American progressives better learn what a feminist is

Democrats may pay a high price for their refusal to recognise the difference between the feminist criticism of gender ideology and right-wing bigotry.

Members of the public attend a Standing for Women protest on February 05, 2023 in Glasgow, Scotland [Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]

At the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, American superstar Beyonce performed in front of a giant screen blazoned with the word “Feminist” in huge lettering. She said she did it because “people don’t really know or understand what a feminist is”.

She was right. Since then, we have seen over and over again how much of America have no idea what a feminist is and what feminism really stands for.

Over the past 10 years, we have heard of self-professed “feminists” who proudly declared their support for misogynist-in-chief Donald Trump. Newspapers ran think pieces on how there are many different ways of being a feminist, and how women can still be “feminists” while opposing the most basic tenets of feminism or supporting men who objectively harm women. Sex work became feminist. Objectification of the female body became feminist. Surrogacy, as it helped certain women “have it all”, was also declared feminist. In fact, it became clear that in the American discourse, “feminist” was any woman – or man – who claimed to be one, for whatever reason. People who clashed with sexist, conservative men on any given subject, no matter their positions on any other issue relating to women and girls, were also immediately accepted and celebrated as “feminists”.

Mainstream US “feminism” has become so individualised that every single woman there appears to define it only in terms of what the term means for her. This type of “feminism” does not translate into a collective movement, and therefore develops no principles, ethics or goals. “Feminist” in the current US context has become just another empty identity tag that serves no other purpose than political posturing and virtue signalling.

This is partly the reason why American progressive intelligentsia appears to be struggling to make sense of the left-wing, feminist backlash to the rapid mainstreamisation of “gender ideology” in the United Kingdom.

They are unable to distinguish between British feminists’ reasoned opposition to the erasure of women’s sex-based rights under the guise of “trans inclusion” and the bigotry of those on the American right who view trans-identified people with the same derision with which they have always viewed gay men and lesbians.

These so-called “progressives” do not see the rise of “gender ideology”, which argues that an individual’s internal sense of gender should supersede their sex in all aspects of life and under law, as a threat to themselves, and thus conclude that it is no threat to women as a collective.

Furthermore, they perceive trans rights activists, who show no regard for women’s rights and concerns in their advocacy, as true feminists simply because they are targeted by the American right as part of the culture wars.

These so-called “progressives” in America wonder why so many left-wing feminists, many of whom are lesbians, seem to have suddenly turned into right-wing bigots on this side of the Atlantic. They are unable to comprehend that we have not moved to the right, and are not targeting a marginalised minority out of hate, like right-wing homophobes, but taking a principled position in defence of women’s rights.

This apparent disconnect stems also from the fact that there is no true left in the US. Today the American left is dominated by the adherents of a performative brand of identity politics focussed on often right-coded values like personal liberty and freedom of speech. Left-wing politics in America, at least in the mainstream, is reduced to loud but inconsequential shouting about bigotry and prejudice. As there is little or no working-class mobilisation, the “left-wing” elites are left to speak of “oppression” on their own, without knowing much about it at all.

This sad state of the American “left” translates to trans-rights activists – who claim to be fighting for the most vulnerable and oppressed group among all identity groups – being celebrated as brave feminists, while real feminists concerned about women and girls’ wellbeing are condemned for their alleged prejudice.

There are, of course, many women in the US who do know what a feminist is, and reject gender ideology, not out of any bigotry but genuine concern for women’s rights, in the same way we do in the UK. Regrettably, they too are swiftly branded as bigots.

Take the infamous Wi Spa incident in Los Angeles in 2021 where women who complained about a trans-identifying male exposing his penis to women and girls in a female changing room. Most of the left-wing US media, led by the Guardian US, presented the issue as an attack on the unnamed trans-identifying man, and accused women who object to his presence in the changing room of being transphobic liars. As the controversy grew, and far-right groups like the Proud Boys got involved in the consequent protests outside the spa, the supposed alliance between “transphobic women” and bigoted, right-wing thugs became the focus of the entire story. Eventually, the man in question was revealed to be a convicted sex offender and was further charged with indecent exposure in relation to his behaviour in the spa changing room, but neither the media, nor the “left-wing” commentators and politicians offered the women they accused of being bigots and Nazis an apology.

The attitudes of this so-called progressive “left” in America towards women concerned about gender ideology are also having an impact back here in the UK. Many British progressives in media, academia and politics who eagerly follow the lead of the Americans on culture war issues are also dismissing feminist concerns over gender ideology as bigotry and trying to push us out of the national conversation over this issue. Countless feminists across the country have been silenced and shamed, have lost jobs and opportunities, and have been accused of allying themselves with the worst of the global right for the “crime” of speaking up for women.

Regardless of the abuse we face, we will continue our fight for what is right, and we will not let British feminist and left-wing spaces be captured by faux feminists, fake leftists and their performative politics imported from America.

The situation in the US, however, is much more critical.

Women and men anywhere to the left of the Republican Party who are concerned about gender ideology have nowhere to turn to. Democrats are not only refusing to listen to their concerns, but branding them as bigots and even fascists for daring to question their accepted hierarchies of oppression. The Democratic Party is in no way guaranteed a victory in the upcoming presidential election.  If they don’t change course, and stop accusing people of being bigoted for raising the alarm about gender ideology, some women, and men, may decide to vote on this issue alone and plump for Trump – who has been clear about his opposition to gender ideology, albeit not on feminist grounds – in November.

If the Democrats lose the election, and it is determined that their stance on this issue has contributed to the outcome, however, they should not dare blame women critical of gender ideology. They should understand that they have no one else to blame but themselves, and that they have alienated countless potential Democratic voters by branding them as right-wing bigots for defending women’s rights. American progressives may genuinely believe they are on the “right side of history”, but if they don’t make the effort to truly “understand what a feminist is”, and believe us when we say gender ideology is a threat to women, come November, they may themselves be history.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.