Is Feminism Conservative?

For about a week the conservative establishment lamented the fact that “AEI scholar” Christina Hoff Sommers was treated rudely by students while speaking at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. The New York Post (March 7, 2018) complained about “campus fascism on the march” and then proceeded to explain Sommers’s unique contribution to our political culture: “She argues that much of modern feminism betrays the movement’s founding ideals.” Unfortunately the “lefty kids” at Lewis &Clark did not appreciate her message and her achievement in keeping alive a better feminism than the one that has now replaced it.

It so happens that I spoke last October at a more prestigious institution of learning than Lewis & Clark Law School, namely Hamilton College in Upstate New York, where I was a guest of the Alexander Hamilton Institute. I too suffered the slings and arrows of campus activists, and later my host was left to bear the brunt of the leftist blowback. Not surprisingly, my plight did not receive the same media treatment as Sommers’s adventure. All the same, George Leef of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal graciously posted material about my experience at Hamilton and even managed to insert comments about it in National Review Online.   But it was hard for me to recognize myself in the latter comments, since by then I had sunk into insignificance.

Although one can’t blame George for presenting me as an innocuous nebbish, someone “who is neither famous nor provocative,” I may in fact be the most relentless critic of the conservative establishment on the Right. I have repeatedly scolded that establishment for being a media-promoted enterprise that bears little resemblance to its worthier post-World War Two predecessor. The movement in question has gone from trying to stand athwart history to becoming a slavish defender of the positions that the Left abandoned just before embracing their present ones. But the conservative establishment has tenaciously held on to some positions. These are, for example, military belligerence promoted as “American exceptionalism,” inflicting the current version of “our democracy” on the entire globe, and providing corporate tax breaks to benefit the movement’s donor class.

Since the 1970s Martin Luther King has gone in movement hagiography from being a philandering communist dupe to a profoundly conservative Christian theologian (he was neither); homosexual marriage has gone from being an obscenity to a family value; and even Orthodox Jews, who are leading media conservatives, celebrate the transgendered Caitlyn Jenner. It seems this newly discovered moral pioneer celebrates Israel for supporting the LGBT cause. Robert E. Lee during the same time has descended from being a great American hero, especially for the American Right, to someone whom Rich Lowry at National Review considers so morally dubious that he deserves to have all statues with his likeness pulled down.  Senator Joe McCarthy, the golden boy of the conservative movement of the 1950s and 1960s, has gone from being a conservative hero to a conservative villain, while National Review has published glowing tributes to the Communist mass murderer Leon Trotsky.

The historical and moral revisionism that I have only superficially touched on has taken another form, of which Christina Hoff Sommers is a prime representative. Like other idols of establishment conservatism, Sommers affirms an ism that until about forty years ago was associated with the Left. But now feminism, properly understood, is supposed to belong on the Right. True feminism for Sommers is synonymous with the ideas and legacy of Betty Friedan, whom Sommers considers an admirable social critic, reacting against the intolerable sexist conditions of the 1950s. Writing in the neoconservative New York Sun in 2008, she vigorously defends Friedan’s concerns: “Her essential point is down-to-earth and true. Postwar America has taken the ideal of femininity to absurd excesses. Women in the fifties were encouraged to be childlike, dependent passive.”

Sommers shields Friedan against the charge of being something other than what she wants her to be, namely, a very outspoken, spunky Jewish lady who was properly offended by sexism. But David Horowitz (among others) has shown convincingly, that Friedan and her parents had close links to the American Communist Party; and so the attempt to depict this lady as someone above politics reeks of blatant dishonesty. Friedan came from a radically leftist family, and as an adult she made the normal leftist transition from Marxist-Leninism to the present war against inherited social institutions and distinctions.  There is no reason to imagine that her revolt against post-World War Two sexism stood antipodes apart from what the radical social Left now teaches.

In an incisive work on the evolution of feminism, Domestic Tranquility, F. Carolyn Graglia, tells us what should be obvious to those without vested professional interests. The work of Friedan and others who downgraded the traditional role of women as homemakers led inescapably to the more radical phase of the feminist movement that emerged about a decade later. The war against the real or imagined domestic life of the 1950s, begun by Friedan and her generation, fueled a crusade against gender distinctions that continues down to the present. What Sommers has condemned as “the war against boys” goes back to what was allegedly an early, nice form of feminism. But integral to feminism, as Friedan herself taught, was “busting the masculine mystique.”

In Western countries today, and not least of all in the US, we are witnessing a continuing social and political transformation from the Left. For better or worse, it may be impossible to halt this process; and there is no possibility of restoring the American society that existed before the roller-coaster ride got underway. But let’s stop lying about the remembered past and punishing old-timers on the Right who know that deliberate misrepresentations are occurring!  One would have to be hopelessly naive to believe that our social problems started when feminists started reading Gloria Steinem instead of Betty Friedan. And pace Sommers, no one “stole feminism.” It simply evolved.

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