Traditional conservatives could use a fresh rhetoric of masculinity.
Miserable Women, Purposeless Men
The Left’s future leaves marriage and family in the past.
The Claremont Institute’s DC Center for the American Way of Life is a new initiative for actively counteracting the Left’s ceaseless attacks on America. Founded earlier this year with Arthur Milikh at the helm, the DC center is focused on taking legal and cultural steps to fight the full onset of the woke regime. This series of articles puts into perspective what the Left is doing and intends to do to traditional American mores and customs.
The goals of feminism define the left’s understanding of marriage and the family. On the surface, most feminists these days are busy with retail politics, seeking small, incremental but immediate changes to public policy or corporate habits or university policies. They are now concerned with sex education for pre-kindergarteners, national daycare, additional sexual harassment training, getting more CEOs to “lean in,” or closing the “pay gap.”
But these retail changes are incremental steps toward the accomplishments of a radical feminism—one that seeks to eliminate the differences between men and women and ultimately to abolish the family altogether.
The astounding accomplishments of retail feminism have caused nothing less than a quiet revolution in American life. Retail feminists have gained sex discrimination protections, affirmative action for women in hiring and in grants, legality of contraception and abortion, divorce reform, public acceptance of sex outside of marriage, the promotion of careerism especially among upper middle-class women. Many Protestant denominations now allow female pastors.
Much work for feminists remains, despite decades of retail feminist reform. Early feminists encouraged future generations of feminist reformers to play the long game: seeking out ways to advance radical feminist goals abolishing the family and eliminating sex differences one step at a time. In other words, keep asking for half a loaf and eventually there is nothing of the original loaf left.
Indeed, the most impressive and influential feminists from the late 1960s and early 1970s provided subsequent retail feminists with a road map and a destination, still followed today—whether knowingly or blindly. Kate Millett, author of the highly influential Sexual Politics (1970), aimed the feminist revolution at three substantial goals.
First and most crucially, for Millett, feminists should seek to end “the ideology of male supremacy and the traditional socialization by which it is upheld in matters of status, role, and temperament.” Sex roles in child-rearing, for instance, wherein girls are encouraged to play house while boys roughhouse, must fade and eventually disappear. Disparities in the workplace and difference in career tastes should vanish. The sexes must be made happy in much the same way, she claimed. Anything leading to unequal power or even differences between the sexes and their different statuses, roles, and characters must be eliminated in law and culture.
Tearing down patriarchal authority unites all radical feminist thinkers. Retail feminists are happy to eliminate annoying disparities present in their world, but radical feminists show where these smaller retail skirmishes are heading. For Susan Moller Okin, a significant feminist activist in 1970s and ’80s, feminism ultimately aims at “a future in which men and women participated in more or less equal numbers in every sphere of life, from infant care to different kinds of paid work to high-level politics.”
The destruction of patriarchy would demand, Okin writes, that “one’s sex would have no more relevance than one’s eye color or the length of one’s toes” in determining any aspect of a person’s life. Men and women must be made to be identical in all things: tastes, hopes, desires. Anything less than that means that patriarchy lingers and more of its remnants must be destroyed. This is no small task.
Second, the traditional family must be weakened and eventually destroyed for the sake of complete economic and emotional independence for women. To achieve this, women should find fulfilling, lucrative jobs outside of the home. They mustn’t depend on men for money. But an important corollary to this goal, for Millet, is ending “the present chattel status and denial of right to minors.” In other words, the dependence of children is a male invention, designed to make women feel as if they were needed to raise their children and hence dependent on their husbands.
Other institutions like day cares and schools must take over the time-intensive job of raising children and children must grow up faster for the sake of female independence. Husbands no longer must expect to provide for their wives, since feminists see this as an instrument of male control and oppression. Nor should mothers any longer feel themselves duty-bound to raise their children. And they should be given a good conscience about it.
Third, the feminist revolution demands a revolution in our view of sexuality broadly understood. Feminism seeks, in Millett’s phrase, “an end to traditional sexual inhibitions and taboos,” including especially ending the moral beliefs that support monogamous marriage, which is supported by belief in monogamy, fidelity, parental responsibility, and other elements of traditional family life. As a result, feminists bless “homosexuality, ‘illegitimacy,’ adolescent, and pre- and extra-marital sexuality” in order to liberate sexuality from marriage. Sexually liberated women would also become more sexually adventurous. They would initiate sex as much as men, because, according to radical feminism, male initiative and control in sexual matters is proof of female subordination.
Retail goals promote these three planks of feminist reform, and these three planks point to the abolition of the family. Marriage and family life reflect difference between men and women, especially those involving procreation, and raising and educating children. Family life is based on mutual dependence and community between men and women and their children, so dissolving marriage leads to greater independence. Society teaches sexual self-control to encourage marriage, so the feminist hope to end sexual taboos strikes at the heart of the sexual ethic necessary to sustain marriage.
Simone de Beauvoir, founding mother of modern feminism, endorsed all three planks of feminist reform. That did not go far enough, however, as she conceded in a 1972 interview: “I think the family must be abolished” and replaced “with communes or with other forms which have yet to be invented.” Beauvoir’s life points to what this new ideal would mean. Women would have no children or at least many fewer children—and those children would be raised by a gaggle of adults. Relationships would be more or less open, and sexual desire itself would find a greater variety of outlets.
Today’s liberals embrace the same logic, though they are often happy to settle for “minimizing” marriage for now with the hopes of continuing to minimize it right out of existence later. Radicals are more open about abolishing the family, hoping for “full surrogacy” now (in the title of Sophie Lewis’s recent book). Full surrogacy means that society as a whole—not individual parents—would be responsible for the upbringing of children.
The abolition of marriage and sex differences also point to the rise of a new kind of the independent, autonomous, or transcendent woman. She will be capable of ruling and willing to rule, especially in the name of the three feminist planks and the ultimate objective of abolishing marriage and family life.
Many women desire work and like to have their own money without thinking themselves radical feminists. They like the opportunity and variety that our modern situation affords them. If these reasonable desires are part of an attempt to balance goods that come from work and family, they point to the variety of human goods that women and all human beings try to achieve in a life well lived. Feminists see careers and financial and sexual independence pointing to a life beyond marriage and family, where family is ever-less important for both men and women. Who would deny that young women often plan abstractly on balancing a variety goods in their lives but end up childless careerists, embracing their independence at the expense of all other goods? Thus seemingly moderate retail feminists abet radical feminism.
There are many practical objections to radical feminist aspirations. Since the differences between men and women are partly based on biology, feminism demands nothing less than an altering of the human DNA to succeed. Neuro-science and common sense join in seeing many differences between men and women as hard-wired into our nature. Far from being an invention of patriarchy, human beings crave love and acceptance that comes, most often and most reliably, from families and through marriage. Children are best cared for by those who take responsibility for their care as a matter of duty and actual love. Sexual self-control places sex within a community of love and mutual respect and helps human beings subordinate sex instead of being controlled by it. No political community can abandon the family and survive.
In the final analysis, feminists misunderstand the human condition. Human beings long for happiness more than they seek autonomy or freedom. Marriages and family life—and the deep love and community they produce—are among the most reliable ways of creating such happiness. Gregarious human beings do not thrive when they are “independent”—they suffer from friendlessness, insignificance, and loneliness. They thrive in healthy mutual dependence with their fellows. Feminism, in denying this basic truth, fosters miserable women and purposeless men.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.
The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.
Conservatives have to get smarter about sexual politics.