Why Feminism Failed

For every conservative woman who rejects feminism, there’s a female pundit who says “but only what it has become.” There are many, it seems, who want to hold on to the idea, or perhaps even just the appearance, of political equity between the sexes, even as they reject what it has brought about.

Far be it from me to expect women in politics, whatever their affiliation, to openly reject the worldview that birthed their careers. But for the sake of intellectual consistency, it should be said that this position is as untenable as its preferred outcome is unlikely. Not only will American feminism never return to its First Wave iteration, but if it were to do so, we would only end up here again. “Here” meaning “birthing persons” protesting abortion laws in uterus hats and men getting snipped as “an act of love.” The logic of feminism has always been totalizing, even if its more radical threads were once hidden to convince the less observant public to back its initial political battles.

One of the best examples of this is in the suffragette movement. Some of the biggest names driving the fight from the beginning—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, her daughter Harriet Stanton Blatch, Charlotte Perkins Gilman—were real radicals. Stanton authored the famous “Declaration of Sentiments” at the Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights, which insists “the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpation on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.” In her books Women and Economics and The Home: Its Work andInfluence, Gilman argued that the home was inherently oppressive to women, and they would never reach full health and personal growth until the house was professionalized—that is, all the tasks of the mother, from rearing to homemaking to childhood education, were sold out to professionals, to allow the woman to pursue her own interests. Meanwhile, Blatch organized militant street protests to reinvigorate working-class women for the suffragettes’ stagnating cause in the 1910s, a direct-action approach to politics that the black nationalist movement would later adopt.

But their argument to the public and to the key politicians, both in England and America, masked these more radical aspirations. Never asking the most important question—whether expanding the voting pool would actually be good for the nation, or good for women—they asserted that without votes for women, some 50 percent of society was effectively dehumanized. It’s a tactic that likely looks familiar to our 21st century eyes. Using targeted violence to add muscle to their mantras (“blowing up buildings, shouting down public speakers, pouring acid down pillar-boxes, slashing priceless paintings, horsewhipping ministers on the street,” details TAC’s Helen Andrews) the radical minority succeeded not because the majority of women felt disenfranchised without casting a ballot, but because the majority of male politicians were tired of being nagged. And what could be so bad about letting a couple ladies vote?

In the end, the suffragettes succeeded because they commanded the narrative. The counterarguments that women’s suffrage would politicize women’s issues and create a war between the sexes—consequences predicted by the anti-suffragettes which are becoming reality a century later—were not nearly as catchy as “Votes for Women!” But their goal, though less visible than later generations’, was hardly less radical.

The suffragettes moved the first chess piece, but it was not toward making men and women more equal. Instead, they made the sexes more politicized. By bringing women into politics, the earliest feminists brought the public into the home. The idea of equity between men and women was and is inherently subversive to the family.

The older economy of the household was founded on the natural differences between men and women. Women were the homemakers and the caretakers because, in their best nature, they are more nurturing than men; they are also in need of protection. Men were the breadwinners and the rulers of the household because of their natural strength and greater ability to provide for the family. These roles were also backed by the Christian tradition, which exhorts the husband to righteous headship and the wife to loving support.

The older understanding protected an important distinction, that men and women are born equal in value as human beings, but unequal in ability—that it would be impossible for a man to be as good at mothering as a woman, just as a woman could never be as good a soldier as a man. We talk a lot about the second part, but the pre-feminist world had just as much to say about the first. It was the desire to preserve women’s concerns from the grime and compromise of partisan politics that led the anti-suffragettes to fight against the first feminists; it was the desire to protect the sanctity and privacy of the home that led practically every society before the 19th century to see a virtue in treating husbands and wives as one household in public affairs. Instead of men establishing an absolute tyranny over women, as the Seneca Falls declaration asserted, men and women had both to submit themselves to nature and nature’s God, and each could serve the other in so doing.

The logic of feminism, on the other hand, takes the modern idea of individualism and drives it like a pike between the male and female, simultaneously dividing the household into two political entities and treating their opposite natures as the same. For political equality as feminism defines it, the home must be brought out into public life and made subject to the state’s judgment, and the public’s enforcement, of an equal share of the work and wages in what was once a private sphere. The woman must be “freed” from the burden of her responsibilities to the home, and since men are the oppressors, they cannot be trusted to end their reign of terror without external enforcement. (Notably, men are not released of their responsibility to provide financial support for the home even in later feminist iterations; in the 1970s, women like Selma James demanded men should pay their wives a salary for the labor of cooking and cleaning.)

Moreover, the woman is made to develop her own political identity, separate from the man. The most detrimental result of this is the tyranny of a few women over the rest. Since abstaining from politics only hurts the cause of the domestically inclined woman while women who seek to overturn the domestic arrangement are routinely engaged in activism, once some women are brought into politics, all are, by necessity.

Feminist trailblazer Mary Wollstonecraft cited the Enlightenment philosophers, specifically Rousseau, as her inspiration for the new democratic society based on gender equality which she envisioned. Again, gender equality is defined as men and women redistributing the domestic tasks, or delegating them out to professionals, which become logical necessities when you define “full humanity,” “equality,” and “freedom” as women possessing overt political power, women treated as men, and wives “freed” from all domestic duties or roles.

But Wollstonecraft picked from the Emile author’s ideas only the principle of democratic government, rejecting, notably, Rousseau’s extensive writings on the different natures, and therefore roles, rights, and responsibilities, of men and women which Tocqueville called one of the few bulwarks that could save a democratic government from the tyranny of the majority.

Ironically, Wollstonecraft also ignored some of Rousseau’s most famous passages on how women seek to, and succeed in, tyrannizing men. For Rousseau, this tyranny begins when the woman takes on a role in public life, commanding society from outside the household, and it cannot be stopped by any means except to return women to their roles as private queens, rather than public demagogues.

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