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The Big Push

Exposing and Challenging the Persistence of Patriarchy
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Honorary Doctorate   —University of Iceland2020

'This is a manual for taking us to the finishing line of gender equality. Without understanding the incredible tentacles of patriarchy and its reinventions, we are destined to fight old battles as well as new ones. A jolt of new energy for longstanding feminists and a "must read" for our new generations.' — Helena Kennedy,

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Decades of feminist campaigning have resulted in real advances, and yet patriarchy relentlessly continues to thrive.

Cynthia Enloe pulls back the curtain on patriarchy to reveal not only the blatant sexism we can all identify, but also the insidious persistence of particular forms of masculinity and authoritarianism in daily life.

These diverse and illuminating essays — which take as their starting point experiences from her own life and those of women from around the world — explore the resilience of patriarchal beliefs and values, and identify the unwitting nature of our complicity. She shows how, simply by noticing, questioning and crafting fresh feminist concepts, we can update our resistance and challenge patriarchy’s self-perpetuating core.

Gender and Development

22 March 2018

Just what does it take to make her story history? That is, to ensure our collective human memory reflects the perspectives of women as much as the perspectives of men, and – critically – gives weight to women’s analyses of how we’ve ended up where we are and how to chart a better course in future?

In this latest of her studies on power, gender, and equality, Cynthia Enloe considers these questions using the conceptual tools and rich experiences gained over a life spent carefully analysing the past and the present, and making the links that others haven’t. The key starting point in this fascinating reflection on what sustains patriarchy and its many faces, is the Women’s marches of 2017 in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as US President. This is an important book because, as Cynthia Enloe argues, ‘describing patriarchy’s stubborn survival and its remarkable adaptability is not to drape it in a mantle of unassailability…quite the opposite’ (p. 17). To challenge it, we need to recognise it – not only in the war cemeteries of the two World Wars, and not in the Oval Office – as Cynthia Enloe observes so witheringly in the title of the book’s Preface, ‘It’s Not All About Trump’. It is also – and equally – about the complicity of entire societies in a gendered set of unequal power relations. There are the interdependences between toxic masculinities and – if you like – toxic femininities; the women in stilettoes and skirts who teeter beside the powerful men in suits, proving political power’s links to (hetero)sexual conquest of women made artificially, appallingly vulnerable by gender roles and relations. And there are the quiet acts and thoughts of resistance from women and girls who are not free to overtly challenge patriarchy but who signal their opposition through ‘a flick of the skirt’ (p. 87).

I found this book a dream to read – despite its hard-hitting subject matter that challenges all of us to activism, and particularly speaks to those of us who are able to choose to march – and need to, in a climate of closing space for civil society activism and concerted challenges to notions of individual human rights and in particular to women’s rights. This book is a zeitgeist publication, which marks a moment in international and national politics characterised by a surge of right-wing populist aggression fuelled by ‘toxic masculinities’ that use a particular narrative: of ethnic purity and superiority, of inferior peoples who live in ‘shithole’ countries, of making our nations and countries ‘great again’ by banning mixing, nuancing, intelligence, and non-violence. In a fascinating and brave account, Cynthia Enloe focuses on the complicity of all involved in memorialising war through mythologising and what she terms ‘patriarchal forgetting’ (p. 77).

Long-term admirers of Cynthia Enloe will know she writes in a pithy, witty, clear, and accessible style that (together with her knack for finding a catchy title to draw in her readers) ensures her work is accessible and easily read and absorbed. She has the popular touch. She also has the ability to leave the reader fired to action, not paralysed by the bleak picture that she depicts. Acts of resistance to patriarchy are scrutinised, and her conclusion is ‘updated patriarchy is not invincible’. While it twists and turns and morphs like a virus, women – and non-conforming men – continue to find the energy to track it and root it out. Constant vigilance – and attention to making her story history – is the key. As Cynthia Enloe argues:

History is not just about ‘yesterday’. It is about today – and tomorrow. How we craft our personal and our collective memories shapes how we imagine ourselves in the world today. This, in turn, will influence how we feel and act tomorrow.What counts as courage, what deserves contempt, for whom do we grieve, who are the we in ‘we’? Each is either reinforced or challenged by how and what we choose to remember. It is for this reason that feminists pay such close attention to what is commemorated – and in what way, and by whom … It is why feminist libraries, feminist archives, feminist museums and feminist historians are each so central to current challenges to patriarchy. (p. 77)

© Caroline Sweetman
Editor, Gender & Development, UK

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Laura Bates, The Guardian

6 November 2017

‘Never be the most feminist person you know’ – Laura Bates meets Cynthia Enloe

The 79-year-old professor and activist has tackled marital rape and changed the language of feminism. She remains a force to be reckoned with in the fight to make sure all women’s voices are equal and heard

Cynthia Enloe: ‘How many tipping points have we had?’
 Cynthia Enloe: ‘How many tipping points have we had?’ Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

“Patriarchy’s beneficiaries,” Cynthia Enloe tells us in her latest book, “count on us getting tired.” If that is the case, then patriarchy had better watch out because Enloe herself seems utterly tireless. At 79 years old, the professor has published her ninth feminist book – The Big Push: Exposing and Challenging the Persistence of Patriarchy – and has packed her visit to London with meetings, guest lectures, teaching and catch-ups with comrades. She is a force of nature. Later on the day we meet, we are both invited on to Channel 4 News to discuss sexual harassment. Will the Harvey Weinstein scandal act as a tipping point in public awareness and attitudes towards sexual violence? Enloe replies drily. “How many tipping points have we had?” Looking back over the decades, she asks: “Why wasn’t Dominique Strauss-Kahn the tipping point, or more importantly Anita Hill [who accused her boss and US supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment]?” She pauses to notes the grim similarities between Strauss-Kahn’s behaviour and Weinstein’s. “It’s all bathrobes, God, honestly!”

The abuse of power, and of women, continues to drag on in part, says Enloe, because of the “sustainability of patriarchy”. This is a theory she uses in The Big Push to describe how patriarchy nimbly adapts and reinvents itself to survive. She gives a wry smile. “I’m not trying to name the persistencies in patriarchy so we can all be depressed. But it does say you can never sit back on your laurels. That makes me put ‘tipping point’ in inverted commas. It makes me nervous when people say we’ve got momentum. You can’t stop.”

When I ask Enloe if we are getting anywhere, she points to recent feminist initiatives such as the Everyday Sexism Project as positive steps and welcomes the fact that mainstream news organisations are now discussing sexual harassment and assault. But on one point she is unequivocal: “There’s no end in sight.”

On the other hand, she says, we are making slow but sure progress. “It’s harder and harder to fool us. It’s harder and harder for people in authority to throw ... tokenism at us and make us think we should applaud.

“There is much more transnational feminist learning and listening. Women who feel threatened locally can use growing international understanding to open spaces for discussion in their own societies.”

Enloe, whose work has long spanned intersectional analyses of gender, race and class, is pleased to see that the feminist movement is “much more diverse in its voices now”. But here, too, she cautions against premature self-congratulation. “I’m hopeful, but I’m not comfortable. There’s much more work to do.” Social media, she says, though a breeding ground for misogyny, also opens up the discussion. “It is an opportunity to ask: ‘What does a Kurdish feminist sound like and what does she want me to take on board?’”

Throughout her book and our conversation, Enloe repeatedly questions which things society pays attention to and which we consider insignificant. With typical laser focus, she pinpoints, for example, the linguistic sleight of hand performed by those who use the phrase “women and children”, instead of the quite different “women with their dependent children”. Through this elision, she points out: “The children don’t become women. The women become children.” When feminists within the UNHCR pushed for the term to be altered, she says, the difference seemed tiny, but the impact was huge.

Enloe encourages us away from distraction by caricatures such as Donald Trump. But I can’t resist asking what she makes of the preening brinkmanship between the male egos of Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. She is both scathing and foreboding. “They are such extreme versions of masculinity, I’m afraid. It’s going to let all the other men acting out forms of weaponised masculinity off the hook … and that’s really dangerous.”

She repeatedly emphasises the importance of feminist collaboration and curiosity; she coined the term “feminist curiosity” when lecturing in Tokyo in 2003 and says it was a way to encourage students to “go ask a question I haven’t even thought of. Investigate something I hadn’t even realised needs investigation.” Indeed, she is self-effacing to a fault, declaring in The Big Push: “Self-reflection can be indulgent. It can place one at the centre of the universe. Always a bad move.” She is self-deprecating, too, about her own feminist credentials, describing her slow, “winding journey to feminist consciousness” and noting that she initially spent decades in teaching and research examining issues such as class and race without any attention to gender at all. It was only after her feminist awakening, which she says was spurred by her young female students, that she revisited the life of her mother, Harriett, choosing to write about her life and experiences in many of her subsequent books. Enloe movingly writes of revisiting her mother’s diary “with fresh eyes”, and realising the burden she had quietly borne as the wife of a veteran of the second world war. “I began then to see that the US government depended on my mother for its waging of that globalised war.” Enloe dedicated her first feminist book to her mother, who received the page proof of the dedication the day before she died.

Enloe remains an inspiration; she is closely concerned with encouraging and supporting students and younger women. “Every feminist I know, in any country I’ve spent time in, their biggest challenge is how to pass the baton.” For her part, Enloe has sage advice for the next generation of activists: “Never be the most feminist person you know. That’s not going to get you far. You need to have people around you who are differently feminist or more feminist than you are. It’s only depressing if you’re doing it all by yourself.”

Nadje Al-Ali

13 June 2017

In what has clearly become a unique Cynthia Enloe lens and approach, The Big Push connects the dots in an engaging and original manner. It exposes the intricate and often invisible ways in which patriarchy survives and sustains itself.

Yet, in a post-truth era in which populism, Brexit, Donald Trump, nationalist political parties and right-wing anti-immigration movements flourish, The Big Push also provides us with hope. Enloe leaves us in no doubt that feminist resistance is alive and kicking everywhere: intersectional transnational feminist analyses and activisms are locally and globally at the forefront of challenging patriarchy and its brothers: militarism, authoritarianism and neo-liberal economics.

Helena Kennedy QC

5 April 2017

This is a manual for taking us to the finishing line of gender equality. A jolt of new energy for longstanding feminists and a 'must read' for our new generations. Without understanding the incredible tentacles of patriarchy and its reinventions, we are destined to fight old battles as well as new ones. Cynthia Enloe, a great scholar and source of wisdom,  pries open jammed patriarchal doors and nails the continuing reasons for gender inequality. A brilliant critique and a manifesto for our resistance.

Beatrix Campbell

31 March 2017

Cynthia Enloe is an adventurer, an intellectual with a light touch and inveterate ‘feminist curiosity’; here she is again travelling across time and space – revisiting her own great history as an activist scholar, the landscapes of new and old wars, new and old political settlements, new and old trades in banana and bombs; in all of them she shows how thinking about gender, the renewal of patriarchy and women’s resistance, is vital to making sense of the world. It is a joy to travel with her. 

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