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Don't Worry Darling

Young people and the rise of antifeminism

New research has found that 52 per cent of Gen Z and 53 per cent of millennials think women’s rights have gone so far that we’re now discriminating against men

Thanks to the tireless work of campaigners and activists, women’s rights in the UK have taken huge leaps forward in the past 100 years: in that time, we’ve won the right to open our own bank accounts; the right to abortion; the right to vote. That said, there’s still a long way to go before true equality is reached. At present, the average woman in paid employment effectively works for free for nearly two months of the year compared to the average man in paid employment. Women take on 60 per cent more unpaid domestic and care work than men. Research published last year found that 99 per cent of rape cases reported to the police do not end in a conviction.

In spite of this, though, new research has found that the majority of young people believe women’s rights have already gone far enough. The survey, conducted by Ipsos UK and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, spoke to over 22,000 people aged between 16 and 74 from 32 different countries. They found that out of all the respondents, 52 per cent of Gen Z and 53 per cent of millennials thought that we’ve now gone so far in promoting gender equality that we’re discriminating against men. Additionally, under half of the survey’s Gen Z respondents said they defined themselves as a feminist.

Alison Phipps is a feminist scholar and Professor of Sociology at Newcastle University. She stresses that we shouldn’t spiral into a panic about these figures. “It was a study of 32 countries, with 1,000 respondents from Britain, and across the whole sample Britain was amongst the most supportive of gender equality,” she says. “In Britain 38 per cent of people said things had gone ‘far enough’, and nobody said things had gone ‘too far’ - that’s The Telegraph’s spin.”

Phipps also points out that it’s not necessarily a bad thing if young people think feminism has “gone far enough”, as that could imply that they’ve not encountered much gender inequality in their lives so far. “This is possible given the fact that girls now tend to outperform boys at school, young women tend to do very well at university, and some forms of discrimination against women – for instance, workplace inequality or issues related to motherhood – often don’t make themselves known until later,” she says.

However, she also acknowledges that equally, these figures could suggest that young people are more intentionally eschewing feminism. “There could also be an element of backlash - studies of ‘lad culture’ at university have found that it tends to be a way for young men to reassert territory and entitlements in the face of young women’s relative success,” she says. “It’s likely that it’s both – we are seeing increased gender equality, but we’re also seeing resentment of that.”

So, evidently, despite some positive steps forward, we can’t get complacent. “Things have not gone nearly far enough [...] in fact, in some ways we are going backwards – for instance, the impact of the cost of living crisis on women, attempts to roll back reproductive rights, online harassment and violence, and the outpouring of prejudice directed at trans women in particular,” Phipps says.

She’s right – there are signs everywhere that attitudes seem to be regressing, especially on social media. TikTok is full of marmalade-making tradwives clad in hideous floral-print dresses, who unironically say things like “we believe our purpose is to be homemakers. Misogynistic influencers and podcasters are also ubiquitous, with teenage boys 21 per cent more likely to have heard of Andrew Tate than Rishi Sunak. “Everything we consume shapes our view of the world, and young people are increasingly looking to the internet for their education,” Phipps adds.

“Things have not gone nearly far enough [...] in fact, in some ways we are going backwards – for instance, the impact of the cost of living crisis on women, attempts to roll back reproductive rights, online harassment and violence, and the outpouring of prejudice directed at trans women in particular” – Alison Phipps

As young people are facing particularly adverse socioeconomic conditions right now, many are looking for a simple answer for why their lives feel so difficult: and it’s easy to see why some have pointed the finger at feminism. Many tradwives argue that, actually, feminism made things worse for women by encouraging them to enter the workforce in the first place, and becoming a tradwife is actually a smart way of ‘cheating’ the capitalist system and forgoing a thankless, underpaid job. “Unfortunately, ‘lean-in’ girlboss feminism tends to be what ‘feminism’ means in the mainstream, and it’s selling a facsimile of liberation,” Phipps says. “It’s also a lot easier to blame feminism than to acknowledge the fact that we live under an economic system that requires some of us to matter less than others.” Many also argue that they’ve ‘solved’ the problem of unpaid domestic work by receiving an ‘allowance’ from their partner for doing all the cooking and cleaning, and while unpaid domestic work is a pertinent issue – as is the issue of work, more broadly – entering into a situation where you’re financially dependent on your partner isn’t the answer, and instead leaves tradwives incredibly susceptible to abuse.

As for anti-feminist young men, masculinity is in crisis. Since the #MeToo movement in 2018, it’s (rightly) been impressed on men that women suffer so much sexual harassment and violence – but there’s still no real ‘blueprint’ for how to be a young man in today’s world. While it’s probably for the best that ‘lads mags’ like Nuts and Zoo have folded, we’ve also lost other men’s titles like ShortList in recent years, and while a young woman might resonate with one of Sally Rooney’s characters, there are so few young male novelists capturing what it’s like to be a young man in 2023. The number of single and lonely straight men is on the rise too, and in this context, it’s easy to see how someone with views as extreme as Andrew Tate could emerge in this vacuum and radicalise great numbers of boys and men into thinking feminism is the source of all their ills.

Ultimately, the modern world is becoming increasingly difficult for young people to navigate. “Women are overrepresented in part-time and precarious employment worldwide, which means that when there’s a recession their jobs are often the first to be at risk,” Phipps says, and meanwhile men are experiencing widespread feelings of alienation. Both are wrong to pin the blame on feminism, but their feelings of disillusionment are undeniably very real. The real task for all of us is challenging all the misinformation which harshly criticises women’s rights, highlighting the issues which are the root causes of these adverse socioeconomic circumstances – in the UK, I’d suggest these are years of appalling Conservative economic policy, modern work culture, and capitalism – and working towards an understanding that true feminism could actually offer us a solution to our disenfranchisement.

In any case, Phipps is hopeful. “My experience of millennials and Gen Z is that their politics are generally progressive, which is pretty amazing given all the reactionary content that’s out there,” she says. “It’s up to us as older generations to support them as they navigate all the information and misinformation, and as they envision the kind of world they want to build.”