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The New Republic
By Cathy Young | April 12, 1999
This ought to be a giddy moment for conservative critics of feminism. For one thing, the fervor with which many of the women's movement's leaders stuck by President Clinton has exposed their willingness to sacrifice cherished feminist principles--for instance, that women who accuse men of sexual misconduct must be believed and supported--to politics. Meanwhile, the scandal has prompted many Americans to question those principles
themselves, particularly the notion that personal behavior is necessarily political. The time is ripe, it would seem, for conservatives to offer an appealing alternative. So why haven't they managed to do so? The trouble is that they are mired in a web of contradictions of their own, resulting in a muddled vision of relations between men and women that, ironically, is plagued by the same logical inconsistencies as that of the feminists.
At the heart of the conservative quandary is the movement's inability to come to terms with women's new roles. Notwithstanding the presence of many capable conservative women in public life, ambivalent if not hostile attitudes toward women's nondomestic pursuits remain alive and well on the right. While some conservatives have cited women's advancement in the workplace--particularly in the Reagan-Bush years--as proof of the beneficence of markets, prominent conservative commentator David Frum, for instance, suggests in his 1994 book Dead Right that the very Reagan policies that helped "goose the job market and thus entice women to work outside the home" contributed to family breakdown.
True, most conservatives have amended "a woman's place is in the home" to " a mother's place is at home while the children are young." And, of course, not all concerns about the welfare of children in dual-earner families are an _expression of "backlash" (though there is plenty of unwarranted alarmism on the subject). But the respectable right is a bit too hospitable to extreme screeds that have less to do with worries about children than with anxieties about gender. Two years ago, The Wall Street Journal editorial page actually published an article by Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield complaining that "manliness is endangered by women having equal access to jobs outside the home." The 1998 book Domestic Tranquility: A Brief Against Feminism by F. Carolyn Graglia, which warned that the assertiveness and the "analytical mind" required by careers warp women's sexual and maternal natures, received glowing reviews in the conservative press and dust-jacket blurbs from Midge Decter and William Kristol.
Afew years ago, after the publication of Christina Hoff Sommers's 1994 critique of feminist radicalism, Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women, it seemed that conservatives were ready to embrace Sommers's moderate " equity feminism" that supported women's new roles but rejected victimhood and gender warfare. In some ways, though, it was never a comfortable fit. To many conservatives, the female gains Sommers hailed as "a great American success story" are more of an American tragedy. While Sommers stressed the good fortunes of modern women and accused feminists of exaggerating their miseries, it is at least as fashionable among conservatives to argue that women today are miserable. That's the premise of the two critiques of feminism wowing the right this year: Wendy Shalit's A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue and Danielle Crittenden's What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman.
In the traditionalist view, of course, women's distress is the result of social changes brought about by feminism. Because single women are now free to have premarital sex, men don't want to commit to marriage; because it's now normal for wives and mothers to hold jobs, women lucky enough to find husbands still have to work due to cultural and economic pressures when they'd rather stay home; and, because of liberal divorce laws, women can never be secure in their marriages.
This pessimistic view may be a part of the cultural right's growing general gloom about American society. But it probably bears about the same relation to reality as the feminist view that discrimination and bias against women are running rampant in America.
To state the obvious, the vast majority of men and women still marry, though they do so later than men and women did a generation ago. The "why buy the cow when the milk is free?" theory of sex and marriage--championed by many of the same conservatives who complain about the loss of romance in our culture--is not only unromantic but unrealistic. Crittenden, who espouses this theory, undercuts it with some of her own observations: about panicky thirtysomething single women who had spurned marriage offers when they were in their twenties (offers from men evidently undissuaded by the free milk); about women so preoccupied with their independence that their boyfriends, eager to start families, have to beg them to tie the knot. There may be important differences between women and men, including men's greater propensity to enjoy no-strings sex, but this hardly means that men do not also feel a need for marriage and children or that women have no sexual desires beyond lifelong monogamy.
Work-family conflicts are undoubtedly a real problem, but most women are not longing to go home. In a 1997 Pew Research Center poll, fewer than a quarter of mothers working full-time said that they would prefer to stay home if they could; about the same percentage of stay-at-home mothers wanted to work full-time.
But the mother of all conservative gender myths is that the liberalization of divorce has robbed women of marital security by freeing men to walk out on them. This notion is supported by the First Wives Club cliche of divorce--the swinish husband ditching his loyal wife for a nubile blonde. Studies consistently show, however, that, two-thirds of the time, it's the women who walk out. Far fewer women than men agree that unhappily married parents should stay together for the sake of the children. Divorced women, moreover, tend to be happier than divorced men and are far less likely to regret the divorce; recent research even disputes the assumption that they experience more economic hardship. But why let facts get in the way of ideology? In a 1997 National Review article on the harms of divorce, political scientist John DiIulio cites health data suggesting that it's men who suffer the most-- only to conclude that easy divorce is "a great bargain for sex-seeking, social-responsibility-shirking guys, and a near-total disaster for women."
One might notice that much conservative rhetoric about the harm feminism has inflicted on women also points the finger at a more familiar villain: the male, who will be a pig if given a chance and who has been given such a chance by the collapse of traditional norms. The pro-life movement likes to portray women who have abortions as victims of selfish boyfriends unwilling to support the children they father. Even women's labor force participation can be blamed on male piggery: in a 1996 Commentary article, David Gelernter argues that the removal of the stigma against mothers working outside the home has left women unprotected from "the predatory interests of the typical man," who "would always have been happy to pack his wife off to work" even if it hurt his children. (Never mind 50 years of poll data showing higher support among women than among men for wives' employment.)
With this fixation on the evil that men do to women, the sexual politics of the right start to look uncannily like a mirror image of radical feminism. Even the language can be the same: abortion is labeled "surgical rape"; the sexual revolution, conservative Human Events magazine editor Terry Jeffrey charged on "Crossfire" recently, was "a war against women."
Victim feminism and victim antifeminism converge in Wendy Shalit's A Return to Modesty, a strange mix of Victorian pieties about womanhood and feminist hyperbole (ours, says Shalit, is a "truly misogynist culture" that accepts " the rapist's view of womanhood" because it won't let women be women). It is, no doubt, the first book ever to boast blurbs from both neoconservative doyenne Gertrude Himmelfarb and lunatic-fringe feminist Andrea Dworkin. Shalit, the 23-year-old darling of the right, embraces not only conservative myths of female victimhood but the feminist ones as well. She agrees that women and girls face constant abuse, violence, and degradation at the hands of men, as well as the ravages of low self-esteem and eating disorders--only she thinks the culprit is not patriarchy but the loss of respect for female modesty. Echoing the feelings-over-facts attitude for which conservatives have rightly derided the cultural left, she even suggests that flawed studies and false charges matter less than the underlying truth: "A lot of young women are trying to tell us that they are very unhappy."
While conservative writers on gender may not actually claim that "the personal is political," they do share one of the most problematic assumptions of modern feminism: that women's unhappiness is not a personal but a social problem. There are other parallels. Ideologues in both camps tend to treat female choices they dislike as not real choices at all. (Stay-at-home mothers are victims of patriarchal oppression; working mothers are victims of feminist cultural coercion.) Both modern feminism and neo-traditionalism basically see men and women as adversaries, even if conservatives are less overt about it; they assail feminists for treating relations between the sexes as a power struggle but in the next breath talk about women's loss of " bargaining power" due to premarital sex. Both believe that women deserve special protection from bad men and other bad things, even if feminists are less overt about it; much of their recent agenda in such areas as sexual harassment, violence, divorce, and child custody involves demands for protections whose paternalism is only slightly camouflaged.
The main difference is that conservatives urge women to accept significant restrictions on their freedom in exchange for protection, while feminists insist that women should be able to do as they please and climb back on the Victorian pedestal (for example, demand to be shielded from raunchy talk at the office) whenever they feel like it.
Just as feminists have won real gains, social conservatives have raised important issues, from the fraying of family bonds as a result of the cult of personal autonomy to the drawbacks of sexual permissiveness. But both feminists who insist that women are as oppressed as ever and conservatives who see nothing but cultural decay in the past 30 years underestimate American culture's flexibility. Most dual-earner couples manage to have a healthy family life with a workable balance of job and home responsibilities. Typically, the balance falls more or less along traditional gender lines-- though men's domestic and parental contributions are far more substantial than is often assumed, and role reversals (which conservatives tend either to dismiss as irrelevant or to view with outright loathing) are becoming more common.
It's bad enough when conservatives take a censorious tone toward women who breach traditional boundaries. It's even worse for them to portray every trend they dislike in relations between the sexes as a boon for men and a calamity for women, whether this is a cynical strategy or an _expression of sincere concern. These arguments imply that women's problems are more deserving of sympathy and concern than men's--an attitude already far too prevalent in our culture, partly in response to the very real history of discrimination against women and partly due to the traditional sympathy for the damsel in distress. This is patronizing toward women but also unfair to men; neither conservatives nor liberals, for instance, show much interest in the problems of divorced fathers.
In fact, the critique of the "divorce culture" would be more honest and persuasive if it took account of irresponsible wives and abandoned husbands. Likewise, the arguments against sexual permissiveness would be less divisive if they acknowledged that men, too, can be hurt by the separation of sex from emotion and by premature sexual experience. Survey data from 1994 and 1997 show that, while more sexually active girls (62 percent) wish they had waited longer to lose their virginity, so do nearly half of boys, and about a quarter of high school boys and girls alike feel stressed as a result of pressure to have sex.
It's hard to tell which is the greater irony: that feminist claims of women's victimization should be marshaled in defense of patriarchy, or that conservative claims should serve to reinforce the feminist obsession with women's injuries and the tendency to pit women against men. What's increasingly clear is that both ideologies are irrelevant to the lives of the majority of men and women who are interested neither in gender warfare nor in going back to a mythical idyllic past but are trying to find their own balance between the modern and the traditional.