The Trouble With Feminism

Although it is always good to see attacks on feminism, the remarks against "radical feminists" published by Kenneth Minogue in the New Criterion raise more questions than they answer. Is there, for example, a clear historical and conceptual demarcation, as Minogue seems to think, between the recent unpleasant forms of feminism and the stages of female emancipation and female self-actualization that came before? While Minogue waxes eloquent about "individual character" in "Christian civilization" and about "the rising wave created by the increasing flexibility of Western civilization" when he describes pre-"radical" feminist advances, he rages against "the new tribe of radical feminists" who came along in the 1960s.

Supposedly, unlike earlier advocates of women’s rights, Betty Friedan and her cohorts insisted on a collective female identity and made war on all institutions sustaining or expressing a separate male culture. Previous advances made in the professional and social lives of women, according to Minogue, took place in accordance with received civilizational norms. Thus while the "more brutish" males opposed women’s entry into the professions, "other men," by which is meant the better kind, aided women in this endeavor.

But didn’t civilizational norms also exist, in the Christian West as well as elsewhere, that favored the legal and social recognition of gender distinctions? And though Christianity places a higher premium on individual life than do certain Asian religions, this did not translate, with minor exceptions, until the last century into granting the vote to both sexes or proclaiming equal access for both genders to enter all professions?

Serious conservative scholars like Allan Carlson and F. Carolyn Graglia have maintained that the change of women’s role, from being primarily mothers to self-defined professionals, has been a social disaster that continues to take its toll on the family. Rather than being the culminating point of Western Christian gentility, the movement of women into commerce and politics may be seen as exactly the opposite, the descent by increasingly disconnected individuals into social chaos.

Even more importantly, the distinction between "moderate" and "radical" feminists, which is basic to Minogue’s essay, is not a significant difference. That distinction is in fact based on what neocons are willing to absorb of the feminist movement, as opposed to what they dislike, at least for the moment. It is also without historical justification to focus on the sui generis character of the latest phase of feminism and to treat it as discontinuous from what preceded it. The arguments made by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique were pulled from a polemical arsenal that, as Mrs. Graglia demonstrates, went back to feminists of the early twentieth century. Already in the interwar years, female professionals were organizing to push through a predecessor of the ERA. It may be assumed from Minogue’s observations that it was ok for feminists to unite to break down gender barriers and to enlist the state on their side before Betty Friedan came on the scene.

Note the same kind of weasly distinction is drawn by Bill Kristol, in a tortuous interview granted to the New York Times after the 1994 election. In a quintessential statement of passive opposition to the Left, Kristol stressed that moderate conservatives heartily support "gay and women’s rights up until now." We are thereby led to believe that anyone who supports the extension of such rights beyond that privileged point in time is an extremist — and so is anyone who set out to arrest that process prematurely. In a like manner, Minogue exaggerates distinctions between the interrelated phases of an historical process, hermetically differentiating the one he finds unobjectionable from the one he continues, perhaps provisionally, to oppose.

Most significantly, he recapitulates the sin of omission committed by every neocon confronted by unwelcome social and moral change. He never (no, absolutely never) implicates government in the tyranny of shrieking banshees that he decries. This sin, I must assume by now, is deliberate: Neocons live off political largess and get their jollies by pushing politicians into starting wars. If there is a heavy in any of their homilies about shrinking public morals, it is never the state, but something called the "sixties." Not surprisingly, Minogue reprises this villain when he goes after the "radical" feminists who cropped up, rather mysteriously, in the bad old hippie decade. But, like Nazi anti-Semitism, the politics of these sisters would have failed to produce significant change if a strong ideologically driven state had not been there to carry out weird projects.

Minogue never gets around to mentioning the role of government officials in enforcing pc and feminist lunacy, as if this were not a major part of how "radical" feminists have succeeded. The reason is not only that Minogue’s patrons are political parasites. It is also that, like William Buckley writing about our non-reciprocal right to carry out spy missions in China, neocons define the fallen American constitutional order as "a democracy of free people." If our managerial regime is to be viewed as that, particularly when it plans wars against morally unfit nations, one must be careful not to criticize it for social and cultural failings, ascribing blame exclusively to its citizen-subjects. The American state is to be seen as intrinsically good, even when involved in making us less free and in breaking down traditional communal norms. One might object that I’ve been slamming the same neocon publications for decades now for exactly the same offenses. I shall gladly stop once my targets stop playing the same games, avoiding unkind references to the managerial state in discussions of "civilizational" problems and devising bogus distinctions between the "moderate" and "radical" shakedown artists.

Paul Gottfried is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author, most recently, of the highly recommended After Liberalism.

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