Is progress the movement from A to B, or the existence of the movement from A to B where previously there was none? This may sound like some philosophical pedantry, but the distinction encapsulates a vital distinction between two threats to progress. If progress is the former, its antonym is regression – the step in the opposite direction. If the latter, it is stagnation – the absence of any steps being made at all. Currently, the oxygen of our thoughts on threats to feminist progress is consumed by regressive threats. But the suffocation of discussion about stagnation, and the risks it poses, is incredibly detrimental to progress itself.
Regression can be thought of the open erosion of progress towards gender equality. Steps we take backwards – think the effective erosion of Roe vs Wade in swathes of America due to bureaucratic Planned Parenthood regulation; the drastic increase in women doing housework following COVID-19; the spike in domestic violence. Regression acts as a threat by undoing what has been done before – through destroying the progress that has already been built.
And it is so natural for discussion about dangers to progress to focus on regressive threats. There’s a sense of the ‘endowment effect’ – we are more conscious of things when we lose them, rather than if we’ve never had them at all. Imagine attempting to deprive people of the right to divorce now – once we have a right, and we acclimatise to it, we will defend it far more fiercely than if we have never had it before. There is also the way in which regressive threats manifest. There’s a clear narrative, an identifiable struggle, often a ‘villain’ or antagonist. The existence of these narratives appeals to our story-teller psyches – it is natural to focus on the tangible drama of Progress Lost.
Obviously, there are advantages to this. Talking about these narratives allows us to identify and apportion blames. It makes the progress that has been made something we are aware of and know that we need to work to safeguard. It allows us to help those affected by these regressive acts and work to redress the injustices suffered. However, the extent to which we talk about these cases and examples has dominated the progress debate – meaning that far less attention is devoted to the other threat to progress – stagnation.
Stagnation is the lack of progress being made. It’s the standing still – on a graph plotting progress against time rather than the dips of regression, it’s the long flat periods. Think of what a feminist born in 1910 saw. By the 1990's, women had gained the vote, broken some of the glass ceiling, entered into politics, and law, and art in a way previously thought to be impossible. Think of how small, suddenly, the developments in the past 10 years have been. Yes, there have been hashtags, and task forces and 10 point plans. But there's nothing like the scale of progress there had been formerly. There’s a lack of the blue sky, ambitious thinking that characterised the work of MacKinnon, Taylor and more.
One could argue that this is because our world is far more progressive – that we can’t achieve the radicalness of the past because of the great strides made by our predecessors in the feminist movement. But ought we really buy this? Will our great-great-granddaughters look at a world with a ‘grab-them-by-the-pussy’ American president, a ‘girly swot’ PM, and knighthoods for domestic abusers and consider it a bastion of progressiveness? Put it another way – do you think there is still enough progress to be made for our great-granddaughters to stand to us as we stand to the 1920’s? If you do think it is possible for this progress to be made, then you ought to be worried about the lack of disruptive, ambitious thinking when we consider how progress ought to be made – because it is vital if progress is to be attained.
So, where has this stagnation of thinking come from? In some ways, it can be the consequence of a natural progression of an idea. It’s been 100 years, 3 generations since women got the vote. Increasingly large proportions of our society are ostensibly raised with the truism men and women are equal (even if behaviour doesn’t always adhere to this). JS Mill described how ideas, without challenge, become ‘dead dogma’. Though the reduction of sexism is of course something that should be celebrated, it may have taken the tension and verve out of debates about feminism and what a sexism free world should look like. The long history of the idea can also mean that women are being fobbed off with the idea that the progress made so far ought to be ‘good enough’ is (particularly when this progress has by no means been equal or occurred for all groups of women - see hooks (2006) for more). Feminism may also appear less ‘de la mode’ or ‘shiny’ in a sea of other competing causes
The progression and the development of an idea is often accompanied by a growth of norms and language. An increasing awareness of the connotations, and subconscious implications of the language and words we use can inhibit people from expressing their ideas for fear of upsetting others. Take women vs womxn. Words can become weighted, and with it, debate is dragged down. It’s difficult to have ‘dancing conversations’ where you can entertain or play with ideas – to consider things in the abstract when they can be such important and sensitive issues.
Finally, stagnation can also be caused by the continuing perniciousness of the ‘Femi-Nazi’ tag. Put forward something dramatically radical – a matriarchy, enforced paternity leave or 70% women boards – and you risk opening up the movement as a whole to being attacked by this ‘Femi-Nazi’ insult. As a result, ideas that are only intended for consideration, but could nonetheless contain a germ for new or dramatic change, are not put forward as people don’t wish to undermine the veracity of the movement a whole.
In the face of all these obstacles, it is understandable that we have stopped entertaining radical ways of thinking with the bravery of feminists past. But it is vital that we continue to do so. Without entertaining radical new ways of thinking – without considering things that currently seem absurd or excessive, we make it impossible for the big strides and bounds of the past progress to exist. We consign ourselves to incremental baby steps meaning progress is far slower than necessary.
But to resolve the problem of stagnation, we first need to be aware of it. Regression and regressive acts are currently keeping our focus on what is – what has happened, and the movements within the charted territory of feminist developments and progress. This is at the expense of identifying our failure of exploring the ‘uncharted’ territory of what could be. Again, this is understandable – stagnation, as a simpler, longer-term phenomenon, typified by an absence rather than a cast of characters is less compelling. It’s easy to think about it less.
Yet though this is understandable, it is by no means necessary. In fact, there is a very easy fix. We need to start challenging ourselves, and those we talk with to be ambitious – to come up with new ideas. We need to openly acknowledge and discuss this apparent stagnation and avoid an overwhelming bias towards regressive threats. We need to make it clear that ideas can be floated for debate, without fear of personal attacks, and with the appropriate consideration of people’s intent. We need to confront inaccurate ‘Femi-Nazi’ portrayals in the media. Finally, we need to be willing to fail – to try the new ideas when they exist, and to recognise that some of them may go awry. This will be difficult – feminist ideas have impacts on people's lives. But it is also of vital importance for enough progress to be made that our great-granddaughters see this world as archaic as we perceive the 1920’s to be.