Born Again Feminism for the 21st Century

Published March 07, 2006

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March is Women's History Month, with a focus on the past raising questions about the future. Gender or left-wing feminism has defined the mainstream movement for decades, but can it carry feminism into the 21st century and away from the accusation of irrelevancy?

2006 is a fine year in which to ask that question. It is far enough into the new century for gender feminists to have provided a rough answer if one is coming. I believe the answer has arrived.

On a personal level, you may not care. You may be fed up with decades-long arguments that all seem to run in an endless loop toward the same conclusion: Women as a class are oppressed by men as a class through the institutions of society such as the free market and the family.

On a political level, however, you should pay attention. Those same tiresome arguments have dramatically reshaped the institutions with which you and your children live every day.

For example, in 1980, the term "sexual harassment" was virtually unknown. Today, it is a legal reality that every campus and workplace confronts. If gender feminism successfully recreates itself, then your day-to-day life may continue to reflect its vision, not yours. Linda R. Hirshman, co-author of the book Hard Bargains: The Politics of Sex, offers a glimpse of that vision. She recently published an article titled "Homeward Bound" in the liberal magazine American Prospect (12/20/05).

"Home" does not refer to the hearth. Quite the opposite. Home is the ideological starting point to which Hirshman believes feminism must return in order to become effective. The much discussed article is a clear snapshot of gender feminism's present dilemma over irrelevancy and the need for redefinition.

Hirshman bluntly acknowledges the failure of feminism by pointing to one phenomenon. Many educated women are rejecting successful careers to become mothers and embrace the domesticity that Betty Friedan compared to animal life and a Nazi concentration camp in her 1953 bestseller The Feminine Mystique. How did this happen? In a word, choice is to blame.

"[L]iberal feminists abandoned the judgmental starting point…in favor of offering women 'choices'. The choice talk spilled over from…'abortion', and it provided an irresistible solution to feminists trying to duck the mommy wars. A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single. It all counted as 'feminist' as long as she chose it."

Hirshman dismisses what she calls "choice feminism." Instead, she argues for a return to "a judgmental starting point" by which incorrect choices are to be shunned, choices like the traditional role of wife and mother.

Hirshman writes, "Now the glass ceiling begins at home. Although it is harder to shatter a ceiling that is also the roof over your head, there is no other choice."

The 20th century gender war was fought largely in the workplace and on campuses; the 21st century's battleground is the traditional family. According to Hirshman, failure to deconstruct that one institution is the explanation for feminism's failures elsewhere.

I profoundly disagree with Hirshman's conclusions and many of her particulars. For example, I don't believe all of women's choices have been sanctioned as 'feminist'; sex work is a counter-example.

I also don't believe feminism ever ceased being judgmental. Nevertheless, the article is a fascinating glimpse into gender feminism's struggle to reinvent itself. The broad themes of this reinvention are: a rejection of the 'c-word' (choice) as the standard of feminism; the substitution of correct choices as feminism's touchstone; a renewed focus on deconstructing the traditional family; and, a reaching backward into "the golden age" of feminism in order to understand and correct mistakes.

As the reinvention occurs, the gender feminist approach to specific issues will inevitably shift as well.

Without a crystal ball and with recognition that feminism is not a monolith, the following are some of the changes (or not) in approach that I expect to see:

On abortion. The words choice and pro-choice will be de-emphasized. Instead, stress will be placed on weighing the rights and health of the woman against those of the unborn with the clear message that the woman takes precedence.

On sexual harassment. The argument will not change because it has proven successful but the approach will be broadened to include male victims, especially boys. For example, the latest survey from the American Association of University Women on school and campus harassment reports on male victims.

I believe the shift is largely strategic. It is no longer possible to ignore male victims of harassment. Thus, the championing of boys will be co-opted and recast within gender feminism's established framework of sexual harassment.

On domestic violence. The argument will not change and the approach will not be broadened significantly. In gender feminist theory, domestic violence is key to establishing that traditional marriage is a dangerous place for women.

"Staying the course" is not only an ideological matter, it is also strategic. To the extent male victims are acknowledged, the focus will be on gay male victims. A lot of funding is on the line.

What do I think is the real feminist line for the 21st century? Your peaceful choices are yours alone and no one else's business. Be a housewife, love your children without a time schedule…or dive into a 24/7 job that you get on merit. Live your own dream. Be your own woman.

And, yes, that makes me a "choice feminist."

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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