How Popular Feminism Betrayed Women

BEFORE explaining what the argument in this post is, I would like to point out a few things that it is not.  First, this post is not a critique of feminism generally.  Gender inequality and injustice are real, and some of the progress in these areas is attributable to the feminist movement.  This is factually undeniable, whether or not one’s ultimate perception of the movement is positive.  There are, I am sure, myriad principled versions of feminism that would withstand the critique I offer here.  That’s fine:   this discussion is limited to a sort of feminism that pervades popular culture and discussions with peers, a version whose definition is more often assumed than defined.  It is the consequences of this assumption that I intend to explore.  Second, this post is not written by a woman.  It is, in fact, the creation of a man.  If I say something that appears to be incorrect, insensitive, or oversimplified through the absence of a female perspective, please remedy this deficiency by providing me with yours.  I’ll admit that this article includes some assumptions about male and female behavior.  I think they are reasonable and defensible, and I invoke them for the purpose of defending meaningful gender equality.  You may see things differently, however, and I would be happy to learn from you.  Third, while this post will posit that some notion of gender roles is essential for the maintenance of equality, it does not suggest that this notion should be the reincarnation of older roles to which some oppression can be ascribed.  The project of actually defining these roles requires more time and expertise than I can muster today.  Nor do I suggest that roles = rules.  In my mind, roles are ideals to be encouraged for the purpose of promoting human flourishing, not rules to be imposed by society on individuals.

The aspect of feminism that is at issue here is what I will call “popular feminism,” and is exemplified by this picture:


Or, as Queen Bey said:   “Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”


The latter definition can be frustrating because, of course, it should be a foregone conclusion  that women should enjoy “social, political, and economic equality.”  The obvious appeal of this definition (and the fact that most of my generation assumes it) makes it seem manifestly irrational to be anything but a “feminist.”  Why does anyone drag their feet?  The key, of course, is the assumption underlying the meaning of “equality.”  Rather than legal or teleological or even substantive equality, popular feminism seeks equality through existential egalitarianism, resting on  the simple premise is that there is no essential gender differentiation—each woman (or, more accurately, each person) is whoever “the hell” she conceives herself to be.  Or, to paraphrase Laverne Cox, ‘biology is not destiny.’

This sounds nice!  Previously, gender roles have been used to subjugate women and relegate them to the margins of society (provided you take the home to be the margin rather than the center, a presumption that is open to serious question).  The solution, then, must be to eliminate gender distinctions altogether.  If we just commit to saying that we’re all equal in that we are undifferentiated (or, differentiated only as far as our own choices take us), we will finally have real equality.

This is a tragic deception because, in eliminating essential distinctions in role, popular feminism has convinced women that their equality can only be assessed in gender-neutral terms like income or power.  Certain essentially feminine capacities, like childbearing, are only valuable to the extent that they contribute to a gender neutral index of success, like personal fulfillment.  And, for this characterization, I’m not merely relying on my potentially jaundiced male perspective, this is the position Justice Ginsburg articulated in her Gonzales v. Carhart dissent.  Arguing for the importance of access to partial birth abortion, Justice Ginsburg said of women that “Their ability to realize their full potential . . . is intimately connected ‘to their ability to control their reproductive lives.'”  In order to “enjoy equal citizenship stature,” a woman must be able “to determine her life’s course,” which requires the ability to avoid pregnancy.  Equal capacity to compete in the professional workplace or, more generally, to actualize one’s self-conception is the baseline of equality, according to Justice Ginsburg (or, more importantly, Queen Bey).

But, the problem is, that perceiving childbearing as an obstacle to full potential rather than an indispensible aspect of the feminine effectively ensures inequality be telling women “you will not be equal as long as you are unequal in gender-neutral terms” but then setting a standard in which they must compete with men on terms that are not gender neutral (that is to say, on the terms of reality).  This reality is that, no matter how free women are to control their reproduction, most will at some point have children.  This means that most, on average, will make less money and wield less professional power than men, simply by virtue of the time that they are unable to dedicate to professions.  Particular women are more than equal  to the tasks of modern business and politics, but women will never be equal to the time (excepting a “final solution”).  I know many women that are or soon will be incredibly successful.  (I could probably fill a binder with the names of these women.)  But the realities of nature ensure that women as a gender will be continually underrepresented, so long as gender-neutral criteria are used for evaluation and governance.  This holds in other areas: the reality is that, no matter how steadfastly some women choose to devote themselves to sports or martial arts (I know many that could run circles around me), there will be more men that do so and, if evaluated in gender neutral terms, there will be more men that do so with success.  In this way, the wholesale eradication of gender roles effectively guarantees the continued subordination of women.  Popular feminism has cast as an obstacle that which makes women equal (or, heck, arguably better) than men.  (Seriously, I challenge any of you to point to anything a man has done in the last hundred years that is cooler than bringing a new life into the world – something that women accomplish with remarkable frequency.)  If equality is to be achieved by eradicating essential gender distinctions, the only possible avenue for success is a final solution: actually eradicating one gender.  This solution would create actual equality by flouting the intractable differences between the genders imposed by nature and, thus, allow a women to “be whoever the hell she wants to be” without interference.  My opinion on this solution’s appeal is biased, so I won’t offer it.

The cooperative path to equality, then, lies not in the abolition of distinctions, it lies in their affirmation.  Women are equal to men because their difference from men provides values that are irreplaceable and irreproducible beyond the feminine.  For women to enjoy an equal status, society must be taught that these aspects of the feminine are real and that they are worth valuing and encouraging.  Rather than positing something about women that is worth valuing, popular feminism has simply told women “there’s nothing special about you or anyone, just know that you can be as good as a man if you want to.”  This is true enough about particular women:  politics, society, and economics should allow women to participate as they choose on equal terms with men, and women that choose to do so are equal to the task.  Biology is not destiny in the particular or comprehensive sense.  But to say that gender equality must be assessed for all women after subtracting the inherent values of femininity is the pinnacle of betrayal—it’s like asking someone to write the Declaration of Independence with Arabic Numerals.  Not all women are the same.  Neither are all men identical.  We should be very careful before constructing ideas about gender that pigeonhole persons.  But, on the other hand, we must be equally careful before deconstructing ideas about gender so completely that we are deprived of the social riches, personal fulfillment, and cooperative equality that can be enjoyed through their exploration and affirmation.  The equality of gender is realized in allowing each to be what they ought, not in assuming that all are “flawless” so long as they get to be “whatever the hell they want.”



2 responses to “How Popular Feminism Betrayed Women”

  1. Olivia Kathryn says :

    “The cooperative path to equality, then, lies not in the abolition of distinctions, it lies in their affirmation. Women are equal to men because their difference from men provides values that are irreplaceable and irreproducible beyond the feminine.”

    Perfectly stated and I couldn’t agree more! I have been thinking a lot about this topic lately.

  2. Chris says :

    Thank you for putting this so well. I have felt for some time that it is not a healthy thing for a society to devalue the uniquely feminine role of nurturing motherhood to the point that we assume any minimum wage daycare worker is sufficient to the task. It seems this does more to devalue women than much of what is decried as subjugation.

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