Why LGBT Rights Are Racing Ahead While Feminism Limps Behind

It's great that Ireland is embracing the right of gay men and women to marry, but it still bans abortions. Why have women's rights gotten stuck in the mud?

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
A couple embraces outside the count center in Dublin as Ireland hold referendum on gay marriage, May 23, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Nearly 20 years ago I went on vacation in Paris with two gay male friends. One night, after an inevitable dose of cathedrals, Impressionism and cafes, I went out with them to one of the city’s well-known gay bars. They got in easily and didn’t even notice that I had been barred from entering by a burly guard who shouted at me: “Femmes, non!”

I stood there outside, wounded to the depths of my soul. For years I had seen my gay brothers as natural allies in my feminist battles. Two years earlier, I had submitted my history department seminar paper on gays in the Weimar Republic. In it, I wrote about the inspiring figure of Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish sexologist and one of the founders of the gay rights movement, who formed an alliance with Helene Stocker, a leader of German feminism. This looked to me like an obvious linking of arms based on a clear commonality of interests, primarily the fight against patriarchal outlooks.

All this might have been an obscure recollection from my 20s were it not for the gladdening vote by the citizens of Ireland to recognize same-sex marriages. When I first heard the news, I rejoiced in the happiness of the Irish lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual community and the way they had run rings around everyone. I adore historical ironies of this sort. Then, however, I was struck by the painful realization that the ones who remained behind are not only most of the countries of the world but also mainly women. Women and their struggle.

The picture is becoming clearer. As the struggle for LGBT rights gains momentum, the feminist movement is looking more and more like its limping sister. From the legalization of gay identity through the fight for fair representation in the culture and the fray to find medication for AIDS to the recognition of same-sex marriages, the LGBT rights movement has been ticking off items on its list of demands for rectification. At the same time, feminism, that repetitive nudnik, is still complaining about equal pay, sexual freedom, and protection from from sexual harassment and assault – the same old tune for decades now.

To bring this surprising gap into sharper focus, let’s take another look at Ireland. Sure, the country is embracing the right of gay men and women to marry, but it is doing so even as it rejects the right of women to have abortions, except in extreme cases in which the mother’s life is in danger.

Had it been necessary to bet on who would lead the race to social equality, I would have put my money on women before I’d have wagered on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. After all, even the most anachronistic conservative came out of a woman’s womb. So what happened? How did our LGBT brethren leave us behind?

For years, the conservative justification for blocking equal rights for women as well as for LGBT people included a heart-rending call to preserve the institution of the traditional family. Give us a man who is a real man and a woman who is a real woman, we were told, and the world will stride into the sunset to the strains of violins. Naturally, it’s not that conservatives want to discriminate against women; they just fear that the subversion of the good old family structure will lead to the destruction of civilization.

Such were the apologetics of most religious institutions as well as ordinary old-school conservatives. So it was, until recent decades, when it suddenly became clear that same-sex marriage is in fact quite nice. So much so, that even Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, has stated that if he were invited to a gay wedding he would attend it. He dragged in his wake former Texas Governor Rick Perry, another contender for the nomination. Catholic Ireland is just the icing on top of the wedding cake. It turns out that except at the very extremes, LGBT weddings are the new black. Or something. So is the traditional family structure no longer endangered? Can we put to bed the old conservative anxiety about the institution of marriage?

The answers to this reveal the ugly scaffolding of conservative apologetics. The social shift with regard to same-sex marriage is mainly the result of indifference. Not only because the institution of marriage is not what it used to be, but primarily because the marriage of two men or of two women does not really come at anyone’s expense. If Archie Bunker’s lesbian neighbors decide to get married, he might hate it and fight with his son-in-law about it, but it won’t interfere with his workday or affect his armchair time.

Feminist demands, by contrast, are a different story. If men are obliged to accept the equal representation of women on boards of directors, or to get paid as much as women get for the same work, or restrain themselves from making inappropriate remarks or advances, or fold the laundry and do the ironing, or be the one the teacher calls when the kid has a fever, these achievements will come at the expense of male dominance. Yes, there has been some progress on these fronts, but women’s rights are being outpaced by gay rights because the equal treatment of women could mean less pay and less status for men; it erodes the privileges they have taken such care to preserve for thousands of years.

The reason the gay rights campaign has racked up so many victories while feminism is still struggling is that granting equal rights to women will force the men to divide up the cake that they have been accustomed to having all to themselves. Perhaps this explanation is not particularly comforting or useful, but at least it strips away the layers of justification for the "Femmes, non!" that resounds around the world and reveals it for what it really is: simple, egotistical misogyny.

Vered Kellner is a journalist who has worked in Israel for publications including Kol Ha'ir, Maariv and Globes and now lives in New York.