Coining a Brand-New Word: Forelash

Remember when the gender gap was supposedly a passing fad?

An extraordinary study was done recently: a 2016 survey (data needs time to season) of 137,456 full-time, first year students at 184 colleges and universities in the U.S. It was found by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute to show “the largest ever gender gap in terms of political leanings: 41.1 percent of women, an all-time high, identified themselves as liberal or far left, compared to 28.9 percent of men.”

Along parallel lines, a Knight Foundation survey of 3,014 college students asked “Which do you think more important, a diverse and inclusive society or protecting free-speech rights?” Male students preferred protecting free speech by a decisive 61 to 39 percent (possibly because it’s so often deployed to defend violent pornography?), while female students favored an inclusive diverse society by 64 to 25 percent. The data reflect trends in the electorate at large, and scholars are moving into synchrony. The Pew Research Center provided the New York Times with survey data showing that among all voters, Democrats and Republicans show a combined gender gap of 18 points. The Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics noted that while “significant gender differences in party identification have been evident since the early 1980s, the growing political engagement of women is now having a major impact on the social order, in ways not yet understood.”

In the 2018 paper “The Suffragist Peace,” Joslyn Barnhart of the University of California Santa Barbara was lead author for a group of researchers noting that “preferences for conflict and cooperation are systematically different for men and for women. At each stage of the escalatory ladder, women prefer more peaceful options. They are less apt to approve of the use of force and the striking of hard bargains internationally, and more apt to approve of substantial concessions to preserve peace.” As to whether the increasing incorporation of women into political decision-making over the last century has had an actual effect on conflict behavior of nations, Barnhart et al found that “the increasing enfranchisement of women, not merely the rise of democracy itself, is the cause of the democratic peace.” That’s breathtaking.

Of course, with any trait we’re discussing averages, not categorical distinctions, e.g., some individual men will have less preference for the use of force than some individual women, and vice versa. Nor is this simplistically about Men Bad, Women Good, or Calvinistic assumptions about the lack of free will. In fact, when passive pacifistic stereotypes have been foisted on women, feminists have responded (for centuries) rebutting them as patronizing, and have noted that we would not be able to grasp any real differences between the sexes until we have value-free scientific studies. But at last we are beginning to have such studies, and other consequential shifts are emerging as women’s views become more involved (and visible) with politics. It depends on who is doing the defining. This is science, not stereotypes.

Dennis Chong, a political scientist of the University of Southern California, notes that women score higher on values defined by care, fairness, benevolence, and protecting the welfare of others, reflecting greater empathy and preference for cooperative social relations. In today’s debates over free speech and “cancel culture,” these social, psychological, and value differences are in line with surveys showing women more likely than men to regard hate speech as a form of violence rather than one of expression. Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, writes that the most fundamental empirical generalization about violence is that it is mainly committed by men. Pinker adds that new, more female-oriented trends might consist of “a society moving away from cultures of manly honor with approval of violent retaliation for insults, toughening of boys to physical punishment, and veneration of martial glory.”

In other words, this research is stunningly helpful, because it means that people and societies can change. Historically, men tend to be more obsessed with status and dominance and more willing to take risks competing for them, while women are more likely to value health and safety, and to reduce conflict. The evolutionary explanation, as many have proposed, is that for much of human prehistory and history, successful men and male coalitions could multiply mates and offspring by violent means, whereas women’s reproduction was rooted in the required investment in time–pregnancy and nursing both require time–and without women, motherless children didn’t survive. This reflects the findings of scholars who locate key differences between men and women in the emphasis women place on preventing harm, particularly to those least equipped to protect themselves.

Women are as competitive as men, though, notes Joyce Benenson of Harvard’s evolutionary biology department, but they do it differently. From early childhood, girls compete using strategies that minimize the risk of retaliation, and enforce equality within the female community. In a November 2021 paper, Benenson found “females responding with greater self protectiveness than males. Females mount stronger immune responses to many pathogens; experience a lower threshold to detect (and lesser tolerance of) pain; awaken more frequently at night; express greater concern about physically dangerous stimuli; exert more effort to avoid social conflicts, exhibit a personality style more focused on danger, react to threats with greater fear, disgust, and sadness; and develop more threat-based clinical conditions than males.” This can lead to a different kind of conflict reaction. For one thing, females exhibit greater response to detecting sensory stimuli, find punishment more aversive, demonstrate higher effort control, and experience deeper empathy.

Additional heartening news is that young people show the biggest gains at self-identifying in feminism. Surveys conducted by American National Election Studies found that over a 24 year period between 1992 and 2016, 18 to 24-year-olds showed gains in feminist identification that doubled from 21 percent to 42 percent.

Now, remember the above developments (gender gap sustained increase, plus sex differential research about conflict, plus age demarcation) while we glance at a fourth: emerging sexist-free studies of international affairs. Did you know that peace agreements last dramatically longer if women are involved in the negotiations? If women sign onto an agreement, 70 percent of such pacts last for 20 years or more; if not, only 25 percent last that long. One reason is that women put into the agreement solutions for many more community-based problems, and these are the sorts of issues that often lead to greater conflict. In other words, less posturing, please, guys–and more attention to detail.

Valerie Hudson, a professor at Texas A&M, has been studying the relationship between gender and international security for many years. She’s written numerous articles demonstrating how violence against women and girls has a direct impact on national levels of peace and stability, and a few years ago, she and a group of scholars wrote a book on the subject, titled Sex and World Peace. She followed this with another book called The Hillary Doctrine, which examined the ways in which Hillary Rodham Clinton, when Secretary of State under President Obama, instituted specific measures to adapt and further the politics behind this subject, from the micro level to the macro.Together, the two books make for a powerful argument.

For example: “We have found in conventional aggregate empirical testing that the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not its level of wealth, or its level of democracy, or whether it is Islamic or not. The very best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is its level of violence against women.”

And another quote: “These are not the only findings that underscore the link between the security of women and the security of states. Scholars have found the larger the gap between men and women in the society, the more likely a nation is to be involved in intra- and inter-state conflict, to be the aggressor, to use force first in a conflict, and to resort to higher levels of violence in a conflict. The days when one could claim that the situation of women had nothing to do with matters of national or international security are, frankly, over. The empirical results to the contrary are just too numerous and too robust.”

Hudson and her team find that the treatment of women informs human interaction at all levels of society, and they support their findings with detailed analyses and color maps, harnessing an immense amount of data. They call attention to discrepancies between national laws protecting women and the enforcement of those laws, and note the adverse effect on state security of abnormal sex ratios favoring males, the practice of polygamy, and unequitable realities in family law, among other gendered aggressions. Their research challenges conventional definitions of security and democracy and shows that the treatment of gender informs the true clash of civilizations.

This means that bottom up as well as top down approaches are both necessary for healing wounds of violence, whether in the family or in policy councils. Both books emphasize the importance of R2P, the United Nations ruling that nation states have a Responsibility to Protect vulnerable nation states, and also R2PW, which stands for responsibility to protect women. (Neither policy is observed.) Mind you, these are not measures instituted in any protectionist manner. Rather, they face realities of a profoundly embedded sexism so old and deep that it is all but impossible to trace its outlines against any field or background, because in fact it is the field, the background.

Feminists internationally have been saying for years that the family is the microcosm of the state–not the worker, as Marx would have it. In the family we learn how life is experienced and expressed, what is expected of us, how to meet such expectations. It is not coincidental that all patrilineal, patrifocal, patriarchal societies — most societies currently on earth — have specific rituals to mark (usually with real or metaphorical blood-letting as a form of genital mutilation) the shift of responsibility for a child from the mother to the father, uncle, or related male figure. This is particularly true for male children, but it takes related forms for females who, at such initiations, learn docility, obedience, and a so-called celebration of their womanhood. From there on, the patriarchy has smooth sailing. This process, defended in terms of cultural relativism, has been challenged in U.S. foreign policy only once, under Hillary Rodham Clinton with the Hillary Doctrine. At the onset of her term, she said “The subjugation of women is a threat to the common security of our world and to the national security of our country.” John Kerry, who succeeded her as Secretary of State, shut down that approach.

Given the worldwide backlash we’re currently experiencing, with the rise of autocratic and even totalitarian regimes abroad (and attempted at home!), one reaction is that this is a backlash to feminism, which has been midwifing the emerging voice and powers of half of humanity. But I would argue that this is not backlash–which is after all an elaborate way to blame the victim. I believe there’s another, profoundly revealing, name for it, and I think we can dare to coin that word.

The word is forelash. Forelash has always preceded backlash across history, in a fearful, even paranoid, frantic attempt to stave off any risings of the oppressed, including imaginary ones. Forelash in this case consists of the conscious or semi- or subconscious realization by most men (and I specify most to avoid generalization), that women coming to voice and power will mean change hitherto unimaginable in our species. Look at the decades of forelash leading to the American Civil War, check out Goebbels’ forelash-evoking propaganda before the Nazis’ rise, listen to the torch-carrying white-supremacist marchers in Charlottesville chanting “you will not replace us.” Forelash doesn’t need an actual threat to feel threatened. It is a terrified warning from those in power who suspect the fragility of their power, the way a batterer clenches his fist at his wife and mutters “Don’t you provoke me.”

Patriarchy’s been entrenched for a long time. Its means are violent. It’s aware that women’s means, as history shows straight on up through the latest gender gap statistics, tend toward nonviolence. So why not storm and threaten, brandish swords or cannons, cyberhacks or poisons or nuclear disaster? If threats make women scurry back to their places, hey, Bro,’ we got this made!

Well, if forelash comes from projected feelings of male fear, a fear so all encompassing that it blinds men toward what women actually are about, which is not revenge at all, then how do we respond to that fear? It shouldn’t scare us, because we know backlash is inevitable, anyway. It may even prepare us the better to combat it.

I don’t have facile, instant answers about how to cope with forelash (after all, I just came up with the word itself). But I do have a strong feeling that this is on the right track, a track that begins with naming the problem; then, from there on, figuring how we respond. On one hand, there are models like the Bantu people, Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement, the styles of certain Indigenous peoples; most have been non-violent, principled, and borrowed from women’s styles, interestingly. All have worked, but only to a degree, and for a while. The clock is ticking now, with the planet endangered, so we don’t have much time. But that works both ways. It affects our strategies, and those of the patriarchy.

All I know so far is that it starts with four interconnected, hopeful, recent developments: the latest statistics on the gender gap, unprecedented rising numbers of people affirming that gender gap, a youth differential also affirming it, and emerging data on women’s growing political impact on peace. Together, they might begin to spell “evolution” for our species.

And now this new word, forelash. Let’s put it out there, use it, share it, start spreading it around, and see if it takes to the air!