By Steph Ritson
Women’s History Month calls for the celebration and reassertion of the role of women in history, society and culture. This ultimately leads to the celebration of women through their contribution to influential milestones. The work of Greta Thunberg is undoubtedly one of these vital milestones in the feminist movement.
Thunberg has successfully mobilised and emboldened young feminist activists in the fight against the climate emergency. However, Women’s History Month is also useful to reminisce on the oppression faced by our predecessors, and how as modern women we are still fighting the pervasive undercurrents of the past.
Thunberg is successfully cultivating the attention of the world, successfully creating a generation that is aware and actively fighting for their own future. Thunberg is inspired by the likes of Emma Gonzales, another young female activist, organising and empowering an active generation calling for change.
Thunberg’s work was accredited by her award of the Time Person of the Year award in 2019. This was a monumental moment for a woman of her age, and also a further milestone as the award had only been given to four women as individuals before 1999. Thunberg’s triumph as Person of the Year can be linked to that of Queen Elizabeth II and Corzaon Aquino, the first President of the Philippines. Making this a resounding accomplishment, an exceptional endeavour to her predecessors. Thunberg has also taken a political spotlight that women of the past never could have dreamed of, through her exposure through her 2019 address to the the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit in New York City.
However, the stark opposition to Thunberg can perhaps allude to the pervasiveness of misogynistic opposition to women in the politics and the public eye. Donald Trump’s 2019 tweet “So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!”, arguably draws upon a long historical legacy whereby vocal and politicised women are mocked and told to remain in their place.
Meg Verian explores the pathologising of women showing them to be told they need ‘rest medication and incarceration’. This is an insult especially targeted at the young activist, due not only to her outspoken nature but also her diagnosis with her ‘superpower’ Asperger syndrome.
Camilla Nelson also asserts the ‘infantilisation’ of Thunberg, helping feed into this narrative whereby women are charged with emotional hysteria. These labels, helped by people such as Donald Trump and Piers Morgan, go far in undermining the authority of Thunberg message. This ultimately invalidates and silences her voice as a symptom of her ‘madness’.
This draws upon a historical precedent whereby labels of mental illness are used as a form of social control. Elaine Showalter’s ‘The Female Malady’ explores this theme . Showalter shows how women were over-diagnosed with hysteria, contributing to the policing of women’s behaviour. This therefore helps to retain the status quo, whereby the male voice and male power is hegemonic. This historical precedent is proved by the likes of George Dangerfield in ‘The Strange Death of liberal England’ in the 1930’s pathologising the suffragettes as ‘hysterical’.
Another side of misogyny is reflected by Anshelm and Hultman of Sweden’s Chalmers University of technology. In 2014 they reported on the ‘misogyny of the climate denier’, a male reaction against a threatened identity. The male identity is threatened by activists calling for gender equality as well as environmental changes. Men are seen to internalise and personalise these protests, fearing the uprooting of their masculinity. These attitudes date from the colonial period whereby men saw the land as their own to conquer, helping form their masculine identity as colonisers. Thunberg is therefore a symbol of this threat.
Brough and Wilkie, take this research further exploring the “Green-feminine stereotype”. This argues for a link between eco-friendliness and ideas of masculinity. Men thereby view environmental activism as an emasculating force. Thereby men try to reassert their masculinity through non-environmentally-friendly choices, and opposition to activists such as Thunberg.
The accumulation of social and historical perspectives has led to a backlash on Thunberg and others activist campaigns. The likes Donald Trump reflect white male tensions and fears of being displaced by a young female activist.
Aaron R. Brough, James E.B. Wilkie, Men Resist Green Behavior as Unmanly A surprising reason for resistance to environmental goods and habits https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/men-resist-green-behavior-as-unmanly/
Anshelm and Hultman of Sweden’s Chalmers University of technology; Centre for Studies of Climate Change Denialism (CEFORCED) https://www.chalmers.se/en/departments/tme/centres/ceforced/Pages/default.aspx
Elaine Showalter, “The female malady: Women, madness, and English culture, 1830-1980.” (1985).
Gillian Brockell, A girl named Greta and the seriously sexist history of Time’s Person of the Year https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/12/11/greta-thunberg-nancy-pelosi-sexist-history-times-person-year/
Maria DiCenzo, “Justifying Their Modern Sisters: History Writing and the British Suffrage Movement.” Victorian Review 31.1 (2005): 40 https://www.jstor.org/stable/27793564?mag=why-did-the-suffragists-wear-medieval-costumes&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Martin Gelin, The Misogyny of Climate Deniers https://newrepublic.com/article/154879/misogyny-climate-deniers
Peter Foley; Misogyny, male rage and the words men use to describe Greta Thunberg https://theconversation.com/misogyny-male-rage-and-the-words-men-use-to-describe-greta-thunberg-124347