Feminism and the turn against Enlightenment

The new feminism is the gloss on the West’s loss of faith in itself.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Books

In the first in a new series of spiked essays on the burning issues of our time, Brendan O’Neill explores the roaring success of the new feminism.

One of the most striking things of the 21st century so far has been the rise of feminism. No other movement enjoys as much political, cultural and media validation right now as feminism does. Things have gone so far that when British PM David Cameron refused to pose in a t-shirt that said ‘This is what a feminist looks like’, he got flak. So entrenched is the new feminism that, now, not being a feminist can land you in hot water.

The new feminism infuses political, cultural and media life. It’s good business. Pop stars shake their booties in front of massive backdrops of the word ‘FEMINIST’. Publishing houses fall over themselves to offer huge advances to feminists keen to write memoirs-cum-manifestos. A mix of sauciness and self-help, with titles like Hot Feminist and Do It Like A Woman, these femi-manuals often top bestseller lists. New-feminist blogs abound. Popular online mags like Buzzfeed and VICE promote new-feminist ideas. The Twitterati push the new feminism, too, and police deviations from it: witness the arrest of those who are foul about new feminists.

You can’t open a newspaper without reading a feminist critique of the justice system, the internet, mainstream politics, movies. Culture is now judged by its willingness to adhere to the values of the new feminism. From the outrage over the film version of Gone Girl, which was not new-feminist enough, to the global applauding of the rebooted Mad Max, which is apparently a feast of new-feminist ideas, even art and entertainment must now accord with the new-feminist outlook.

As for the world of politics, new feminism is dominant. Everyone might have laughed at the UK Labour Party’s pink bus, designed to get more women voting, but the idea that women do politics differently, and better, to men is now widely accepted. Hillary Clinton has promised to make women’s rights a key plank of her future dealings in the international sphere. UN bodies and NGOs already execute their global agendas in the language of the new feminism, using terms like ‘female empowerment’ to promote population-control measures and the policing of men in much of the global South. We’ve even had feminist wars: the occupation of Afghanistan was justified in part as a means of liberating women (with very little discussion of how it actually made Afghan women’s lives worse).

So in a very short period of time, feminism has gone from being viewed as the ideology of small groups of women to being the organising principle of vast swathes of Western public life. Politics, media, culture, international relations, global conflict — no area has been left untouched by it.

The rise of this new feminism in the West is strange, for two reasons. The first is that all the other political movements of which feminism was once considered a close cousin have withered. Student radicalism — of the progressive variety — is a thing of the past. Left-wing groups continue to shrink. The anti-war movement is a shadow of its former self. And yet feminism, which in its modern form emerged around the same time as those movements, is soaring, finding favour with everyone from Beyonce to the possible next president of the US.

The second reason the rise of the new feminism is weird is because, in the West at least, feminism has never been less necessary. Thankfully, life for women in the West has improved exponentially. There are now more women than men at university, in Central Europe, the EU, North America and Latin America. In school, too, girls are outperforming boys: the OECD found that, in developed countries, girls and boys are now equal in relation to science, and girls outperform boys in literacy. According to the OECD, the average gap between girls and boys is ‘equivalent to an extra year of schooling’.

This leap forward for women in education is reflected in the Western labour market. In the UK, the gender pay-gap is becoming history. Women in their 20s now earn around four per cent more than their male counterparts. These new levels of female independence have contributed to a decline in violence against women. Many women no longer have to stay put in situations that degrade them. Domestic violence rates in the UK are falling, from a ‘peak of more than one million incidents in 1993 to just under 400,000 [in 2011/2012]’. Very often, new-feminist discourse — with its claim that Western women face daily horrors, online and off — feels as detached from reality as it is possible to get.

So, political radicalism is on the wane, and life for Western women has vastly improved, and yet feminism has become the most fashionable political position of our time — what’s this all about?

In part, the new feminism can be seen as mission creep: an old movement looking for a new role now that its original aims have largely been achieved. This would explain why it is so obsessed with culture, with how people think and speak and with what words they use or images they view. Having achieved equality in the legal and work spheres, some feminists are now moving into the realms of culture and even thought, where their politics, or any politics for that matter, has no place. The end result is often intolerance, a demand not only that society remove all the barriers to women’s engagement in public life — which is a good demand — but also that people and art and culture think about and depict women in a particular, ‘correct’ way, which is an illiberal demand.

Feminists themselves claim the new feminism is on the up because women in the West still live in a ‘sea of misogyny’, which is simply not true. Men’s rights activists — the saddest creatures in the political firmament — claim the new feminism proves influential women are hellbent on making life hard for blokes, which is also unconvincing, and borders on a conspiracy theory. It also raises an immediate question, which very few of the discussants of the new feminism seem able to answer: How have these new feminists become so influential? What is it about society — rather than the new feminists themselves — which has seen new-feminist ideas being so fulsomely embraced by officialdom and elites? The issue is not the apparently terrifying influence of new feminists, but the receptiveness to their arguments and prejudices among those who oversee political, public and media life in the 21st-century West.

My view is that this new feminism is best understood, not as a fresh uprising or an independent movement, but as the gloss on Western society’s own collapse of faith in itself.

What we are witnessing is not the rise of a new ideology or any kind of grassroots upheaval, but the instinctive formulation of a cover, an explanation, for the modern West’s abandonment of the ideas of reason, order, autonomy and truth, and of the Enlightenment itself.

The new feminism, with its calling into question of what one feminist author refers to as ‘reason’s diktat’, of the apparently male belief that the world is knowable and changeable, has risen to the surface of public debate, not because of its newness or profundity, but because it is currently the best lick of paint that can be added to the West’s own jettisoning of its old values. This isn’t women vs men. It isn’t even feminists vs the authorities. No, the new feminism is simply the external expression of the internal corrosion of Western values, the acceptable face of what I think we should view as the unacceptable decommissioning of the ideas that created the modern, democratic world. And as such, it is bad for men and women.

War on the ‘male’ Enlightenment

Too many discussions of the new feminism take it at face value that this global phenomenon, this political, pop and publishing sensation, is just another wave of feminism. People wonder if it’s the heir to second- or third-wave feminism. Whether it is too influenced by the Dworkinite anti-sex feminism of the 1980s, and not enough by the more liberal feminism of 1960s thinkers and later feminists like Camille Paglia. Whether it echoes the pro-Prohibition feminism of some of the early Suffragettes, and whether it might do better to look to the more autonomous feminism of female explorers in the 1920s or radicals like Germaine Greer in the 1970s.

It’s undoubtedly true that all these earlier feminisms have impacted on the current discussion. And of course, as feminist writers never tire of telling us, there is no ‘one feminism’. Even today, when the consensus around feminism can feel suffocating — ‘wear the t-shirt or else’ — there are differences of opinion. ‘Choice feminists’, especially in the US, are doing a good job of standing up to the illiberal outlook of campus and broadsheet feminists, who think nothing of no-platforming those who do not bow before the new feminism or describing as ‘problematic’ (and possibly ban-worthy) every piece of culture that is not sufficiently new-feminist.

And yet there is something very new today. The new feminism is not merely a continuation of debates that have been raging for years — it’s the closest thing we currently have to a ruling-class ideology.

It has become the moral and political glue of the fractured, post-political elites of the West, a means for otherwise cut-off institutions both to promote a particular moral image of themselves and to interfere in more areas of life, thought and speech in a seemingly progressive way. The most fascinating thing about the new feminism is not the thing itself but its impact, especially among the West’s ruling classes, who have embraced it. Unlike all the feminisms that went before, the new feminism represents, not an external strike against the political system, but rather an internal outlook through which the elites hope to create a new political narrative and expand their influence in public and private life.

The new feminism is strikingly concerned with exposing what it — and the political and cultural elites more broadly — views as the folly of ‘male ideas’ and the limits to Enlightened thinking. This is spelled out explicitly by Jacqueline Rose, author of Women in Dark Times. ‘Feminism’, she says, ‘should alert us to the world’s unreason’. For too long, says Rose, we have believed that ‘the so-called reason or enlightenment of our modern world’ can deliver progress and liberate humanity. It’s a story of ‘light triumphing over darkness’, she says, and it’s outdated. What we need now is a political outlook which ‘confront[s] dark with dark’. Rose says the great thing about the new feminism is that it can intervene in that ‘murky, not easily graspable place somewhere between [biology and culture]. A place of unreason… that runs through the world.’

Rose captures the alarmingly interventionist urge of the new feminism, which wants to rearrange, not simply law and politics, but also ‘biology and culture’, our very minds and daily interactions. More importantly, she reveals the new feminism’s desire to expose the shortcomings of Enlightenment and show us the ‘world of unreason’, where ‘we all reside’.

This view of feminism not merely as the securer of equality for women but as exposer of the dangers of the industrialised, Enlightened worldview has been a theme for some years. The Stalinist feminist Beatrix Campbell takes aim at ‘modernity’s Faustian recklessness’, at ‘the sexism — and destructiveness — of modernity’.

She presents growth and progress as male values, which feminism has risen once again to question. ‘Macho, manic productionism relies on force’, she says. ‘It valorises conquest of nature and other humans.’ Feminism, by contrast, is concerned with creating a society that can ‘breathe, give birth, grow and rest, clean up’ — because that’s what women do, right? Have babies and clean up? ‘Male’ modernity wants to produce and grow and control nature, whereas ‘female’ thinking wants to force humanity, in Rose’s words, to ‘recognise the failure [of humankind’s] stiff-backed control, its ruthless belief in its own mastery, its doomed attempt to bring the uncertainty of the world to heel’.

This is fundamentally what the new feminism represents. It is the outward expression of the post-Enlightened West’s own, inner disdain for the idea of humankind’s mastery, the idea of our being reasoned, able to deploy our rational thinking in the name of taming the planet and expanding human wealth and comfort.

It is important to note that feminists did not destroy this idea, which is the idea of the Enlightenment. On the contrary, the West’s commitment to Enlightenment values has been flagging for decades, as expressed in everything from the rise of relativism in the academy, to the undermining of universal human values via multiculturalism, to the calling into question of the value of industry and growth through the politics of environmentalism. No, what the new feminism represents is the latest — and currently most influential — manifestation of the West’s own counter-Enlightenment thinking, of its loss of confidence in the modern mission to remake the world in man’s — and woman’s — image.

This is why the new feminism is most pronounced in areas in which the values of reason, autonomy and judgement are, or ought to be, paramount. It is here, in these zones of Enlightenment, where the new feminism is gaining most traction. Why? Because the new feminism is best seen as a progress-unravelling force green-lighted by Western societies themselves, within their own institutions. Let’s consider three areas of reason in which new-feminist thinking is growing.


The political class has been self-consciously promoting new-feminist thinking for many years, explicitly as a means of softening politics and replacing its focus on reason and judgement with a new focus on emotionalism and consensus.

As one academic study says, in the West ‘the contention that women practise politics in a different way to men is widely held’. Many argue that women ‘introduce a kinder, gentler politics’. Women politicians are said to create a politics ‘characterised by cooperation rather than conflict, collaboration rather than hierarchy’. In particular, the new feminism celebrates women’s supplanting of the supposedly self-interested judgements made by the old, adversarial political class with a new approach to public policy based more on emotion, and therefore they ‘bring a civilising influence’. This so-called feminisation of politics is likely to intensify if Hillary Clinton becomes American president. Promoting herself as ‘grandmother-in-chief’, and talking up how women politicians ‘help each other’ rather than fight with each other, Clinton has been hailed by the Washington Post as the person who could ‘reshape what leadership looks like’, and make 21st-century Western politics more ‘consensus-driven, compassionate, helpful, nurturing’.

The celebrated feminisation of politics is striking. Firstly because it demonstrates that the new feminism rehabilitates many of the old-fashioned ideas about women having particular, mothering values. And as such, as one critic points out, it could actually put women off politics: ‘This emphasis on a feminine consensual style may actually exclude women from politics by making them feel that they cannot participate successfully in adversarial contexts.’

And secondly, the ‘softening’ of politics calls into question the whole point of politics as it has been understood in the modern era. No longer to be a clash of conflicting visions, a marshalling of reasoned arguments in an effort to defeat one’s opponents in the competition to appeal to the public conscience, now politics is, in the words of the Washington Post, about ‘collaboration, consensus and warmth’. This represents, in essence, an unravelling of modern democratic politics in favour of the emotionalism and elitist offer to ‘care’ for the public of earlier, pre-Enlightenment eras. The modern West’s discomfort with politics as a tool of testy, rational debate, its discomfort with the idea of reason and judgement per se, is increasingly expressed through the adoption of a new-feminist approach to public life, in which intuition is elevated over thought and nurturing the public takes precedence over engaging with us as a reasoned entity and the source of democratic authority. And in the process we’re propelled back to a pre-modern era in which, likewise, politics was seen largely as a tool for repressing discussion and catering to people’s basic needs.


For many years now, feminists have called into question the Enlightenment ideal of rational discovery, even querying the very notion that the world can be measured and understood. In the 1990s, Sandra Harding, the American feminist philosopher, juxtaposed feminist ways of knowing with what she called ‘the tightly defended barricade [of] reason, rationality, scientific method [and] truth’. She described feminism as being ‘ambivalent about the Enlightenment faith in scientific method’. In 1989, the feminist writer Jane Flax critiqued ‘faulty Enlightenment assumptions’, including the ‘optimistic belief that people act rationally in their own interests and that reality has a structure that perfect reason… can discover’.

The new-feminist view that knowledge built on reason is somehow ‘male’, and what’s more wrong, infuses much of the Western academy and even schools today. In universities, the growing influence of new-feminist theories has seen overly male reading lists being called into question, the focus on great male writers of the past being casually described as ‘misogynistic’, and the rise of the notion that certain classic texts are harmful to women.

The trigger-warning phenomenon, whereby students demand that books which contain ‘disturbing’ content should come with a warning, is the logical conclusion to the new-feminist depiction of knowledge as something potentially harmful. Feminist students are often at the forefront of demanding trigger warnings. At Columbia University recently, they insisted that Ovid’s Metamorphoses should have a warning, arguing that exposing students to ‘the beauty of the language’ in this poem is not always a good idea, considering it also contains references to sexual assault.

It is tempting to write off as crackpots these students who see literature itself as a form of abuse, but they are only the outcome of an academy that for decades has embraced new-feminist notions about the folly of ‘male’ thought and the sexism of classic texts. Indeed, as far back as 1986, Sandra Harding described Newton’s Principia Mathematica — one of humanity’s key scientific texts — as a ‘rape manual’, on the basis that Newton and other modern scientific thinkers viewed nature as something to be plundered, controlled, ‘raped’. Inevitably, sixteenth-century scientific revolutionary Francis Bacon’s description of nature as a ‘she’, whose secrets we should ‘extract’, has been branded by new-feminist academics as misogynistic, evidence that ‘sexual and sexist imagery permeated the new scientific view of the world’. For years, new-feminist critics have depicted reasoned knowledge itself as invasive, as a kind of rape, of nature, of tradition, of alternative ways of thinking; and we wonder why today’s students view ideas as abusive and words as violence.

The redefinition of knowledge as something overly judgemental, even tyrannical, is increasingly reflected in schools. Across the West, schools are shifting from a top-down communication of knowledge towards a less structured ‘sharing of information’. One critic of this new, softer schooling says ‘the way classrooms are structured has been feminised’, so that ‘teachers no longer stand at the front of the room and children are expected to direct their own learning in open, mixed-ability classrooms’. And because, he says, boys need a ‘disciplined’ and ‘orderly classroom environment’, they inevitably fall behind.

With knowledge, as with politics, the key dynamic is not some sinister invasion of educational institutions by gangs of feminists, as men’s rights activists would have us believe. Rather, these institutions are embracing new-feminist thinking as a progressive-seeming veneer for their own estrangement from the values of reason and the ideal of knowledge, for their already-existing feeling of distance from the gains of modernity, the arrogance of science, and the humancentricity of knowing and maybe even transforming nature.


‘The law is reason, free from passion’, said Aristotle. In modern times in particular, the view of justice as something necessarily cool, ideally free from rashness or prejudice, has been a central tenet of democratic societies. Yet this is changing, too, again as a consequence of the rise of new-feminist theories. Everything from openness in the law, especially the idea that the public should have access to all information about a criminal court case, to the principle of tough, rationalist cross-examination of witnesses in order to establish the truth is now being called into question under the guise of establishing a new, more women-friendly approach.

Cross-examination in cases of sexual assault has been described as feeling like being ‘raped all over again’. In Britain, a recent Court of Appeal case established that when there is a ‘vulnerable’ witness, especially in cases of sexual assault, ‘ground rules’ regarding cross-examination must be set in advance — described by spiked’s legal editor Luke Gittos as ‘deference to the victim’ which serves to ‘obstruct the process of justice, objectivity and truth in our courts’. Anonymity in rape trials, ruthlessly guarded from criticism by new-feminist thinkers, sets a dangerous precedent, undermining the openness of modern justice by denying the public the opportunity to see justice being done in an important area of criminal law.

Recent moves to ‘feminise’ justice, such as by allowing victims more say and even the right to issue therapeutic statements at the end of trials, directly challenge the ideal of law as ‘reason, free from passion’. And yet they’re celebrated by new-feminist observers. According to the authors of Gender and Judging, a more feminised approach to justice challenges the ‘ideology of the impersonal neutral judge’. Karima Bennoune, an American professor of law, cheers how feminised international law challenges the very ‘contours of justice’, through making ‘victims the central focus’ and elevating empathy over cold analytics.

Yet the ‘ideology’ of court neutrality was a key component of universal justice, going some way to ensuring fairness in the unfair clash between the state and the accused individual. The ‘contours of justice’ that demanded that accusers be treated with respect but also with scepticism, rather than being given a hallowed role in the trial, were designed to ensure that their every claim and accusation was tested thoroughly before the accused could be robbed of his or her liberty. A society that takes freedom seriously will want to ensure that criminal trials are as dispassionate and rigorous as possible, because there is an individual who risks losing something incredibly important: his liberty. No longer. The feministic pushing of the law into a new era in which judge neutrality is treated as a bad thing, and alleged victims are protected from tough cross-examination, gives the justice system a pre-Enlightened, even vengeful feel. Consider the words of the influential British new feminist Caitlin Moran, in a piece titled ‘The limits of redemption’. Even men who have served their sentences for sexual assault should see their lives ‘reduced to ash’, made ‘publicly, endlessly awful, unrelentingly humiliating, without prospect of absolution’, says Moran. Behind the ‘feminisation’ of law lurks a powerful pre-modern, irrational urge for revenge in place of Aristotle’s ‘reason, free from passion’.

New feminism, new misanthropy

In all the areas listed above — politics, knowledge, justice — the problem is not any Invasion of the Feminists; it is modern Western society’s discomfort with the values upon which it was built: reason, truth and freedom.

But our rulers, our cultural elites, our academies, cannot simply say, ‘We are against those things; we are over the Enlightenment’. And so they instinctively reach for a new set of values, a means of expressing their alienation from the ideals of modernity in a way that appears progressive rather than regressive. Enter the new feminism, which has moulded itself around the decay of Enlightened thinking, and which is embraced by those one-time guardians of the Western way of life who are now keen to shelve key elements of that way of life. Rational politics becomes cold maleness; the pursuit of knowledge, especially in the scientific realm, becomes tantamount to rape of nature; and rigour and reason in the world of justice are redefined as an ‘ideology of neutrality’ that demeans victims.

The new feminism is the clothing being worn by an Emperor who is shaking off old progressive ideas, but who wants to make this shaking-off look like something forward-looking and women-friendly rather than what it is: anti-human, a rewinding of the gains of modernity, which is harmful to both men and women.

The end result? The new feminism — or rather its embrace by relativistic, illiberal elites — has nurtured a new misanthropy. Today, feminism promotes distrust of humanity more thoroughly than almost any other movement. With its scaremongering about rape and sexual assault, its unhinged depiction of campuses as hotbeds of male abuse, its description of the West as a ‘sea of misogyny’, its presentation of the internet as a site of foul commentary, its claim that the streets are unsafe, and its view even of the home — that heart in a heartless world — as a place of violence against women and children, the new feminism gives the impression that humanity is rotten, untrustworthy, requiring closer policing and censorship in order to keep his passions and madnesses in check. Here, too, we are really witnessing modern society’s own distrust of humankind coming to the fore, once again dressed in new-feminist garb rather than revealing its true essence: which is that, as the values of the Enlightenment are unravelled, so the public comes increasingly to be seen as a problem in need of management rather than as a sentient demos capable of freedom and greatness.

The new feminism, this global franchise, this pop and political phenomenon, is not really a movement. Nor is it, as men’s rights complainers argue, a feministic conspiracy to do down men. Rather, it is but the keenest expression of the mainstream misanthropy and turn against Enlightenment thought of the modern West itself. The ‘male’ values being attacked are really the universal values of reason, autonomy, progress and truth — values that both men and women need, and deserve. Forget the ‘sex wars’. We don’t need new feminism, nor do we need a new men’s rights movement. We need men and women to come together to challenge the illiberalism and backwardness of the modern West, which is so often expressed in new-feminist terminology. That is, we need humanism.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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