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Who’s afraid of the feminists?

They come in all shapes and sizes, yo. Credit: Jim Young / AFP / Getty

They come in all shapes and sizes, yo. Credit: Jim Young / AFP / Getty

July 17, 2019   5 mins

A new YouGov poll, commissioned by the charity HOPE Not Hate, finds that 33% of people agree with the statement “Feminism is to blame for making some men feel marginalised and demonised in society”.

The actual polling is not online, for some reason, but it’s been covered in the press and the charity sent me their report. It finds that significant percentages of every age group, including 33% of 18- to 24-year-olds, agrees that feminism makes some men feel marginalised. More men (42%) than women agreed, but a quarter of women did too. The charity themselves described it as “staggering”, and linked it to far-right YouTubers.

You might find it surprising, given that – on gender equality, as with almost all measures of social attitudes – Britain has, for decades, been getting more liberal. The 2018 British Social Attitudes survey shows that, in 1984, 43% agreed and just 37% disagreed with the statement “a man’s job is to earn money, a woman’s job is to look after the home and family”. By 2017, those numbers had changed to 8% and 72% respectively. Shifts towards more liberal, feminist attitudes are seen in all groups – older, younger, male, female. Sometimes men have more “feminist” attitudes than women: for instance, men are more likely than women to say that it is “always” or “usually” wrong for men to comment on women’s appearance in the street.

You can see how far modern attitudes have come in a major 2016 survey by Survation for the Fawcett Society, which found that 83% of Britons support “equality of opportunity for women” – again, more among men (86%) than women (81%). There were more ‘don’t knows’ among women, which may explain the discrepancy.

A 2015 YouGov poll found very similar results: 81% of Britons polled thought that men and women should be treated “equally in every way” (including 75% of UKIP voters!)

So how does that fit with the idea that a third of the population thinks that feminism is making men feel demonised? Well: easily, I’d say. That Survation/Fawcett Society poll – which, remember, found that 83% of people support “equality of opportunity for women”, surely the key goal of feminism – found that just 7% of people “describe themselves” as feminist. The 2015 YouGov poll found a higher number, 31%, who would “consider” themselves a feminist, but it’s still a definite minority. Another YouGov one in 2018 found 26%.

If you ask people whether they think that there is probably or definitely still a need for feminism, the numbers are higher, according to YouGov – 53% in 2015, 49% in 2018 (it may look like it’s going down but I’d imagine it’s within the margin for error), compared to 30% and 31% who say there probably or definitely isn’t. But still, there’s a huge gap between the number of people who actively agree with the key aims of feminism and the number who’ll actually call themselves a feminist.

That suggests to me that “feminism”, the label, and “gender equality”, the ideal, have become separated in people’s minds. Might that be because there’s a debate over whether men can really be feminists? It took me all of five seconds to find a feminist magazine declaring that men can be allies but they cannot be feminists.

But while that may be part of the answer, it can’t really be the whole thing, because while more women are significantly more likely than men to call themselves feminist, it’s still very much a minority. According to the Fawcett Society, 9% of women called themselves feminist, compared to 4% of men. The YouGov polls found that 35% (2015) and 34% (2018) of women called themselves “feminist”, compared to 27% and 18% of men.

(I’m just going to stop here and note that the drop from 27% to 18% is large, and I am surprised by it, given the small changes elsewhere and the general positive trend; I still suspect polling artefact to some degree, but it may represent a real change among men.)

My own suspicion, for what it’s worth, is that while “gender equality” is an ideal that is easy to get behind, “feminism” is a label that is attached to specific, identifiable people. And, because any large group of people contains at least some who are stupid and/or unpleasant, some prominent people to whom the label “feminist” is regularly attached will be stupid and/or unpleasant. One hates to call out individuals in this situation, although I will link to this with no further comment.

More generally, even if you’re not mentally associating feminism with the most extreme or unpleasant people who call themselves feminists, you still associate it with individuals, with whom you may or may not want to identify. A comparable, though not exactly analogous, situation might be conservatism vs Conservatism, or environmentalism vs the Green Party. I imagine a large percentage of people might consider themselves both small-c conservative and environmental, but neither Conservative nor Green.

And from there, it’s a small step to understanding why a lot of people – who might agree with the stated aims of feminism, and think that feminism still has an important role to play – might agree that feminism makes some men feel “marginalised and demonised in society”. They might think that “gender equality” is a noble ideal with which they agree, but that specific people who describe themselves as feminist behave in ways that unfairly single out individuals or attack men as a group.

I don’t particularly think feminists as a group are significantly more prone than many others to doing that. The internet lets us group together and attack each other en masse far more easily. We can unite under a banner of video games, or trans rights, or Remain, or Jeremy Corbyn, and go in our great squads and tear pieces off some random internet person who said some disobliging thing about whatever it is we have written on our banner.

It is, I think, part of a wider need to signal membership of a group: publicly denouncing someone for heresy is a clear signal that you are pure. I’ve heard some feminists complain that working for gender equality has been partly displaced by this call-out culture, policing public spaces for incorrect language or bad opinions, and that this puts people off feminism as a label. I can entirely believe that that’s the case, although I don’t imagine that it’s unique to feminism; I think it’s probably more common on the Left, but you definitely see it in, say, Trump voters and Brexiters.

In this framework it doesn’t seem all that surprising, or even controversial, that lots of people think that feminism marginalises and demonises some men. Of course, it doesn’t explain all of it – there definitely is an appreciable minority of the British population which consists of good old-fashioned sexists (both among men and women! Some 11% of women, compared to 13% of men, told Survation that gender equality has “gone too far”). And maybe MRA YouTubers are behind a real change. But I don’t think we need worry that we’re backsliding into the Fifties quite yet. Give it until Boris comes in at least.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.


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