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By Anna Vaught.

Sam Mills, Chauvo-Feminism: On Sex, Power and #MeToo (The Indigo Press, 2021)

‘A chauvo-feminist is the abusive man who hides in plain sight. Aware that his misogyny would not be tolerated in the current climate, conscious that it could end in the destruction of his reputation and career, he constructs a persona, a screen on smoke and mirrors.’

‘Everyone I know says they’ve met a chauvo-feminist at some point during the past few years,’ says Sam Mills in this excellent book. I am sure she is right, and I greeted the text with some relief because chauvo-feminism is exceedingly difficult to deal with; to someone on the end of it, it may feel intractable, hard to prove and you may think it is only you. You may be told, if you dare to challenge the man who practices it, that you have entirely misunderstood; it is all in your head and no-one else has a problem. So why are you making a fuss? Perhaps you will even wonder if you are going mad. All these things have happened to me, at several points in my life and more recently where their effects were appalling for my view of myself, self-esteem, and trust in others. They made me ill, partly because I began to doubt what I saw and heard and the accuracy of my own perceptions and cognitions. You see that there is a deeply personal angle here and I promise not to make this piece only about me, yet I want to emphasise that I am deeply grateful to this text for articulating my muddled thoughts, raising me up and making me feel less of a fool. It is a forceful but kind book, well documented and scholarly, but dare I say it, Mills’s work also has therapeutic value — a guide for one vital part of living, as well as a superbly argued thesis, elucidating the experience of being gaslit and clear reflection of how and why that might have happened. The situation of being severely affected by a chauvo-feminist is particularly difficult when a man like this is upheld by other women or appears to be. Here:

His misogyny is careful; it is compartmentalised. He will have female friends who are his allies and alibis, asserting what a great guy he is. His chauvinism is select, targeted at women whom he can manipulate easily, whom he perceives as lacking the power to stand up to him.

This is not an essay which is man-bashing, because it does other things too: it places the issues in context in a highly intelligent way, it is hopeful, sensitive to the often-subtle movements which constitute progress, and it is compassionate. As I began reading, I thought of Rebecca Solnit’s The Longest War (2013) and there it was as a preface to the text, reminding us that feminism and the women’s liberation movement do not encroach on or remove power from men, ‘as though in some dismal zero-sum game…we are free together or slaves together’. As Mills herself says at the end of this powerful thesis, when asked by a #MeToo sceptic, ‘What are women now’ (I recall Jordan Peterson here, in a conversation mentioned in the book, on reproductive freedom: ‘What are women now? We don’t know’: Sam is far more generous in her comments on Peterson, I think, than I would be),

We’re human beings. Both men and women are subtle, complex nuanced beings. We rarely fit into the boxes of gender stereotypes, which mostly work to stifle and constrain us. We are all worthy of love, respect and equal rights.

So, what is a chauvo-feminist? It is a man who compartmentalises so that in public he espouses feminism, the rights of women, will seek publicly to lift up those women who have been kept back or silenced; he may do good deeds, in court he may advocate in a high profile case where he deflates sexism and prejudice in the workplace; in a staff room, or in any industry you can think of, he is seen as the man who is a feminist and on your side, prepared to speak with you and agitate on your behalf if you ask him. But in private what is he?

His undermining of women is subtle. The day after he subjects a woman to emotional abuse, he will tweet or post on Facebook about how supportive he is of female empowerment and the destruction of the patriarchy.

At the extreme end of this, you have a man like Harvey Weinstein, the case of which Mills documents superbly here — the many, many years in which he was able to abuse and silence women and in which women may have thought they were the only one, censored, mad, who would believe me? (And, yes, he also made a point of publicly lauding women.) It worked for so long because he was in charge, could make or break a career and because people turned a blind eye. I have seen — and I want to say, also, that I have been in this position myself — women criticised (sometimes by women; sometimes high-profile women) for taking so long to come forward against Weinstein. Seen it in other cases too, much lower profile, close to home. This is what trauma does, though: it silences and disempowers you: gaslighting — where someone insidiously manages to convince you it was all you — is powerful and pervasive. This is all unpicked by Mills, so that we understand how the high-profile chauvo-feminist manages to keep this nasty dichotomy afloat for years, and how the lie is upheld by a conspiracy of silence and a power imbalance. The book carefully links all its observations and arguments to the aims and discussions of #metoo in a sensitive yet forceful way: we build a chorus of voices so that no woman is silenced and left behind, so that we all get to express our pain and fear and anger and live in the hope of empowerment that being heard gives you. Also, we do not do it only for ourselves, but all the women. And this seems an important juncture to point out that Mills makes it very clear in her essay that women also uphold gaslighters and chauvo-feminists — or of course may not know who or what they are because of the compartmentalisation practised by this man: in public he has successfully presented himself as a feminist. She also makes it clear that men are affected badly — by cruelty and abuse and, frankly, sexism, but also by the act of their being chauvo-feminists. Moreover, she argues that you cannot fight misogyny with misandry; that the #MeToo movement should not be a vehicle for this as you cannot fight hate with hate. There is room for growth and hope: ‘We are asking them to grow and be the best versions of themselves’. Therefore, she presents a sensible argument and perhaps one which might be boldly stated more in these terms: #metoo is a movement which benefits men too. Psychologically being a chauvo-feminist is not a good place to be, because it is painful to the perpetrator, upholding a folded lie. I would go one further and say that the conscientious upholder simply skewers his humanity to live two lives and I absolutely applaud Mills’s generosity. I do not think I am at that place just yet though. I am still recovering and angry.

What has happened more recently to me is not, by any means, the worst violation I have experienced, but this is where the book comforts me with its reflection on a difficult personal situation which the author is trying to elucidate:

My encounters with R felt a hundred times worse than any of these experiences, yet I could not claim that he had laid a finger on me: it was all psychological, subtle, insidious. And therefore, very difficult to explain to anyone, How, I wondered, am I going to resolve this?

So, why read this book? To learn. Whoever you are. Because you are hurting. Maybe because you are unsure of what has happened to you, but you have a fairly good idea. Because it is candid, kind and sometimes funny. Because the book does something that I saw Mills do so superbly in her last and entirely different book, Fragments of my Father (Fourth Estate, 2020): there she wove in accounts of literary figures with her own personal experience of being a carer and reduced me to tears with beautiful prose and a sort of jealousy that she had written a book I wanted to write (there’s an admission!) It is a considerable skill to be able to interweave personal and global experience without one or the other feeling trite or, at least, underdeveloped in exegesis. But Mills is clever, and it is done here to great effect, so that we see the harm and eventually resolution in her personal accounts and a terse analysis of effects in the macrocosm and thus the way in which the two are connected is also illuminated. The book is also shocking — not because it sensationalises but because it lays the facts bare: on consent; on rape and how little sexual assault may be reported. Also, I think — I know — that this book is an antidote to pain because it can help you begin to think through lived experience. If you have been the recipient of chauvo-feminism, it can feel like it is only you and your confidence may be eroded to the point where you doubt the veracity of your own opinion. Brought this low, all parts of your life can be destabilized and that is no good for anyone: we need you to be strong because, ultimately, these — the dilemmas explored in the book — are a negotiation: they require careful thought, reflection, and open dialogue. But there are grounds for considerable hope and change.

Personally, I finished this book feeling a little bit stronger for being both heard and seen. I shall not be the only one. My eldest son, who is nineteen, is reading it now, then I will pass it to my sixteen-year-old son and Chauvo-Feminism will be a topic of intergenerational discussion: I hope that pleases its brilliant author.



Anna Vaught is a novelist, poet, essayist, short fiction writer, editor and a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor to young people, mental health advocate and mum of 3. 2020 saw the publication of Anna’s third novel, Saving Lucia (Bluemoose Books) and a first short story collection, Famished (Influx). Anglo-Welsh, she splits her time between Wiltshire, Wales, and the Southern US. Anna’s essays, reviews, articles, and features have been featured widely online and in print. She is currently working on more novels, essays and a first non-fiction book.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 10th, 2021.