. And even here in Britain, all three major parties have supported austerity programmes which, by withdrawing or underfunding key social services, have had a hugely disproportionate impact on women’s earnings, time, health, and ability to participate in public life; while the new British cult of right-wing buffoonery as “entertainment” gives us a chat show in which Piers Morgan actually discusses whether women should be forced to wear ridiculously high heels at work.
Yet if the hounds of the backlash are currently baying across the planet, this is one area where they seem unlikely to have the argument all their own way. In the first place, the arguments themselves are thin; most studies demonstrate, even to people with deep moral reservations about abortion, that enhancing women’s control over their own lives leads to greater confidence and empowerment, better education, smaller families, and, in the end, to fewer abortions.
And secondly, the hugely impressive organisation of last weekend’s worldwide Women’s March - with the Edinburgh event put together by two 16-year-olds - should act as a warning to those who think that with the formal left in a weak and divided state across the west, politicians of the reactionary right will not face much opposition over the next decade. When I first heard that the immediate response to Donald Trump’s swearing in was to be a Women’s March, I was surprised and even slightly sceptical, given the huge range of the new President’s reactionary programme.
Yet when the women turned up and marched, with tens of thousands of men in support, in cities all the way from Moscow to Texas, it seemed immediately obvious that it’s here, at the point where the political meets the personal, that the fight back against Trump and Trumpism has to begin. As many of the brilliant posters on these demonstrations pointed out, the appeal of politicians like Trump depends on an ideology of hatred, division and denial that is fundamentally wrong in judging or rejecting people according to their national origin, fundamentally mistaken in refusing to face up to the environmental crises we now face, and fundamentally useless in finding a sustainable future for human life on this planet; and those errors are as obvious at grassroots level as they are on the wider stage of global politics.
Of course, not all women oppose Trump; many still take their own rights for granted, or actually prefer to defer to their menfolk. In the second decade of the 21st century, though, the women who do oppose Trump have organisational tools at their disposal on a previously unimaginable scale. They have the education and confidence won over two generations of progress, they have both experience and the overwhelming support of the young, and they have many, many allies, among those men who love women rather than fearing or hating them. And so it may be, after all, that the Women’s March of January 2017 marked not the end of a feminist era; but the beginning of a new age of grass-roots resistance and passionate problem-solving, in which women play a key role in redesigning a politics that can deal creatively with the age we live in - rather than plunging into denial, and into a doomed love-affair with a patriarchal past that is long gone, and of which we are well rid.