Feminism in the Dock


Feminism in the Dock

Jun 27, 2023 10 min read
Brenda Hafera

Assistant Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Simon Center

Brenda is the Assistant Director and Senior Policy Analyst for the Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
One of feminism’s insights is that middle-class women in the prosperous West are challenged by the competing goods of education, professional vocation, and family. RossHelen / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The debate over taking back feminism is complicated by the fact that no cohesive and consistent definition of feminism exists.

Should conservative and moderate women attempt to take back the term “feminism” from its radical modern adherents?

Women can garner practical direction and guidance...by seeking feminine matriarchs who lead good lives and imitating their virtues and deliberate decisions. 

I am often asked by young women if we should take back the term “feminism.” It still carries the cachet of caring about women, and most of us are quite happy with the achievements of first-wave feminism: equality before the law, voting rights, and property rights. But feminism in its current form is a radical devolution: divorcing sex from gender, vilifying all masculinity as toxic, and warring against nature and the family. How do we take back a feminism that has become so distorted? And do we want to? It’s worth considering some of the reasons feminism resonated with women, to identify questions that remain unanswered, and challenges women will potentially always face.

What is Feminism? 

The debate over taking back feminism is complicated by the fact that no cohesive and consistent definition of feminism exists. It seems the only thing that unites feminists is that they care about issues that are related, and sometimes only tangentially related, to women. Underlying that are strong disagreements about what is good for women and human beings and what encompasses a life well lived. Feminists can’t even agree on what defines “women.” For example, trans-exclusionary feminists rebel against the encroachment of trans women into female sports and spaces, while other feminists do not—at least publicly—voice such objections. 

Often, feminism is discussed as coming in three or more waves. First-wave feminists wanted to be treated as equal citizens, a project that culminated with the passing of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Second-wave feminism of the mid-twentieth century focused on eliminating discrimination in the workplace and expanding educational opportunities. The movement soon allied itself with abortion advocates, connecting it to a Sexual Revolution ethos that saw marriage and family primarily as impediments to women’s personal goals and ambitions. Third and subsequent waves of feminism are even more difficult to describe and delineate, as factions within the movement have grown leaving no clear breaks from one wave to the next. The element that labeled gender a social construct has taken off and advocated for positions with radical implications, including transgender ideology.

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This summary of feminism is short and has proved inadequate for many women, not the least when women are attempting to discern how much gratitude they owe feminists. For the most part, conservative women agree that first-wave feminism was a positive development, but they abhor the Sexual Revolution and its offspring. The Sexual Revolution itself was not a monolithic and concentrated development but a rolling cultural and intellectual transformation that challenged sexual norms and interpersonal relationships. These challenges run from questioning traditional gender roles to the normalization and promotion of hook-up culture, pornography, and diverse sexual orientations. Contributors to the sexual revolution range from Playboy’s Hugh Hefner to psychologist Sigmund Freud, who emphasized the primacy of sexual urges in driving human behavior, to revolutionary Kate Millett, who aimed at the destruction of the nuclear family.

Things get complicated with second-wave feminism and its relationship to the Sexual Revolution. Mary Harrington, author of Feminism Against Progress, and Ethics and Public Policy Fellow Erika Bachiochi have stressed the importance of distinguishing the two, contending that feminism ended with the Sexual Revolution. There is evidence for this thesis. As described by Sue Ellen Bowlder in Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement, abortion was not part of the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) original platform, but Betty Friedan was convinced by population planner Larry Lader (whose work was cited several times in Roe v. Wade) to add it to NOW’s agenda, and a minority of NOW women supported and rammed through that addition. 

Feminists played a political role in the Sexual Revolution but were not the Sexual Revolution’s main philosophical architects. For example, with the exception of Simone de Beauvoir, feminists do not feature prominently in Carl Trueman’s Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, which superbly traces the intellectual history of the Sexual Revolution and transgender ideology. The Sexual Revolution owes a greater debt to philosophers like Karl Marx and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and psychologists like Sigmund Freud. Beauvoir added the key piece of separating sex from gender, with sex having to do with biology and gender being a social construct. The body was no longer essential, men and women were no different, and human beings were free to construct themselves as they saw fit.

The relationship between feminists and Sexual Revolutionaries was in part a political alliance with some disagreement over ends and means. Some second-wave feminists had the goal of giving women the option of laboring outside the home (while sometimes unjustly disparaging the importance of work done within the home, including the character formation of children). But what was an end for those feminists was a means for Sexual Revolutionaries. For Sexual Revolutionaries, women achieving economic independence and being granted unlimited access to abortion and the pill were the means of destroying the nuclear family; they promoted the illusion that men and women are not interdependent, that they do not need each other to flourish.

For example, feminist Betty Friedan never advocated for the destruction of the family, while the more radical Kate Millett did. Friedan was the author of the bestseller The Feminine Mystique, largely credited with launching second-wave feminism, while Millett’s Sexual Politics was featured twice on the cover of Time magazine and can be found on the reading list of women’s studies programs. Friedan saw Millett, who wanted to undermine heterosexual relationships, as sexualizing the women’s movement and famously labeled lesbian activists like Millett “the lavender menace.” “During their lives, Millett and Friedan came to represent two clashing ideologies, dueling approaches to a movement that is still a work in progress.”

While prominent figures were disagreeing over the direction of the movement, many everyday women simply wanted reasonable alterations in the workforce and education. In 1971, 65% of women had never heard of Gloria Steinem, nor 63% of Germaine Greer, nor 64% of Kate Millett, according to Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties. And opinion polls from the 1970s indicated that while most women supported “efforts to improve women’s status,” they were “unsympathetic to women’s liberation groups” and believed activists’ actions were “unwomanly.” 

The women’s liberation movement opened itself up to an alliance with the Sexual Revolution because it was, at best, not grounded in a thorough understanding of the human person and, at worst, rejected human nature. This is somewhat unsurprising, as feminism has never been a comprehensive philosophy in and of itself. As University of Notre Dame professor Abigail Favale has explained, the varying waves of feminism have been defined by distinct underlying philosophies that give them their shape. First-wave feminism was animated by liberalism, second by Marxism, and subsequent waves by radical postmodernism. In many ways, the achievements of first-wave feminism are those of liberalism itself, extended to women. 

Politics, Not Philosophy 

We can understand feminism in another manner. On the whole, feminism is not a philosophy but a series of political movements. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and—to a certain extent—Betty Friedan saw injustices in the law and our institutions and sought to correct them, sometimes in a piecemeal fashion. These women were activists, not philosophers, so we perhaps should not expect precise consistency and foresight from them.

This is not to disparage grassroots feminists and everyday women over philosophers. Philosophy is a source of the highest truth, but in academia, so-called philosophers are often perpetrators of follies shockingly lacking in common sense. As Cicero quipped, “There can be nothing so absurd but may be found in the books of philosophers.” The belief that men and women are perfectly interchangeable is something only those in ivory tours can maintain; women in middle America observe the obvious, innate differences in their children, husbands, and brothers. 

Feminist philosophers are in short supply. While Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir come to mind, their views are very different and often diametrically opposed. Wollstonecraft was a first-wave feminist who cared about education and emphasized duties as well as rights, while Beauvoir believed in radical creative autonomy, that “one is not born, but becomes a woman.” It seems odd that they would both be grouped under the same feminist umbrella.

And there is, of course, no official body that determines who is and is not a feminist. In Sexual Politics, Kate Millett attempted to position herself as continuing the work of first-wave feminists who had begun the “sexual revolution.” This is a good rhetorical strategy, as many women look back on first-wave feminism with fondness. That positioning made her arguments seem more conservative and perhaps palatable by association. Yet Millett advocated for the destruction of the family and the sexualization of children. These contentions are certainly not in keeping with the principles of first-wave feminists, many of whom were Quakers. (Millett, by labeling herself a first-wave feminist, offers another example of why we should not take Marxists at their word.) 

Should We Revive Feminism? 

After this convoluted answer on how to define feminism, a natural follow-up question is: Should conservative and moderate women attempt to take back the term “feminism” from its radical modern adherents? To answer this question, we must ask another: For what purpose? Potentially, the term might be useful in advocating against sexual harassment in the workplace, or in promoting pro-life and family policies. 

While women still face many atrocities on the international front, and even though there will always be injustices in the world, modern American women have much to be grateful for. American women are equal citizens, and all educational and professional opportunities are open to us.

The #MeToo Movement, before it radicalized, drew attention to sexual harassment in the workplace. While there was merit to highlighting this issue, it is unclear how much harassment actually permeated the professions. Moreover, it is unlikely that the problem of workplace harassment will be solved through additional regulations since there are plenty of laws already on the books to address such misconduct.

The solutions for these issues will be found in seemingly unrelated places. The corrupted character of men who engage in such behavior was likely formed long before they enter the job market. Boys learn how to be good men primarily through example, and 40% of children are born out of wedlock. It is men with healthy masculinity who tutor and correct those of their own sex, and all manifestations of masculinity are currently being portrayed as toxic. Many of our boys are becoming addicted to online pornography, and there is a correlation between pornography addiction and sexual aggression towards women. Preventing workplace harassment, rather than just punishing it, will involve addressing some of these underlying causes. Doing so will also be good for women overall, as women struggle to find capable partners as husbands and fathers when men are in crisis. 

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Feminism today could perhaps further pro-life policies and encourage family formation. First-wave feminists “regarded abortion as an act of violence against an innocent unborn child,” according to Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women, so there are lessons we can learn from them. But the crisis of family formation did not exist for first-wave feminists or baby boomer second-wave feminists, and Sexual Revolutionaries like Millett sought the breakdown of the family. In this last goal, she and others have almost succeeded. The genesis of the crisis of family formation is complicated and multidimensional, and addressing it will require robust conversations between men and women and the revitalization of religion and our traditional institutions.

When young women ask if we should take back feminism, my sense is what they really want to know is: What did feminism get right and how should women chart their lives in this increasingly confusing world? How do we understand dignified work in a manner that doesn’t yield to self-focused careerism but honors a dutiful definition of vocation that utilizes talents, fosters virtue, and serves others? How do we prioritize the goodness of marriage and family, especially when young men are struggling with things like pornography addiction and the Sexual Revolution has upended dating norms and promoted hook-up culture? Women can garner practical direction and guidance through the example of their peers and predecessors, by seeking feminine matriarchs who lead good lives and imitating their virtues and deliberate decisions. 

These are not easy questions that apply only to women. That we are reflecting on them as a society demonstrates a lack of understanding of the human person and what contributes to the good life. These questions are spiritual inquiries best illuminated by the comprehensive philosophical grounding of theology and natural law. 

But only part of this is intellectual. One of feminism’s insights is that middle-class women in the prosperous West are challenged by the competing goods of education, professional vocation, and family. We likely always will be so challenged, both collectively and individually, as the window for pursuing these goods overlaps considerably for women. If feminism is about finding an answer to this question, it is here to stay.

This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty

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