Feminists are feeling sad and unloved. The world doesn’t seem to like them anymore, and they don’t know why.
Of course, every good feminist expects to be scorned by boorish, misogynist men. But now even women are turning on them, which from a feminist’s perspective is just obtuse. Do you not like voting, ladies? Being permitted to get an education and pursue a serious career? Do you want to be barefoot, pregnant kitchen slaves?
It’s hard to muster much sympathy for feminists as a group when you’ve seen what bullies they can be. Still, this might be a time for rising above. Some feminists do seem to have a good-faith interest in figuring out why so many people hate them. It might just be the sort of soul-searching that happens after an electoral drubbing, but either way, they deserve a good-faith answer.
I think their confusion is understandable. Most of these women have spent their lives immersed in a feminist ethos. To them the choices seem stark: either we embrace feminism, or we accept the oppression of women. How can that be a hard choice? Even granting that there may be some kinks to work out, it’s hard to see why any woman would want off the feminist bandwagon, unless, of course, she’s roiling in false consciousness and misogynistic self-loathing.
All Aboard the Feminism Train?
For a good example of a puzzled feminist, consider Julia Bowes. She wants to know why Time Magazine keeps sending “mixed messages” concerning feminism. When applied to “the non-white Other” Time seems very feminist. Hooray for professional Arab women! Down with violence against Afghan teens! Turning back to the West though, the magazine can’t stop pointing fingers, blaming feminists for misandry, neglected children, and depressed would-be Supermoms who can’t quite “do it all.”
What’s the deal, Time? Do you like feminism, or don’t you?
Rebecca Vipond Brink raised similar questions in challenging Time’s “anti-feminist” writers, by which she means famous critics of mainstream feminism such as Christina Hoff Sommers, Cathy Young, and Camille Paglia. Sifting through the arguments these women offer, Brink asks: aren’t they really just being argumentative? I mean, sure, they raise a good point now and again, but why must they be so combative and contrarian?
Writers like Sommers and Young frequently engage mainstream feminists in battles of statistics, picking apart arguments about the much-lamented “wage gap” and questioning claims made about “campus rape culture.” Brink grants that these statistical points may sometimes merit attention, but she still can’t see the upshot. So we adjust a few numbers. Shouldn’t we still be on the same team?
I doubt whether Brink has troubled to explore the work of unorthodox feminists like Sommers and Paglia in depth. But I do understand her frustration, because statistical minutiae do sometimes dominate our discussion of feminist arguments. That can leave feminists scratching their heads and asking: what do these conservative women really want?
What Do Women Really Want?
“Western women are fine, and have no legitimate concerns or complaints against modern society” is a pretty uninspiring message. It’s also untrue. There are definitely ways in which modern life is hard on women. Urging feminists to quell their misandry might get us closer to the mark, but in general, feminists don’t think they have a problem with misandry. We should also be wary of answering feminism with a masculinism that accepts as its basic premise that men’s interests and women’s are fundamentally in conflict.
What’s needed is a perspective on the sexes that acknowledges their full moral equality, without trying to whitewash real differences. This is admittedly a tall order. “Different but equal” is a hard line to walk fairly, even when the differences are clear. In this case, they’re not. It’s fairly easy to note some generalized differences between women and men, but most admit of numerous exceptions, and oversimplified stereotypes can hurt people who fall outside the mold. Generating social norms that are realistic, fair, and appropriately flexible is a difficult task indeed.
It might not be so hard, however, to do a better job than mainstream feminism. If feminists are becoming unpopular, that may be a sign that they’ve done a lousy job of figuring out what women (and men!) really want, and recommending appropriate social changes. They may get the easy questions right. It doesn’t take much insight to decry the beating of Afghan women. Once the egregious injustices have been rectified, we start exploring the dimensions of a thriving, well-ordered society. On those points, modern feminists have made a number of mistakes.
1. Stop Hating the Womb
I have no mandate to speak for anyone but myself, but I would briefly suggest two ways in which mainstream feminism has gone seriously awry.
The first concerns the female body. Feminists love the vagina, but they seem to hate the womb. They’ll do anything to save a woman from her own fertility. Give her contraceptives, so she can have sterile sex to her heart’s content! Make sure she is at liberty to kill her unborn children, at any time and for any reason she pleases! If she does choose to give birth, make sure governmental institutions free her from the burdens of being with the children more than absolutely necessary. All in all, feminists seem terrified of natural sex. I understand why, of course. Babies are burdensome. But some of us like our wombs nonetheless, and see fertility as an important and defining element of our womanhood.
If you’re a physical trainer or a dietician, you probably understand that the best way to live a good life is by embracing the natural functioning of a healthy body. Sometimes, admittedly people would prefer a different sort of body from the one they have; tall people might want to be short, or short people to be tall. The endomorph envies the ectomorph his metabolism, while the ectomorph yearns to be a linebacker. At some point, living within our bodies as they are is part of the human experience. The same goes for our fertility.
What if we stopped fighting our own physiology, and diverted that energy towards finding ways to be happy as the fertile, life-giving beings we naturally are? I think many women would prefer that course of action.
2. Independence Is Overrated
Several women (prominently Emma Watson) have lately made efforts to shake the stereotype that feminists hate men. They go around insisting that, no, seriously, they’re cool with maleness. That’s all very nice as far as it goes, but there’s a deeper problem here that won’t be fixed just with happy declarations of man-love. Feminists don’t like to discuss the natural interdependence of the sexes.
This is especially true when it comes to women who are reliant on men. How ardently have feminists worked to free women from “the patriarchy,” with all its oppressive influences? Fundamentally Marxist sensibilities make it difficult for them to view female dependence as anything but a wedge through which men can assert their dominance and privilege.
There’s a basic problem here. Women do need men. On the level of society, men have in spades certain talents and abilities that are much rarer among women. If we’re honest, most of us want protection and support from men, and especially from our fathers and the fathers of our children. Too often feminists fail to address that basic reality.
Of course, this argument runs the other way, too. Men are healthier, happier and generally more productive when they have women in their lives. They want women to transform mere dwelling-places into real homes. They want them to love and nurture children. Women also have distinctive gifts; for most men throughout history, it is women who have connected them to larger society, making it seem worthwhile to get out of bed in the mornings. I don’t believe that women are obliged to subordinate themselves to men in every way the latter may desire. But I do believe that we have obligations towards men (and especially towards the particular men in our own lives) that are in some ways “woman-specific.” They need us, and we need them; we should both want to serve each other for our mutual benefit.
I’m speaking in very general terms here. It’s difficult to specify concretely what each sex is obliged to do in the context of a particular society. Women shouldn’t be treated like porcelain figurines, and men aren’t entitled to be waited on hand and foot. Gender expectations should be sensible, and moderately flexible to allow for varied personalities and circumstances. Individuals should make decisions based on the people in their own lives, without being chained to an overly rigid social paradigm.
The trouble with feminists (as a rule) is that they seem to reject the entire paradigm of mutual obligation. They’re so busy “empowering” women that it doesn’t occur to them to ask whether maybe they’ve ended up encouraging a lot of selfishness and entitlement. Wouldn’t it be worth relaxing a little about questions of fairness, in the interests of making our loved ones happy?
Moving Feminism Beyond Justice
Feminists tend to be very concerned about justice, which is certainly important. But in a hammer-sees-nail sort of way, people who fixate on justice can sometimes read social problems quite badly. Injustice is not always at the root of inequity. And it’s hard to have a productive conversation about relations between the sexes when people are so wildly over-eager to presume that they’re about to be cheated.
For Brink, Bowe, and other puzzled feminists, I’d recommend thinking beyond justice. Spend a little less time searching for women who are being victimized, and think a little more about how women can make society better. Worry less about equality, and more about happiness. Listen harder when people of both sexes talk about what they actually want and need.
In a truly thriving society, we shouldn’t need any feminists. Let’s all be humanists instead.