Sen-elect Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, and Sen-elect, current Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis. walk together to freshman Senators luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Something strange is happening to feminists. We’re winning. The election gave us the re-election of a feminist-friendly president, a record number of women in Congress, the first openly gay US senator and wins for marriage equality in four states. There’s energy and interest on feminist issues the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.
This shift comes to us courtesy of the perfect storm of sexist Republican missteps, a vibrant online feminist movement and a nation of women unwilling to move backward. But with the election dust settling, we should examine why we’re winning the culture wars and think about what to do next.
We got a hint of the tide turning in our favor when SlutWalks went viral. What started as one march in Toronto in 2011 turned into hundreds of protests all over the world, all battling the myth that what a woman wears has some bearing on whether or not she’ll be assaulted. Despite the tempting fodder—pictures of young feminists subversively dressed in bras, miniskirts and heels—the media largely got the message right. The marches also epitomized the emerging organizing strategy of young feminists: activism that’s largely self-directed and loosely organized; fast-moving micro-movements built organically and without institutional leadership.
The effectiveness of this approach was on display earlier this year during the Susan G. Komen for the Cure/Planned Parenthood debacle. Just days after Komen announced it would stop funding Planned Parenthood, an online furor forced the breast cancer foundation to reverse itself. Similar activism on a Virginia bill that would have mandated invasive transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions—feminists called it “state rape” on Twitter—resulted in the legislation being lampooned on Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show and other media. The law was eventually amended. When Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut,” the backlash that ensued was also thanks to online action. The National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood didn’t drive these campaigns; American women did.
Perhaps more interesting than the wins themselves, though, was the widespread media attention and cultural acceptance of feminist outrage. All of a sudden, women’s anger at the attempted defunding of Planned Parenthood or a male politician’s comment about rape wasn’t the mark of bitter “man haters”; it was an understandable reaction from smart, engaged women.
The shift was so stark that the Obama campaign was able to make feminist issues a part of its electoral strategy. David Axelrod recently told Politco that, “from May on, we were running a track that was specifically targeting women on women’s health issues, Planned Parenthood, contraception. It broadened out somewhat to economic issues, but primarily focused on those issues, and we maintained our support among women.” No doubt, the Republican Party’s sexist meltdown was also a tremendous motivator for American women. After all, there’s only so many comments about rape and birth control a gal can take.
On election day, the backlash against GOP extremism along with smart organizing by feminists culminated not only in women being the majority of the electorate but also in an 18 percent gender gap—the largest in reported history. The GOP underestimated how important issues like abortion, rape and birth control are to women—consider how many have ended a pregnancy or been assaulted—and reaped the whirlwind.