At their best, our universities are a haven for the life of the mind. At their worst, they are incubators for mindless intolerance. Boise State University, where I teach, is not Berkeley or Middlebury, but my well–publicized treatment there has been instructive, and unsettling.
An academic career afforded me the opportunity to study the most challenging and profound thinkers about what it means for a life to be well lived. Part of the package has been the opportunity to inspire students to think about the elements of a good life and good society. Whether the twenty-first-century university facilitates or impedes such research and teaching in no longer clear.
In summer 2017 I published “Sex, Gender, and the Origins of the Culture War” for the Heritage Foundation. The report traces the feminist movement through its leading theorists: Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, and Shulamith Firestone. Feminism, I argued, separated “sex,” anatomically defined, from “gender,” socially defined roles for men and women.
The “fully realized sexual revolution,” Millett wrote in “Sexual Politics” (1970), would have three main aspects. First, it would seek to eliminate the different ways boys and girls are socialized, so men and women would have the same status, roles, and temperaments in later life and all segregation and disparity between the sexes would disappear. Second, it would seek to cultivate “complete economic” and emotional independence of women and children from the family. Third, it would seek “an end to traditional sexual inhibitions and taboos” involving sexual activity.
In other words, feminism has no obvious end point. Abolition of marriage and the family, the sweeping change some feminists advocate, is just an opening skirmish in this rolling sexual revolution.
This Is How Feminism Begat Transgenderism
Transgender theory is a logical part of the struggle. The works of Judith Butler, in particular, show how transgenderism breaks down traditional socialization sexual taboos.
It also cultivates the “complete independence” of children from the family, as I argued in a follow-up article in Heritage’s Daily Signal, “Transgender Activists Seek to Undermine Parental Rights.” If a boy tells his teacher, “I feel like a woman,” but his parents refuse to help the boy transition to girl, what should the school do?
According to some in the transgender movement, the state should treat such a parental refusal as “child abuse” and abridge parental rights for the good of the child. “Whether this new world will prove to be fit for human flourishing remains to be seen,” I conclude in “Sex and Gender.”
The Boise State reaction to my Heritage writings began with Francisco Salinas, the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion director, who tried to “connect the dots” between my articles and 2016’s violence in Charlottesville and genocide generally. Salinas continued to suggest that “Not every person who agrees with Yenor’s piece is likely to become an espoused Neo-Nazi, but likely every Neo-Nazi would agree with the substance of Yenor’s piece.” No one on the Boise State campus repudiated this McCarthyite logic.
Of Course It Got Much Crazier
Following Salinas’ lead, several students penned articles calling for my dismissal. Posters around campus demanded that the university “FIRE YENOR” because of the “BLOOD ON HIS HANDS.” The School of Social Work labeled my works “hate speech” by virtue of being “misogynist, homophobic and transphobic.”
Faculty senators, including professor Lynn Lubamersky, said I had “violated clear policies that govern our institution, our statement of shared values and the State Board of Education policy regarding academic freedom and most important, our concern for our students.” She called my views “bigoted, homophobic, and misogynist views.”
I’m glad that, so far, Boise State has protected my academic freedom in the narrow sense of not firing, punishing, or investigating me. I regret, however, that my critics’ only tactic has been to anathematize, not to analyze. Denunciations are not arguments. Academic freedom is useless if there’s no debate.
Absent a coherent critique of my Heritage writings, I’m forced to imagine the debate it might occasion by coming up with the serves and the returns.
Is It Okay to Use the Word ‘Radical’?
Argument 1. Describing feminists as “radical” is an unwarranted, prejudicial rhetorical device.
Response 1. Millett and Firestone use the word “radical” to describe their feminism. Even recently a feminist contemporary of Millett and Firestone, Phyllis Chesler, recalled the “radical and transformative” feminism of her youth. Some may use “radical” to condemn or create a prejudice, but that is not my reason for using it.
All Feminism Is Not Radical Feminism
Argument 2: Yenor equates feminism with radical feminists. Millett, Firestone, and Beauvoir may be icons, but they aren’t spokeswomen for what today’s women want. Millett wants to eradicate differences in socialization, but today’s feminists just want to lessen those differences. She wants complete independence of women and children, but today’s feminists just want more independence than we have now.
Most feminists today, for example, seek universal day care so women can better reconcile work and family. They fight against employment discrimination where they find it, such as in engineering careers and truck driving school. Feminists want programs and encouragement for women to be made more available, so that someday America’s political leadership looks more like America.
In short, feminism is a pragmatic search for equality. Feminists want the next thing, not such Big Things as abolishing the family or bringing about a world beyond gender. No sweeping ideology unites or drives feminism. Feminists simply follow the recipe of modern liberalism, which, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., writes, is “not doing anything in one fine logical sweep, but muddling through.” To suggest otherwise is to prompt unwarranted fears. Yenor’s scare tactics are motived by a desire to keep women barefoot and pregnant.
Response 2. But is there a moderate feminism? One that says NOT EVER to the radical theorists, as opposed to NOT YET? This sort of moderate feminism would defend other goods (such as femininity, motherhood, and modesty) that would effectively limit the rolling sexual revolution.
Perhaps feminists embrace independence only up to the point where they join in a common enterprise with a husband to build a family and a home. Being a defender of personal independence and community can be tricky. If feminists seek merely to rebalance the various goods of human life like independence and community, it would rule out the rolling revolution in principle.
On the other hand, radical feminists recognize that because they cannot get everything they aim for at once, they must seize opportunities as they arise. Gradualism can be put in the service of radicalism.
If feminism is inherently moderate, not radical, there should be at least one feminist critic of Beauvoir, Firestone, and Millett as widely read and respected as they are. I’ve never read one, or heard of anyone who fits this description.
Feminism Isn’t All the Stuff He Says It Is
Argument 3. Yenor over-determines the nature of feminism. Feminists are a contentious bunch, after all. Add that Yenor throws advocates of same-sex marriage and transgender preferences into the feminist stew. Everything new appears to be “feminism” for Yenor.
The pornography debate among feminists, for instance, shows the fissures in feminism. Some feminists, Catherine MacKinnon most prominently, think that pornography “institutionalizes the sexuality of male supremacy” by reinforcing the image of women as objects that men should dominate sexually. Others, however, celebrate it for breaking down sexual taboos and inhibitions.
Much the same is true of transgenderism. Some feminists are splenetic critics of transgenderism and draw the ire of transgender activists. These feminists worry that transgenderism reinforces stereotypes of what to expect from a man or a woman. A man transitioning to a woman, for instance, wears skirts, makeup, nail polish, and heels, and he reinforces the traditional stereotype of women as feminine.
Other feminists celebrate transgenderism as subverting the norms that society has for individuals and as undermining the very idea of norms. It involves “undoing gender,” in Butler’s phrase. The heat from these debates should prove that not all feminists agree. The unity of purpose Yenor sees in feminism is ascribed, not discerned.
Response 3. Yes, feminism’s different planks are in tension with one another. Feminists disagree about strategy and priority rather than principle and vision. Anti-pornography feminists worry about the submissiveness and objectification because of sexuality as women experience it under conditions of patriarchy; patriarchy must first be destroyed for women to achieve genuine sexual freedom. Pro-sexuality feminists want sex to be fun and uninhibited, regardless of whether it is attached to the family or enduring relations. The sexuality that each would like to see, in a perfect world, would be a sexuality without taboos and inhibitions—one prioritizing fun over enduring love, but they disagree about where we are now.
Much the same is true of the feminist debate over transgenderism. Anti-transgender feminists want a world “beyond gender” every bit as much as pro-transgender activists. All embrace the vision of the late Susan Moller Okin:
A just future would be one without gender. In social structures and practices, one’s sex would have no more relevance than one’s eye color or the length of one’s toes. No assumptions would be made about ‘male’ or ‘female’ roles. . . .It would be a future in which men and women participated in more or less equal numbers in every sphere of life, from infant care to different kinds of paid work to high-level politics.
Feminists opposed to and in support of transgenderism both want to undermine traditional socialization. Both seek a world beyond gender and toward human liberation from social restraints, but have different strategies for getting there. Broadly, feminism as such remains dedicated to a world “beyond” or “without” gender.
Feminism Has Older Roots Not Included in His Critique
Argument 4. Yenor picks up the story of feminism in the 1950s with second-wave feminism, but feminism reflects something much deeper and older than that. It is a by-product of modernity itself and of the human effort to conquer nature. Any argument against feminism would require of Yenor a much more radical argument.
Response 4. This is the argument of my “Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought” (2011), a much more radical argument than my recent pieces. The modern self-understanding, with its emphasis on individual autonomy and pressing the limits of human power, gives rise to radical feminism and transgenderism. Any effort to abridge these movements also points to the limits of the modern self-understanding. My work is an attempt to show precisely the human goods one would have to defend if one were interested in qualifying the modern project itself.
I offer these arguments as an expression of hope against recent experience. My hope is academic life can recapture the degree of civility needed for people to disagree respectfully and reasonably. Rational argument, a ballast for a self-governing people, should have a home on the university. My experience is that many Americans have abandoned argument in favor of accusations and virtue-signaling, especially since November 2016, and that this cohort is heavily over-represented on our campuses.