The duality of male and female is basic to human life. People find it inscrutable, suggestive, frustrating, necessary, and sublime all at once.
That’s why it has given rise to so much great, not-great, and sometimes downright objectionable literature: comedy, tragedy, lyric, epic, drama, and farce. Not to mention all the other genres, from epigram to soap opera.
It’s also why, like other basic features of human life, it is difficult to talk about directly in an age that pretends to supreme enlightenment. The nature of the issues makes us all seem a bit silly. Who can pretend to special enlightenment?
But we should try, even with likely failure staring us in the face. To organize discussion of an unmanageable topic, I’ll defend the view that feminism makes no sense. At bottom, I’ll claim, it’s a rejection of serious discussion of the sexes and their relationships because they can’t be rationalized on simple principles.
In the case of the feminism now legally institutionalized, the claim seems clearly correct. This version of feminism holds that no differences should be recognized between men and women, so there is nothing to discuss on the topic. The conclusion is that men and women should, as a matter of justice, be equally represented and successful in all social roles.
An obvious response is that the assertion there are no differences worth recognizing is just wrong. As such, it leads to pyramiding insanities, most recently transgenderism. The whole package should be scrapped.
That response is considered ignorant, retrograde, and what not else. Such objections are based more on prejudice than argument. People “know” feminism is right and criticisms are out of place, because that’s the view respectable people and institutions insist on.
Probably the best way to consider the dispute is to look at whether feminism has improved women’s lives. And here we come to what is called “the paradox of declining female happiness”. Today’s women have far more of the rights and opportunities now officially valued (the right to be treated as economic resources, the right to short-term sexual connections, the right to abort their children) but they are less happy both absolutely and relative to men.
For some reason, that surprises people. It also surprises them that young people don’t think feminism has worked as advertised. Young men increasingly want to scrap it, young women to double down. The effect, of course, is to increase mutual blame and mistrust.
The blame and mistrust may be deserved for all I know. There’s always plenty to go around. But the result of all this is that men and women don’t establish normal family relations, their lives lose direction, and the next generation—if it arrives at all—is raised badly. Until the coming of second-wave feminism net fertility in the West—births less early deaths of children—was generally stable at about three babies per woman. Since then it has collapsed, along with marriage.
So to all appearances, feminism has hurt men, women, children, families, and (if anything’s left over) the world in general. But what now? Something’s gone wrong, and complaining about crazed females or creepy incels won’t solve the problem even if all the complaints are justified.
What would make women happier? On the whole, what’s called “benevolent sexism”—the view that men and women are different, and that’s a good thing—seems to help. That makes sense, since “benevolent sexism” is simply non-feminism along with an attempt to create good relations between men and women that take their differences into account. The “scholarly” responses to that finding, of course, are variations on “why don’t women know what’s good for them?”
What does all this mean? The purpose of a system is what it predictably and reliably does. The unsurprising consequences of feminism, along with its monolithic support by all rich and powerful institutions, demonstrate that it’s based less on concern for women’s well-being than the industrial preference for orderly systems with interchangeable parts, along with utter indifference to things like family life that fall outside bureaucratic and commercial competence.
That, of course, is not good. But I’ve been talking about establishment feminism.
Maybe a different kind of feminism is needed. Here the question becomes what kind, and what does it tell us to do.
Years ago I wrote something on feminism that quoted a couple of intelligent definitions from Catholic women. One said “the core of feminism lies in the simple demand that women receive the same respect as men as independent, capable human beings,” the other “a feminist is always someone who feels some distress or dissatisfaction with the way women are treated.”
These apparently very sensible and straightforward definitions turned out to become less clear the more they were considered. For example: men and women have a somewhat different attitude toward arms’ length connections. In particular, men find respect as an independent, capable human being—as a man among men—more important.
Some instances of that tendency are uncontroversial. People agree that men are more reluctant to ask for help or consult a doctor. And women are less likely to organize themselves into groups with a clear accepted hierarchy—that is, to turn arms’ length respect into an organizational principle.
Are these isolated quirks, or part of something bigger? If the latter, and men really do care more about arms’ length respect, how can they be stopped from pursuing it and getting more of it than women? Or people prevented from expecting that result? And why think that the effort to force everyone—men and women alike—to act against natural inclinations that have always been basic to human life, with some evident benefits, would make life better for anyone?
The other definition, about distress and dissatisfaction, is plainly correct: feminists don’t like the treatment women receive. A masculine response might be “we’ve all got problems, but women complain more.” But that won’t do. If men have a stronger preference for establishing a functional order, and women feel more strongly about close personal relations, that will sometimes mean that men push women around and women swallow it.
A man might note that if women have longer lists of detailed requirements, men more concern with whatever works and keeps the peace, men are also going to get pushed around sometimes. But nagging seems a relatively minor form of abuse. Men might have other complaints they could make, but the basic point remains that relations between the sexes sometimes go wrong to the disadvantage of women.
But how should we handle situations in which intrinsic human tendencies cause problems? Constant nagging about the way people are doesn’t help: we have to look at how human relations actually work. If women are the more vulnerable sex, which everyone seems to believe, then abolishing settled order in the relations between the sexes is going to hurt them. That is what we see all around us. So what’s needed is something stable that helps keep human conduct sane and functional in a more-or-less self-governing way.
The obvious answer with regard to the sexes is to turn their pairings into functional arrangements based on fundamental common goods, and govern them by social conventions that evolve in a decentralized way, so they reflect broad practical experience of life, and enforce standards that keep the pairings stable and functional. In other words, something very much like the traditional approach to marriage.
But that depends on the legitimacy of general expectations regarding sex roles—that is, on rejection of anything recognizable as feminism. It therefore depends on rejection of our entire public orthodoxy, along with the social arrangements that demand and enforce it.
In short, something very much like a revolution. But it would be a revolution in how people live and understand their lives that we can all start to live out in ways that benefit those involved. The future belongs to those who show up, so ways of life that promote productive and satisfying family life are likely to last. If people take these issues seriously there is good hope we can arrive at something better than what we have now. May it be so.
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