The Fight against Emancipation
The history, the global transformations powering the rise of women, and the backlash
Over the past fifty years, education has improved, especially for girls and young women, and machines have taken over the heavy work traditionally done by men. This has liberated many women from dependence on men for financial support or physical protection and allowed them to flourish in the workplace. But now, men’s wounded pride is leading to tensions.
Swaan sees the rise of the new extreme right, Christian fundamentalism, and jihadism as a response to women’s liberation. This is his simple thesis, which he proves in three steps. His first section is a lucid overview of the many ways patriarchies exercise their ‘reign of terror’ over women. Girl babies are tossed out like rubbish, girls are forced to marry adult men (‘nothing more than legalized paedophilia’), and their genitals and faces are permanently mutilated. As young women, they face threats such as rape and honour killings. De Swaan avoids the fallacy of ‘anti-Islamic enthusiasm’, instead showing how all forms of dogmatism support the ideology of male supremacy and pointing out the many forms of male dominance that persist in the West.
The second section describes the unstoppable rise of women in today’s world, which he attributes mainly to educational reform. Women have made their way into all levels of the school and university system, even in countries where you would least expect it. And higher levels of education have been shown to raise women’s feminist consciousness, making them more likely to have fewer children.
While the inequalities between women and men remain very real, De Swaan points to the huge strides taken over the past forty years in areas such as politics, health care and the work force and explains why emancipation can only continue to spread.
This sets the stage for the groundbreaking third section, in which de Swaan sketches the origins of opposition to women’s liberation. He lays out the evidence for the surprising theory that such disparate groups as jihadists, evangelical Christians, Latin American machos, ultraorthodox Jews and the secular extreme right are entrenched in sexism and motivated by the same ‘male resentment’. Along the way, he offers glimpses of their terrifying misogynistic subcultures, such as the alt-right online forums where women are, at best, the bearers of ‘bouncing baby whites’.
In Against Women, Abram de Swaan steers a sure course through the minefields of contemporary cultural politics and never shies from confronting blind spots and prejudice, even his own.
- Nominated for the Bookspot non-fiction prize 2019.