In early 2020, Jeanine Cummins appeared to be on the brink of literary stardom. Her new commercial thriller, American Dirt, was one of the most anticipated books of the year. The novel highlights the border crisis, painting a gut-wrenching portrait of a Mexican mother and son fleeing a drug cartel. It sparked a bidding war, earned effusive praise from literary luminaries, and was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. But in the leadup to its publication, author Myriam Gurba published a scathing review, accusing Cummins—who is Irish, with a Puerto Rican grandmother—of cultural exploitation, and of trafficking in “trauma porn” and negative stereotypes. An online mobbing followed, with an open letter from writers urging Oprah Winfrey to withdraw support. Cummins’s book tour was cut short amid safety concerns, and the book’s publisher issued an apology. “It was a witch hunt,” the novelist Ann Patchett, with whom Cummins was staying at the time, told The New York Times. “The fall that she took, in my kitchen, from being at the top of the world to just being smashed and in danger—it was heartbreaking.”
Months later, in May of 2020, it was New York Times food columnist Alison Roman in the crosshairs. In the early months of the pandemic, Roman had become a big star. A proponent of unfussy home cooking with a knack for coming up with wildly popular recipes, Roman had already been made a target for her viral stew, which some argued was in fact a curry, and thus constituted cultural appropriation. Then, in an interview, Roman criticized two Asian lifestyle icons, Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen, for launching product lines. The online backlash alleging racism was ferocious, with Roman lamenting the female bullying on display. (“Oh please,” author Lauren Oyler replied on Twitter, “I’m not ‘bullying’ you.”) In the fallout, the Times put Roman’s column on hold. Later that year, she left the paper. “I still have not seen a successful story of a woman getting dragged to hell in the way that I was and then coming back publicly and being able to talk,” she told The New Yorker’s Lauren Collins, for a profile snidely titled “Alison Roman Just Can’t Help Herself.”
The following year, in March of 2021, Teen Vogue announced that Alexi McCammond would be its next editor-in-chief. McCammond, who was 27 at the time, had recently been named emerging journalist of the year by the National Association of Black Journalists. But then journalist Diana Tsui highlighted racist and homophobic tweets from when McCammond was a teenager, for which she had apologized in 2019. “Time and time again this shows that gatekeepers pay lip service to diversity,” Tsui wrote in a viral Instagram post. “They don’t believe anti-racism policies can and should include Asian Americans.” More than 20 Teen Vogue staffers subsequently protested McCammond’s hiring, posting an open letter and launching an internal complaint. McCammond wound up resigning before she’d even started the position.
A few months later, in July, Harvard lecturer Carole Hooven appeared on Fox & Friends to comment on a press report about medical schools denying biological sex, in which she was quoted. Hooven, a prominent evolutionary biologist who teaches the science of sex differences, had just published a book called T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us (which was praised by The Wall Street Journal as “a gorgeous culmination of an odyssey both professional and personal.”) “There are, in fact, two sexes—there are male and female—and those sexes are designated by the kind of gametes we produce,” Hooven said on-air. Understanding the importance of biology, she stressed, does not prevent us from treating trans people with respect. Soon after, Laura Simone Lewis, a graduate student and director of the diversity and inclusion task force in Hooven’s department, tweeted that she was “appalled and frustrated by the transphobic and harmful remarks” and warned about the impacts of such “dangerous language.” A pile-on ensued, which ultimately led to Hooven retiring from Harvard.
What do these high-profile controversies have in common?
For starters, each carry the hallmarks of a textbook leftist cancellation campaign. A recent book from Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott, The Canceling of the American Mind, highlights several of the aforementioned controversies, among many others, and sketches out the cancel culture playbook for those on the political left and the political right. Both sides practice “offence archaeology”—digging up mistakes or missteps from the past—as well as sometimes just making things up. But the left’s unique strategy, which the authors call the “Perfect Rhetorical Fortress,” is characterized by erecting barrier after barrier until the debate is shut down: discounting the speaker based on politics, race, sex, sexuality, and gender identity; making accusations of phobic speech and guilt by association; deploying “thought-terminating cliches” designed to end discussion; then, if all else fails, hinting at sinister motives.
Such tactics are not the only thing these cancellation campaigns have in common. It is also worth noting that the main actors here were all women.
“Feminine Aggression at Play”
In the autumn of 2022, I found myself driving from Toronto to Bennington, Vermont, on my way to a women’s retreat hosted by the American essayist Meghan Daum. As I drove east, through miles of leafy trees just beginning to turn vibrant hues of orange and red, I listened to Daum’s podcast interview with the British feminist Louise Perry. That’s when I heard, for the first time, the argument that cancel culture is driven by women.
“Look at social media if you want to see feminine aggression at play,” Perry said. “On Twitter, everyone fights like a girl.” She added: “You’ve got to use your feminine tools, like reputational damage, and turning people against outcasts from the in-group—all this good stuff that cancel culture has brought to the fore. This is just girls’ school culture. Cancel culture is girls’ school culture.”
It hit me then: the nastiest things that had been said about me, too, had all come from women.
The idea that women are driving cancel culture has since gained traction in heterodox circles, and particularly in the heterodox feminist ecosphere. Meghan Daum, for her part, regularly advances this argument on her podcast with Sarah Haider, A Special Place in Hell. “If we’re going to talk about toxic masculinity, we have to recognize toxic femininity,” Daum recently told me on my podcast. “I think cancel culture, at its root, has to do with an in-group out-group dynamic that is very much paralleling what we see in middle school and in grade school. I would be hard-pressed to think of a high-profile cancel culture case that has been initiated by a man.”
Women Are Becoming More Prominent—and More Liberal
The phenomenon of cancel culture arrives at a time when women are increasingly prominent in intellectual life, with women outnumbering men on college campuses, earning more bachelor’s degrees than men every year since the mid-1980s. Although cancel culture is practiced on both sides of the political spectrum, its current iteration originated at elite, left-leaning universities, remains prevalent there, and is most commonly associated with leftist politics. Which, as it turns out, are increasingly embraced by women.
“There is a dramatic gap in partisan preferences between men and women,” the sociologist Musa al-Gharbi explained, during a recent public lecture for the University of New England’s Center for Global Humanities.
It started roughly in 1980 and it has been growing dramatically since then. Not only do women lean decisively and increasingly Democrat, but they also represent a larger total share of the U.S. population, and they vote at higher rates than men as well. And the political polarization along gender lines has been fairy asymmetrical in recent years.
There is also evidence to suggest that women are increasingly more illiberal than men. Greg Lukianoff, in a recent appearance on my podcast, noted that he’d seen data on this going all the way back to when he and Jonathan Haidt were writing their landmark 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind. “It is true that when you look at the stats that there’s been a stable, but getting worse, gender difference in appreciation for freedom of speech, in polling,” he told me.
As universities become more female-dominated, the hope is of course that you can do a better job of trying to persuade women over to freedom of speech. They are not doing that, though, is the problem. And I’m not seeing a lot of will for universities to do that. I do think that you can’t defeat cancel culture without getting more women on board with it being a problem.
So, women are becoming more prominent in intellectual life, are more invested in leftist politics, and are becoming increasingly comfortable calling for censorship of other perspectives. In fact, they’re doing so with remarkable force.
The Broader Context
Treating others with such callousness and cruelty is indefensible. Having said that, it is worth emphasizing the broader context in which this all takes place: a society that has been ravaged by hyper-individualistic late-stage capitalism, with declining social mobility, growing income inequality, and an increasingly cutthroat labor market for everyone, women very much included.
We can hold these two thoughts in our mind at once. And revisiting the above cancellation campaigns from that vantage point proves instructive.
Myriam Gurba, the author of the scathing review of American Dirt, was, it turns out, chiefly incensed by the seven-figure advance the book received. “The machine that is supporting this book is dystopian in nature,” she told The Guardian. “Meanwhile, I have published three books through indie presses and have not made more than $5,000 on them.” Similarly, writer Lauren Oyler’s critique of Alison Roman was triggered by her perceived economic success. “I love when a slightly off center but nevertheless extremely popular social media figure declares she is not making much money right now and no one questions it,” Oyler tweeted. “What was your book advance, what were your royalties, you sold a TV show, how much is your speaking fee?” Diana Tsui, who called out “gatekeepers” for hiring Alexi McCammond, works in journalism, and Laura Simone Lewis, who disparaged Carole Hooven, is in academia; these are two extremely competitive industries that are notorious for economic precarity.
This dynamic calls to mind another illuminating insight from Meghan Daum. “I think canceling somebody, or lashing out at somebody online, comes from a place of powerlessness—or at least thinking that you don’t have power,” she told me. “If you can’t get ahead or elevate yourself, or help yourself, through the normal channels, you’re going to lash out at somebody and try to bring them down instead of bringing yourself up.”
We Must Transcend Toxic Femininity
It is helpful to keep in mind the social and economic pressures that encourage women to engage in vicious cancellation campaigns. But women do a disservice to both ourselves and our public discourse when we conduct ourselves in such punitive ways.
Canceling other women cancels our own credibility.
Cancel culture is driven by a fundamentally unserious form of debate. Its participants jump to conclusions, ignore facts, and indulge in emotionalism. Taking part in it makes us irrational, impulsive, and immature. In short, engaging in it degrades us as much as it degrades our opponents. What’s more, as the tide turns on cancel culture—which it surely will—those who have enthusiastically participated will likely find themselves at a disadvantage.
Cancel culture is inherently destructive, deforming the characters of the cancelers even as it destroys the careers of the canceled. It is also a distraction from pressing existential concerns about our economic order. Understanding this will allow us to shift our focus from condemnations of a vice often found in women—envy—to the pursuit of a deeper and more virtuous characteristic associated with femininity: cooperation.
Building a more economically just society will require compassion, common ground, and so much cooperation and collaboration. Women can make a critical contribution to this effort.
Framing the conversation this way encourages a charitable interpretation of a canceler’s motives, elicits empathy for their very real struggles, and acknowledges the value of both a just economy and the good of cooperation that draws many of these women to the left and to public life in the first place—all without condoning what is clearly damaging behaviour.
We can disagree without attacking the character of our opponents, without imputing motives, and without going after people’s livelihoods. We can, and if we want to be taken seriously, we must. An appeal to cooperation, in service of the greater good, is an appeal to the higher self—both the canceler’s and our own.