Seeing my mom's name in a terrorist's manifesto reminded me of the violent possibilities of anti-women rhetoric.
The initial shock of the Oslo terrorist attacks has given way to analysis. We are all struggling to make sense of the motivations of Anders Breivik, the man who confessed to the attacks yesterday. And Breivik has given us plenty to consider: Before carrying out the attacks, he published a 12-minute video and 1,500-page manifesto for popular consumption online. After looking at both, I've learned that Breivik was a 32-year-old Norwegian Christian fundamentalist who hated Muslims, Marxists, global capitalists, and my mom.
My mother, Ellen Willis, was a feminist writer and activist who founded the radical group Redstockings with Shulamith Firestone, among others, in 1969. She believed that the pursuit of pleasure was a much more potent recipe for social change than the sanctimonious politics of conservatives (and of some leftists, too). She invented the term "pro-sex feminism" and defended a woman's right to pursue a life that made her happy and fulfilled, even if that meant not having children.
Breivik mentions her in the same breath as Simone de Beauvoir (go Mama!) and blames them for the "skyrocketing divorce rates" and "plummeting birth rates" that created a "cultural and demographic vacuum" in the West. According to Breivik, this vacuum led directly to the Islamic takeover he cited as justification for Friday's bombing and shooting spree.
As soon as I read my mother's name in the context of Breivik's horrific attack, the deaths in Norway hit home. Breivik wasn't just talking about my mom. He was talking about an entire movement of women I know and love. He was talking about me.
Breivik's spiteful commentary on feminism isn't too different from the hate mail that appears in my own inbox on a regular basis. As some have noted already, Breivik's rhetoric echoes a fairly common conservative argument about feminism—that selfish Western women aren't producing enough children to keep up with Muslim world, and therefore opening up their nations to the possibility of Islamic extremism. His manifesto is full of anxiety about "the feminisation of men in Europe" that recalls the tone and jargon of Men's Rights activism. He calls the "Sex and the City lifestyle" a "lethal and destructive societal force," and bemoans his own upbringing as "super-liberal" and "matriarchal." He's remarkably versed in American feminism (no Norweigan feminists make an appearance), condemning the ideas of not only de Beauvoir and Mom, but Betty Friedan and Virginia Woolf, too.
The people who send mountains of hate mail to me and my fellow feminist writers aren't pressing "send" in a bubble—they're operating in a world that's hostile to women's sexual and economic autonomy. Women like me, who routinely receive everything from lewd comments to death threats, usually erase the vitriol from our inboxes and comments sections immediately. Once in a while, though, we'll leave those messages out there for the world to see, and they can be terrifying.
It's easy to write off Breivik's massacre, or any terrorist act, as an individual act of craziness. But as C.I.A. officer Mark Sageman points out in the New York Times, “This rhetoric," and the infrastructure from which it thrives, "is not cost-free." Even elementary misogyny can escalate into violence. An unwanted touch can lead to rape. Anti-choice commentary can facilitate the murder of an abortion provider.
Thankfully, 99.99 percent of misogynists don't turn out like Breivik—if they did, there'd be a lot more terrorism in the world. But in the wake of unspeakably violent acts fueled by misogyny, it's important that our culture not shrug off less extreme anti-feminist vitriol. Not just because my mom and feminists like her made women's lives better, but because those lives may well be in danger.
Photo via www.freak.no