We’ve noted before that James Taranto is, on occasion, one of those conservatives who like to equate “feminism” with “radical feminism,” and paint the entire women’s movement with an extremely broad brush.
And we’re sorry to have to keep pointing this out, since we’re actually fangirls of Taranto’s column and have been crushing on him intellectually for years. Most of what he says on the subject of male-female roles is interesting and thought-provoking: there is plenty of real insight there, because the sea changes in sex mores over the past 50 years have been very expensive for a lot of households, and some of them have to be reevaluated in a very sober fashion.
At the very same time, Taranto is prone to an oversimplification—emphasizing the destructive side of feminism—that is really prevalent on the right, and can be dangerous, for three reasons. First off, many independents and moderates interpret the word “feminist” to be merely “anti-sexist.” To rail against feminism without noting that not all of it was radical can mark conservatives and Republicans as potentially, or even predominantly, sexist—which conveniently underscores a false liberal-left narrative about us.
Also, it’s just not true. We can say this, using the Tarantoian “we,” since we once tried to start a conciousness-raising group at the age of eight. (The other eight-year-old girls in the neighborhood were less interested in consciousness-rasing than in playing with their Barbie dolls, so we eventually went with the consensus choice: Barbies it was.) At the time, we pointed out to everyone assembled there, Barbies and little girls alike, that the answer wasn’t just to assume that boys were better, and to do what boys did for the sake of that. (Later on, we realized that guns and trains are Teh Awesome, and gave boys their props for having grasped that from a young age.) We thought then, and think now, that it’s possible to be feminine and to be ambitious, at the very same time.
To generalize about feminists based on its radicals, thirdly, has the effect of driving a wedge between working women and stay-at-home moms on the right, which is sub-optimal when an Obama ally, Hilary Rosen, has just made that very same unforced error on the left.
Conflating “gender feminism” (or radicalism) with “equity feminism” (the individualist, and—dare we say—conservative version) is to grant entirely too much ground to the left.
Consider: there were, famously, two threads within “third-wave feminism” (that of the 1960s and 1970s) with respect to sexual mores, and that resulted in contradictory schools of thought regarding such issues as erotica and sexual liberation, with one branch of the “women’s movement” acting as proponents of loosened codes of conduct—in practice, advocating a “let’s see if we can beat the men at their own game” sexual ethic—while another branch railed against the “objectification” of women, and men who might (and did) exploit them sexually. The rap on the women’s movement as being essentially prudish was fully developed by the 1980s, when sexual harassment laws began to get so stringent, at the behest of prude-school feminists, that normal workplace banter between women and men became increasingly off-limits. Eventually, some workplaces demanded that men refrain from displaying family pictures, if their wives were wearing bikinis. That’s how “sexually liberated” some feminists were.
Likewise, there have always been two schools of thought within the women’s movement regarding traditional gender roles. There has, from the beginning, been huge tension between those who wanted to simply increase the options that women had—such that females weren’t drafted into homemaking, but rather freely chose it, if they liked—versus those who wanted to fundamentally change the role of nearly all females within the larger economy. The radical version of feminism was related to that in the U.S.S.R., wherein women were expected to work full time outside the home, while still doing all the childcare and maintenance within it—this gave most Russian ladies the worst of both worlds, but the ultra-radicals here were certain that they could sever the connection between women and motherhood, if they just wished hard enough. Normal middle-class women weren’t having it: they wanted to have job skills as a hedge against controlling or abusive mates, but they still wanted to have children, and to raise them—though with more input from the fathers, who were no longer banished to a “discipline-only” role.
The number of feminists who wanted to actually remove the option of being a stay-at-home mother was always very small; it’s just that the group was particularly vocal. More usual was the advice I was given as a teenager by a family friend who considered herself a feminist: that as I thought about career options, I should make sure whatever I picked could be done part-time, and that I ought to consider jobs that could be done in many parts of the country (she was a biologist who worked in a specialized lab; there were only several of them in the entire nation at the time).
My mother, on the other hand, maintained that there were probably a number of men who would be happier if they could spend more time with their kids: her argument with the rigid 1950s roles was that men got short-changed out of fatherhood, when it was made out to be part of the “women’s sphere”—and that only.
One thing that is difficult to convey to people who didn’t spend the 1960s and 1970s sleeplessly devouring miscellaneous magazines, from my father’s copies of Playboy to my grandparents’ Readers’ Digests, is just how respectable it was to denigrate female competence and intelligence before the women’s movement gained a foothold—and before it was prevalent.
It is easy to fantasize that without third-wave feminists everything would be just as it is now, only without the marriage tax penalty, and without extremists such as Hilary Rosen denigrating stay-at-home mothers. No, no: Leaf through vintage magazines of the 1960s and 1970s to see how limited girls’ and women’s horizons were back then—how much we were equated with our bodies, and how secondary we were to the stars of the show, the males: so much of what the West dislikes about Sharia law is written all over advertisements from just half a century ago, in this country. The old guard didn’t just advocate a practical division of responsibilities between men and women: it went beyond that.
There is a sensible middle ground here for conservatives—one in which we regard third-wave feminists as having pointed out that women are equal to men in the sight of God, and worthy of equal wages for equal work for equal numbers of years—and yet free to stay at home and share our passion, talent, and brainpower with our kids, if we and our spouses so choose.
We can do that while rejecting the sexually abusive elements of the 1970s, and the bland “ideal” of a unisex world. We can also point out that there are real trade-offs to making motherhood a “second career,” and sometimes American women have erred on the side of postponing motherhood too long: getting married before 30 makes sense for many couples, and in a lot of instances it’s worth making real sacrifices for. So is having one person take the lead on many parenthood decisions.
At the same time, biology isn’t destiny.
The GOP is not the party of rigid sex roles. The GOP is the “come as you are party party”: we believe that individuals and families can make these decisions for themselves. We love women who work in the home, and those who work outside the home; we want to keep families’ tax burdens low so that they can make parenting and housework determinations for themselves. We love science. We love rational atheists, and people of faith. We love free markets.
That is conservative.
On the web—
The last time I chided my idol, it was over Rick Santorum, and birth control, and it went on more or less forever . . .
In convenient dead-tree format—
The Male Mystique: Men’s Magazine Ads from the 1960s and 70s—these are so quaint in retrospect, in an “isn’t that cute and I’m so glad we’re past that” sort of way
The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass—Myron Magnet discusses what happened in the 20th century that made it more difficult for poorer and working-class people to get by; this is one of the concerns that Taranto discusses in his columns. It is a real one, and yet feminism—even mainstream feminism, much less radical feminism—is only one piece in that huge puzzle. Read this book.