The founding fathers get a free pass. The feminists? Not so much.

The founding fathers get a free pass. The feminists? Not so much. November 3, 2012
Painting by Junius Brutus Stearns

It is more than acceptable in our society to quote one of the founding fathers to prove a point. I see liberals and conservatives do this alike, and, even though I rarely quote these men, I am not necessarily going to criticize those who do (so if you’re going to skip straight to the comments and argue with me about why it’s okay to quote the founding fathers, save it).

But many of our founding fathers were racists and slave-owners. This is undeniable. We know this, yet we quote their words anyway. Why?

Well, those quoting ol’ George and Thomas and the rest might  say, “Well, not ALL of our founding fathers owned slaves. In fact, some were abolitionists.” A great point here.

Others might say, “Even those who did own slaves had some good, revolutionary ideas. We shouldn’t throw out the good.” This I would agree with as well, although, I believe any good George Washington said must be interpreted in light of the fact that he owned over three hundred slaves, etc. We cannot ignore the horrible aspects of the lives of these men, but we can acknowledge intelligent things they may have said.

The general public okay with quoting the founding fathers. Most see them as having some degree of authority over how we currently run our country–whether you’re using them to oppose gun control or asserting that “all men are created equal.”

Yet, I’ve been into more arguments than I count in which someone has said to me, concerning feminism, “Well, feminists hate men.”

When I object to this, they provide examples: “Andrea Dworkin says all sex is rape!” “Mary Daly was a female supremacist!” etc., etc.

I often respond the way many do when confronted about the founding fathers. First, not all feminists are Andrea Dworkin or Mary Daly. In fact, radical feminists who actually believe in female supremacy are a fringe group who are widely criticized by the wider feminist movement. Many, if not most, feminists love the men in their lives–their brothers, their fathers, their partners, or their friends–and want to see them freed from the oppressive standards and from the hatred and fear that patriarchy tries to impose on them. Many, if not most, feminists would say that reversing the system of domination so that women are in charge would not solve anything. Domination is domination. The goal is not matriarchy, but equality or justice.

Even feminists who do seem to believe that men are inferior, like Dworkin or Daly, have good things to say, just like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson did. Dworkin criticized the objectification of women and relentlessly fought against sexual harassment and rape. Daly was a highly influential feminist theologian. We can recognize their contributions to the feminist movement, but filter those contributions through their flaws (man-hating not being the only flaw. Mary Daly was extremely transphobic, for example. Many feminists were and are racists and classist. Some second-wave feminists, in order to prove they didn’t hate men, blatantly discriminated against lesbians, etc.). It’s part of critical thinking.

But these arguments never seem to be enough, even for the very people who quote our founding fathers with authority.

I could even go further and remind them that, unlike some of the founding fathers, no feminist ever started a movement that led to the genocide or enslavement of men. That many of the “man-haters” spoke from a place of oppression or had a experienced marginalization or abuse. That many examples of feminist “man-hating” were meant to be hyperbolic or metaphorical–for example, when modern feminists joke that viagra shouldn’t be covered by health insurance. They are not literally arguing for this, but are making a point.

Still, this doesn’t matter. I am demanded to account for every man-hating feminist that a Google-search can come up with. My points are dismissed. My decision to self-identify as an advocate of feminism is criticized. I encounter this from conservatives, from liberals, from complementarians, and from egalitarians. 

I believe this says volumes about the power structure in our society. Why is it so widely acceptable to quote the founding fathers but not the feminists?

The founding fathers can only be accused of hating black people (and women, and Native Americans…).

The feminists can be accused of hating all men (especially white men).

One form of hate is obviously more socially acceptable than the other. The group that it is less socially acceptable to hate (and please note: I am not advocating hate at all, but pointing out an inconsistency) is the group that is in power: white men.


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  • Interesting points. It’s an ethical imperative, I think, to own up to the entirety of history. I’ve started a project of reading feminist texts from the Enlightenment to the present day (I’m still on Mary Wollstonecraft), and I know I’m going to have to confront racism and classism and bigotry, because they’re part of the history of the feminist movement, just like slavery (and racism and classism and bigotry) is part of the history of the United States. We can’t sweep under the rug the parts we don’t like. But the bad parts also don’t prevent me from calling myself an American or a feminist.

  • This is really insightful- it’s somehow “more acceptable” to respect the founding fathers (with their prejudices and approval of slavery) but not feminists (because we all know that feminism is about HATING MEN, right?).

    I wonder if the fact that they lived so long ago makes a difference. They lived in a very different setting than we do. Back then, mainstream culture approved of slavery, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the founding fathers did too.

    But I guess no matter how you look at it, they had some good things to say and some really bad/racist/etc things to say. Let’s accept the good ones- and do the same for any other imperfect group that has things to say.

  • Thank you for writing this! Just the other day, I mentioned a quote from Simone de Beauvoir (“One is not born a woman, one becomes one”) in conversation and got the old “all feminists hate men” line thrown at me. Stereotypes are a big problem in this area- feminists are described as “men-haters,” while with the founding fathers, people say, “Well, not all of them were racists/were happy about slavery!” Very thought provoking post.

  • Thanks so much for your post.

    Again and again there is ample evidence that oppressor-class people are allowed to act out hate against oppressed people with impunity, not just interpersonally but also institutionally. Meanwhile oppressed-class people are not allowed to express any opinion, sentiment, or point of theory or analysis that is assumed (rightly and most often wrongly) to be hateful, without being condemned as ‘dangerous’ for feeling that way or holding that belief. It’s as if a few women’s theories that identify the many ways men disrespect women are “just as dangerous” as men’s systematic violence against women. And not so surprisingly, it is men’s violence against women, including rape, incest, battery, or trafficking, which the men who criticise feminists tend to downplay or deny outright.

    As you address, only oppressor class people have the institutional power to make hatred systematically lethal. What systemic effect does it have if oppressed people love or hate their oppressor? Not the kind of effect it would have if oppressors stopped turning their hatred into law, psychology, science, literature, religion, and social custom. To all those anti-feminists who believe “all feminists are man-haters” or that white feminists like Daly and/or Dworkin were female supremacists, I welcome them to read what I’ve linked to here from my blog:

    The two speeches by Andrea, linked to there, demonstrate how wrong people are who think she hated men. And they demonstrate she was willing to challenge her own white followers and peers when ideas of (white) female superiority gained any traction at all. (Not that they’d even remotely have the traction or destructive power of men’s belief in male superiority, which shows no signs of waning any time soon.)

    The anti-feminist quotes making the rounds on the internet, spread mostly by uber-privileged white men, ought not be responded to with “not all feminists believed that” in my opinion. They ought to be interrogated point by point. Pro-feminist men really need to do that work, though, and challenge other men who raise those quotes as “proof” of anything at all, rather than leaving that work to always fall on women’s shoulders.

    Here is an analysis and discussion about those allegedly accurate feminist quotes found all over the place online, that appear to make a case that ‘radical feminists’ hate men. Foolishly, the spreaders tend to assume all radical feminists were and are white, for one thing. But even if these white guys are only willing to acknowledge the existence of white feminists, they ought to at least know the contexts for the passages that are quoted accurately. So here that is and I hope you find it, and this whole comment, supportive of your position.