A Domestic Activist Makes Her Case

COMMENTARY Marriage and Family

A Domestic Activist Makes Her Case

Oct 18, 2023 10 min read
Gillian Richards

Research Associate, Simon Center for American Studies

Gillian is a Research Associate in The Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies.
Domestic extremists must account for the full picture—rather than just part of it—if they want to alleviate the tension women face between work and home. PeopleImages / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Keenan offers a harsh condemnation: “At the heart of the birth control—and abortion—marketing industry is an elite cultural distaste for children and motherhood.” 

The suburban housewife ideal is not necessarily sustainable, nor “traditional” in some historical sense.

Successful domestic extremists must recognize the home as the source of responsibility and virtue for both men and women.

How should we win back the culture? A freelance writer who goes by the pseudonym “Peachy Keenan” answers: we can reclaim civilization only if more women become just a little more “domestic.” For Keenan, that means getting married and having kids—perhaps earlier than is expected. This, in turn, would mean that more women should stay home to raise their children if they can. As Keenan sees it, that once-normal pattern of life is now considered extreme. Hence, the title of her new book Domestic Extremist

Keenan emerged on the Claremont Institute’s publication The American Mind as a dispenser of dating and courtship advice, often delivered in funny, ribald columns. Despite some recent TV appearances, we still don’t know her name. Keenan’s advice here, though, is partly autobiographical; she made it out of the mire of secularism by the skin of her teeth. A recent convert to Catholicism, she discovered her latent domesticity before it was too late. Keenan admits that not everyone is cut out for marriage, and not everyone can have children. But she urges more of us to give it a try. 

Keenan is punchy, witty—and provocative. Her target audience is presumably everyday Americans, rather than political theorists, since her knack for provocation sometimes comes at the cost of precision. But her book is far more than a string of Twitter (now X) threads full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. In fact, her main piece of advice is surely right: More of us should at least try to get married, have lots of kids, and raise them to be faithful and wise. 

Keenan sees this advice as an antidote to the current ailments plaguing American culture. She spends the first half of the book detailing all of these problems, which include the declining rates of fertility and family formation, hookup culture and the technologies that facilitate it, pornography, gender ideology sweeping our schools and universities, divorce, fatherlessness, the decline in religion, and the overall breakdown of the family and civic institutions.

It’s clear we are in a dire culture war. It seems, then, that we need the help of both men and women to fight it. Yet, Keenan narrowly targets women. “It’s women who got us into this mess,” she asserts, “so it’s our job to get everyone out of it.”

Keenan sees “feminism” as the primary culprit. “Feminism, and all its works, all its empty promises, has nearly erased the God-given point and purpose of being female,” she writes. The solution, Keenan insists, is to reject feminism, which for her, means embracing “domesticity.” 

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“I’m not asking you to take up survivalism or homesteading,” Keenan notes. “I’m not asking you to loom your own fabric or spin your own wool.” Rather, she explains, being “domestic” is simply to embrace one’s authentic femininity in the timeless ways of being female: “as a mother, as a wife, as a daughter.” In this sense, her understanding of “domesticity” is basic. All women are, in fact, someone’s daughter. And only women are capable of bearing children—with that, mothers have a unique bond with their children.

Beyond these natural capacities and vocations, Keenan also seems to package certain practical judgments and accidental characteristics in her discussion of authentic femininity. For instance, she argues that women must also present themselves in a feminine way by “dressing in age-appropriate ways that involve a little more restraint.” She also suggests that fewer women should be in the workforce—especially those with young children.

Depending on a woman’s state in life, it may certainly be wise for an individual woman to stay home with her children rather than work outside the home. Yet, Keenan seems to treat such prudential judgments as basic principles of authentic femininity.

She argues that the “domestic lifestyle” is a more human one. It will “reorient you away from the broken culture and towards a family, your home, and your best chance at true, lasting happiness,” Keenan writes. If that’s true, the obvious question is: Why have so many rejected this life? And why does it seem so far out of reach for so many women? 

Keenan has an answer. Leading the charge against women’s happiness are the “pantsuited girlboss petty tyrants” who run the world. Sheryl Sandberg, former Facebook CEO and author of the best-seller Lean In, figures as a prime example of the “girl boss” archetype. As Keenan sees it, Sandberg launched a movement among millions of young women to lean in to their jobs and “sacrifice everything to get ahead in their chosen career.” Influential women like Sandberg, along with their “mentally castrated male enablers,” have sabotaged just about every aspect of domestic life: 

They’ve taken our fertility, our families, our men, our happiness. They’ve stamped out our maternal instinct, killed our unborn children, taken away our real jobs, our role in society, and our virtues.

Now, we’re all paying the price. To pull everyone out of the mire, however, more men and women must be willing to embrace the sacrificial love of marriage and parenthood. More of us need to “commit to a lifestyle that is not always the easiest choice: a lifestyle that will bear the most fruit only after you are dead.” 

This sounds like a tall order. After all, Keenan argues that far too many women have been persuaded by a “feminist” narrative that the domestic life—home, family, children—is something they should settle into only after they have reached financial security and feel ready for children. 

Meanwhile, the push to delay motherhood has been a gold mine for the fertility industry,” she observes. Women are offered an array of contraceptives under the guise of “reproductive rights.” Now, every woman is told, you can keep making strides in the corporate world, unhampered by children. Plus, “you are free to enjoy the infinite array of loveless encounters beckoning you at the heaping buffet of sexual consumerism.

If birth control isn’t enough, you can freeze your eggs. Or if you do get pregnant, you can terminate the pregnancy. There’s always a way out of the inconvenience of pregnancy in the short term. What matters now, a woman is told, is that she pursues her “dreams”—which can be anything she wants. Unless, of course, it’s settling down in a stable marriage and having children before the hands on her biological clock stop. 

Keenan offers a harsh condemnation: “At the heart of the birth control—and abortion—marketing industry is an elite cultural distaste for children and motherhood, at a deep ideological level.” 

Keenan clearly sees the tragedy of women who realize that their lives could have been more meaningful had they made family a higher priority before it was too late. She is dealing with serious subjects, while retaining her characteristic glib, lucid prose. 

Yet, as a sustained argument, I found myself wishing Keenan had identified her target more precisely. Keenan’s causal explanation of feminism as the source of today’s cultural ills, as well as her perceived opponents (“girl bosses”), are somewhat caricatured.

As a result, her positive recommendations are often hazy. It’s unclear, for instance, how becoming an “anti-feminist” will sufficiently address current problems such as declining rates of fertility and family formation. 

In her glib, punchy tirade against “feminism” and “girl bosses,” Keenan brushes over other causes that led to today’s declining marriage and fertility rates, the breakdown of families, the erosion of sexual mores, and the like. Keenan would lend clarity to her discussion by considering other factors that go beyond feminism per se. These include the technology shocks of oral contraception and abortion, expressive individualism, and economic shifts following the Industrial Revolution.

Twin Technology Shocks 

Keenan should address the “twin technology shocks” of the oral contraceptive and legalized abortion, which emerged during the Sexual Revolution. Mary Harrington, author of Feminism Against Progressargues that these technologies shifted the trajectory of the feminist movement from the Sexual Revolution onward. 

Prior to the 1960s, the broader women’s movement was mainly focused on negotiating sex roles in the wake of economic and material changes throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Within this framework, however, feminists held varying views of personhood. Some of a more communitarian bent saw women as relational beings, existing in a social and familial context. Others saw the female ideal as radically autonomous, independent of biological realities and relational obligations.

In the end, the hyper-individualist strand of feminism prevailed with the advent of reproductive technology. Feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir and Kate Millet promoted these technologies as important steps in women’s full liberation, which required liberation from natural facts like pregnancy. As de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex, reproductive technology would free women from “reproductive servitudes” and could pursue “[economic] roles that would ensure her control over her own person.”

For Harrington, this shift in feminism from the Sexual Revolution onward marked the end of the feminist movement properly speaking. While earlier feminists largely understood women’s rights in the context of duty and ordered liberty, later feminists effectively stripped women of a proper view of personhood as rooted in nature and obligation. As Harrington sees it, what we are really up against is something she describes as “bio-libertarianism.” 

We might have different names for the threat we now face. But the causes of what ails society likely run much deeper than “feminism.” In fact, the toxic modern iterations of feminism may themselves be symptoms, and transmitters, of a deeper problem. 

Expressive Individualism 

Carl Trueman outlines that problem in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. The Sexual Revolution, he argues, stemmed from a philosophy of expressive individualism, which goes far deeper and earlier than the 1960s. Expressive individualism—germinated in the soil of Rousseau, Marx, and Freud—has now planted deep roots across our culture. All these thinkers, to varying degrees, believed human identity is artificial and formed by convention, rather than rooted in nature. De Beauvoir put a feminist spin on this thinking when she said, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” 

Judith Butler expanded de Beauvoir’s thinking. Drawing from Nietzsche’s claim that “there is no ‘being’ behind doing,” Butler argued: “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender.” Trueman notes that Butler’s statement echoes the “antimetaphysical philosophy” which now pervades modern intellectual life. 

No doubt, feminists such as de Beauvoir, Butler, and the like, helped contribute to an expressive individualist thinking. Yet, their basic idea of freedom as separation from the physical body goes far deeper than the sexual revolution and the modern iterations of feminism. Trueman writes that “the sexual revolution is simply one manifestation of the larger revolution of the self that has taken place in the West.”

Whether we call it bio-libertarianism, expressive individualism, or something else, it’s clear we are up against deeper intellectual undercurrents in today’s culture war that have shifted the way we think about human nature. 

Economic Shifts 

Keenan should also consider the economic shifts that have contributed to the conflict women face between work and home. In the pre-industrial era, the home was the main locus of economic activity. Men and women often worked together in agrarian societies. There wasn’t such a strict distinction between “men’s work and women’s work” as there was in, say, mid-twentieth century industrial America.

The “homemaker” wife and “breadwinner” husband model itself is largely a post-war development. Which is to say that the suburban housewife ideal is not necessarily sustainable, nor “traditional” in some historical sense. Men and women alike had to adjust to economic changes in the post-industrial era. 

Those who couldn’t afford the homemaker-breadwinner model that Keenan defends adapted as best they could. As Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon has observed, they hedged their bets in two primary ways: “having fewer children” and “maintaining at least a foothold in the labor force even when their children are very young.” Of course, this strategy isn’t optimal either. As Erika Bachiochi notes in The Rights of Women, as more women entered the labor force to protect themselves and their children from abandonment or poverty, children were deprived of their mother’s care. 

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In short, women didn’t enter the workforce simply because they were aspiring “girl bosses,” or because other girl bosses told them to do so. As a matter of fact, the “pantsuited girl boss” is its own stereotype. It surely fails to capture the complexity of women who have obtained such positions. What’s more, two-parent, two-income families from middle- and upper-class backgrounds are often the most stable families in the country.

Keenan doesn’t seem to account for this complexity in tracing all modern shifts back to “feminism.” In doing so, her solution appears too simplistic. Domestic extremists must account for the full picture—rather than just part of it—if they want to alleviate the tension women face between work and home.

Better solutions include offering women more flexibility in their work schedules and opportunities to work from home. Perhaps the silver lining of the COVID-19 lockdowns was that workplaces started to shift in this direction. Today, the age of “office culture” seems to be slowly fading, as more workplaces opt for remote and hybrid options. More flexibility allows mothers who want to maintain some presence in the labor force to continue making children their top priority. 

All that to say, Keenan is right in pointing out that women have a unique bond with their children—there’s no equal substitute for that. But to reclaim this bond, we must offer workable solutions rather than merely rejecting a caricatured feminism. 

Such solutions, moreover, needn’t rest on the assumption that the domestic sphere is exclusively female. It’s true that differences in biological sex reveal specific vocations men and women have in parenthood. But our sexed differences needn’t dictate predetermined “roles” for men and women in every society—such as a “public role” for men and a “private role” for women. 

Rather, the two sexes must work together in their unique capacities—in marriage, as husband and wife—and in childrearing, as mothers and fathers. These distinct vocations come with their own duties and sacrifices. And in reclaiming the vocation of wife and mother, Keenan’s latest account is powerful and stirring. 

But her call for domestic extremism needs to be supplemented not only by a more robust analysis of the causes of what’s plaguing women today, but also a fuller discussion of fatherhood. Husband and wife must work together in this sphere to raise children. Successful domestic extremists must recognize the home as the source of responsibility and virtue for both men and women. Maybe Keenan will take my hint and write a sequel.

This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty