Freedom used to stand at the heart of feminism, but modern feminists have succeeded in strong>erasing history
On February 10, 2001, 18,000 women filled Madison Square Garden for one of the more notable feminist gatherings of our time. The event—“Take Back the Garden”— centered on a performance of Eve Ensler’s raunchy play, The Vagina Monologues. The “Vulva Choir” sang; self-described “Vagina Warriors”—including Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Donna Hanover (Rudolph Giuliani’s ex-wife)—recited pet names for vaginas: Mimi, Gladys. Glenn Close led the crowd in spelling out the obscene word for women’s intimate anatomy, “Give me a C…!!!” A huge banner declared the Garden to be a “RAPE FREE ZONE.” The mood grew solemn when Oprah Winfrey came forward to read a new monologue called “Under the Burqa,” which described the plight of Afghan women living under the Taliban. At its climax, an actual Afghan woman named Zoya, who represented RAWA—the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan—appeared on stage covered from head to toe in a burqa. Oprah approached her and, with a dramatic sweep of her arm, lifted and removed it. The crowd roared in delight. Later, an exposé in the progressive American Prospect would reveal that RAWA is a Maoist organization whose fanatical members are so feared by Afghan women that one human rights activist has dubbed them the “Talibabes.”
According to the Prospect, when Ms. magazine tried to distance itself from RAWA in 2002, a RAWA spokeswoman denounced Ms. as the “mouthpiece of hegemonic, U.S.-centric corporate feminism.” But on that magical February night at the Garden, few knew or cared about Zoya’s political views or affiliations.
The evening was a near-perfect distillation of contemporary feminism. Pick up a women’s studies textbook, visit a college women’s center, or look at the websites of leading feminist organizations and you will be likely to find the same fixation on intimate anatomy, combined with left-wing politics, and a poisonous antipathy to men. (Campus feminists were among the most vocal and zealous accusers of the young men on the Duke University lacrosse team who were falsely indicted for rape in 2006.) Contemporary feminism routinely depicts American society as a dangerous patriarchy where women are under siege—that is the message of the “RAPE FREE ZONE” banner in the Garden. It therefore presents itself as a movement of “liberation,” defying the patriarchal oppressor and offering women everywhere the opportunity to make contact with their “real selves.”
But modern “women’s liberation” has little to do with liberty. It aims not to free women to pursue their own interests and inclinations, but rather to re-educate them to attitudes often profoundly contrary to their natures. In Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies (2003), two once-committed women’s studies professors, Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, describe how the feminist classroom transforms idealistic female students into “relentless grievance collectors.”
In 1991, the culture critic and dissident feminist Camille Paglia put the matter even more bluntly: she described women’s studies as “a jumble of vulgarians, bunglers, whiners, French faddicts, apparatchiks, dough-faced party-liners, pie-in-the-sky utopians and bullying sanctimonious sermonizers. Reasonable, moderate feminists hang back and keep silent in the face of fascism.” The embarrassing spectacle at Madison Square Garden, the erratic state of women’s studies, the outbreak of feminist vigilantism at Duke University may tempt some to conclude that the women’s movement in the United States is in a state of hopeless, hapless, and permanent disarray. Perhaps American feminism has become hysterical because it has ceased to be useful. After all, women in this country have their freedom; they have achieved parity with men in most of the ways that count. Why not let the feminist movement fade from the scene? The sooner the better. Good riddance.
THAT IS AN but unwarranted reaction. Women in the West did form a movement and did liberate themselves in ways of vital importance to the evolution of liberal society. Feminism, in its classical phase, was a critical chapter in the history of freedom. For most of the world’s women, that history has just begun; for them, classical feminism offers a tried and true roadmap to equality and freedom. And even in the West there are unresolved equity issues and the work of feminism is not over. Who needs feminism? We do. The world does. Women everywhere need the liberty to be what they are—not, as contemporary feminism insists, liberation from what they are. This we can see if we look back at the history of women’s liberation— not as it is taught in women’s studies departments, but as it truly was. The classical feminism of the 18th and 19th centuries embodied two distinct schools of thought and social activism. The first, egalitarian feminism, was progressive (in the view of many contemporaries of both sexes, radical), and it centered on women as independent agents rather than wives and mothers. It held that men and women are, in their essential nature, the same, and it sought to liberate women through abstract appeals to social justice and universal rights. The second school, conservative feminism, was traditionalist and family-centered. It embraced rather than rejected women’s established roles as homemakers, caregivers, and providers of domestic tranquility—and it promoted women’s rights by redefining, strengthening, and expanding those roles. Conservative feminists argued that a practical, responsible femininity could be a force for good in the world beyond the family, through charitable works and more enlightened politics and government. Of the two schools, conservative feminism was much the more influential. Unlike its more radical sister, conservative feminism has always had great appeal to large majorities of women. By contrast, egalitarian feminists often appeared strange and frightening with their salons and little journals. It is not, however, my purpose to denigrate egalitarian feminism—quite the contrary. Historically, proponents of the two schools were forthright and sometimes fierce competitors, but their competition sharpened the arguments on both sides, and they often cooperated on practical causes to great effect. The two movements were (and will remain) rivals in principle but complementary in practice. Thanks to egalitarian feminism, women now have the same rights and opportunities as men. But, as conservative feminists have always insisted, free women seldom aspire to be just like men, but rather employ their freedom in distinctive ways and for distinctive purposes.
EGALITARIAN FEMINISM had its historical beginnings in the writings of the British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797). Wollstonecraft, a rebel and a free thinker, believed that women were as intelligent as men and as worthy of respect. Her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman became an instant sensation. She wrote it in the spirit of the European Enlightenment—whose primary principle was the essential dignity and moral equality of all rational beings. However, Wollstonecraft’s insistence that women too are rational and deserving of the same rights as men was then a contentious thesis. Wollstonecraft’s demand was a dramatic break with the past. In 1776, Abigail Adams famously wrote a letter to her husband, John, urging him and his colleagues in the Continental Congress to “remember the ladies…and to be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” Adams was appealing to a tradition of chivalry and gallantry that enjoined male protectiveness toward women. Sixteen years later, in her Vindication, Wollstonecraft was doing something markedly different. She was not urging legislators in France and England to “remember the ladies” or appealing to their generous or protective impulses. Reason, she said, demanded that women be granted the same rights as men. She wanted nothing less than total political and moral equality. Wollstonecraft was perhaps the first woman in history to insist that biology is not destiny: “I view with indignation the mistaken notions that enslave my sex.”
For Wollstonecraft, education was the key to female liberation: “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.” She was a proponent of co-education and insisted that women be educated on a par with men—with all fields and disciplines being open to them. In the opening lines of Vindication, she expresses her “profound conviction that the neglect- ed education of [women] is the grand source of the misery I deplore.”
Wollstonecraft led one of the most daring, dramatic, and consequential lives of the 18th century. She was a lower-middle-class, semi-educated “nobody” (as one British historian has described her) who was to become the first woman to enter the Western canon of political philosophy. Her friends included Thomas Paine, William Wordsworth, and William Blake. She carried on a famous debate with Edmund Burke about the merits of the French Revolution. Soon after she published her Vindication of the Rights of Woman she ran off to Paris to write about the revolution.
After her death, her husband William Godwin wrote what he thought was an adulatory biography. He talked honestly about her unorthodox lifestyle that included love affairs, an out-of wedlock child, and two suicide attempts over her faithless American lover. He even praised her—completely inaccurately— for having rejected Christianity.
Godwin all but destroyed her reputation for the next hundred years. The public reaction to his disclosures was fascination, horror, and repulsion. Former friends denounced her. Feminists distanced themselves. Political enemies called her a “whore.” Today, however, her reputation is secure. In an essay published in 1932, Virginia Woolf wrote, “One form of immortality is hers undoubtedly: she is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.” Woolf summarizes Wollstonecraft’s egalitarian teachings in one sentence: “The staple of her doctrine was that nothing matters save independence.” Another way of putting it is to say that what Wollstonecraft wanted for women was the full liberty of citizenship.
AT THE TIME Wollstonecraft was writing, Hannah More (1745–1833)—novelist, poet, pamphleteer, political activist, evangelical reformer, and abolitionist—was waging a very different campaign to improve the status of women. More is well-known to scholars who specialize in eighteenth century culture. The late UCLA literary historian Mitzi Myers calls her a “female crusader infinitely more successful than Wollstonecraft or any other competitor.” but More is rarely given the credit she deserves. The story of what she initiated and how she did it is integral to the story of women’s quest for freedom. But few contemporary feminist historians have wanted that story to be told.
Virginia Woolf once said that if she were in charge of assigning names to critical historical epochs, along with the Crusades, or the War of the Roses, she would give a special name to that world-transforming period at the end of the 18th century in England when, in her words, “The middleclass woman began to write.” One disparaging historian called this unprecedented cohort of writing women (borrowing a phrase from the 16th-century religious reformer John Knox) “a monstrous regiment.” It was a regiment that was destined to win decisive battles in women’s struggle for freedom and opportunity. Its three most important members were Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, and Hannah More.
If Wollstonecraft was the founder of egalitarian feminism, More was the founder of conservative feminism. Like Wollstonecraft, More was a religiously inspired, self-made woman who became an intellectual peer of several of the most accomplished men of her age. But whereas Wollstonecraft befriended Paine and debated Burke, More was a friend and admirer of Burke, a close friend of Samuel Johnson and of Horace Walpole, and an indispensable ally and confidante to William Wilberforce, a father of British abolitionism. Concerning the French revolution which Wollstonecraft initially championed, More wrote, “From liberty, equality, and the rights of man, good Lord deliver us.” And she was surely the most prominent woman of her age. As one biographer notes, “In her time she was better known than Mary Wollstonecraft and her books outsold Jane Austen’s many times over.” Her various pamphlets sold in the millions and her tract against the French revolution enjoyed a greater circulation than Burke’s Reflections or Paine’s Rights of Man. Some historians credit her political writings with saving England from the kind of brutal revolutionary upheaval that traumatized France.
More (who never married) was active in the Bluestocking society. The “Blues” were a group of intellectual women (and men) who would meet to discuss politics, literature, science, and philosophy. It was started in 1750 by intelligent but educationstarved upper- and middle-class women who yearned for serious conversation rather than the customary chatter and gossip typical of elite gatherings. “I was educated at random,” More would say, and women’s education became one of her most passionate causes. More is hard to classify politically. It is possible to find passages in her novels, pamphlets, and letters that make her look like an arch conservative; others show her as a progressive reformer. Through selective citation she can be made to seem like an insufferable prude—Lord Byron dismissed her as “Morality’s prim personification”—but it is doubtful that a “prim personification” would have attracted the devotion and respect of men like Johnson, Walpole, and Wilberforce. More was a british patriot, a champion of constitutional monarchy, and a friend and admirer of Edmund Burke, but she was no defender of the status quo. She called for revolutionary change—not in politics, but in morals. In her novels and pamphlets, she sharply reproached members of the upper classes for their amorality, hedonism, indifference to the poor, and tolerance of the crime of slavery. In the many Sunday schools she established she encouraged the poor to be sober, thrifty, hard-working, and religious. More shared Adam Smith’s enthusiasm for the free market as a force for good. But for the market to thrive, she believed England’s poor and rich would need to develop good moral habits and virtuous characters.
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