Capitol Ideas

From ‘Happily Ever After’ to the Fall

The costs of the women's movement and the sexual revolution are coming due.

By From the June 2012 issue

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What a strange thing the “women’s movement” is. Often it seems to work against the interest of women. I heard the Independent Women’s Forum was meeting, so perhaps they could shed some light. (The IWF was launched when a group of ladies rallied to the defense of then-beleaguered Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.) When I asked someone what the Independent Women’s Forum is independent of, she said: “the women’s movement.” That was good enough for me, and I promised her anonymity.

The main speaker, Elizabeth Kantor, has just published The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After (Regnery Publishing). The idea is that Jane Austen’s characters and stories can illuminate the modern conflict between the sexes. Men and women may well be unequally affected by today’s ongoing sexual revolution, and Mrs. Kantor looked at it from the distaff side.

“When it comes to men, sex, and marriage, women are settling for less than they want,” she said. It’s “relationships” that make for happiness, not independence, equal pay, or high-powered jobs. I’m sure she’s right about that. She warned against the error of seeking out the drama and romantic “soul mates” that tempted some of Jane Austen’s heroines, and she said many other good things.

I enjoyed the forum, but the problem is that when it comes to Jane Austen, I find it hard to keep my Bennets, Bingleys, and Dashwoods straight. I also agree with my fellow TAS columnist Jim Bowman, who was on the panel and made some sensible comments. The difficulty that college-educated or professional women have in finding suitable husbands today, he said later, is “rather different from anything the women of Jane Austen’s day had to cope with.”

Jane Austen, who died at the age of 41 nearly 200 years ago, would surely be horrified if she were to return and see the sexual chaos that prevails among young people today. Contributing to the problem is the strangely myopic condition of the modern feminist movement, which seems to have made things worse.

At least three bad things have happened. First, the old restraint against divorce was overridden. A vow before God was reduced to a contract. Mrs. Kantor told me that before the Divorce Act of 1857, divorce in England could be obtained only by an Act of Parliament, and only the rich could afford that. Marriage therefore was final, imposing on an Austen heroine a burden of prudent inquiry into the character of a potential suitor. That inquiry unfolds in the course of the novel.

Second came the technology of contraception. “The pill” arrived 50 years ago, working (as I believe) to the considerable disadvantage of women. Not long after the pill, abortion was legalized. It still comes as a shock to realize that today’s feminists overwhelmingly support abortion.

The widespread acceptance of these three “social issues” has accompanied, and at the same time has helped to accelerate, the decline of Christianity in the Western world.

I have long wondered about the rage that infuses the women’s movement, and maybe the reason is not hard to find. First, sex involves a stark inequality: for the man it is brief and pleasurable. For the woman (if it leads to pregnancy) the consequences can be long-lasting, painful, and life-altering. Before the pill, a woman could resist sexual advances by appealing to their consequences (for her). Men understood that. After the pill—and I’m old enough to remember when it came in—men could say, “Well, can’t you go on the pill?”

Many a young woman accepted that proposition, perhaps after seeking reassurance that the man would still love her “in the morning.” So the pill effectively weakened a key argument against men whose primary goal was to have sex. Further, a good many men proceeded to betray the women they had inveigled into bed. They didn’t love them in the morning. Instead, they moved on to the next “conquest.” It was the Gloria Steinem generation that was affected, and hurt. The “women’s liberation movement” arose in response, beginning in about 1970. Not surprisingly, it was infused with a good deal of rage—against men.

I have no statistics, but I have no doubt that over-whelmingly it was men who, in this way, launched the pill-enabled sexual revolution. Notice also that the men who seized this opportunity for themselves rebelled against or ignored any Christian teaching they may have received. For whether contraception was available or not, pre-marital sex was contrary to their religion. It was sinful.

Charles J. Chaput, now the Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia, observed in 1998: “Contraception has released males—to a historically unprece-dented degree—from responsibility for their sexual aggression.”

The next development was that the contraceptives often failed and women found themselves with child—and without husband. Abortion, therefore, was not far behind—not just as something legal but as a constitutional right. So in response to the initial male revolt against traditional morality, both women and men compounded the error and embraced the horror of abortion.

A hundred years ago, early feminists opposed abortion. Today? NOW favors “reproductive rights,” to use the latest euphemism. But what so many of us have forgotten is that the old Christian prohibitions against divorce, contraception, and abortion worked to protect women (just as the old injunction against women in combat worked to their advantage, too).

THE CUMULATIVE EFFECT has been to plunge us ever deeper into the sexual revolution. There’s a brave pretense that sexual equality is an achievable goal, and not just equality in the office. So we have same-sex college dorms and a culture of “hooking up.” We have date-rape codes and an ever-increasing wariness between the sexes of a marriageable age. The connection between sexual intercourse and procreation has been rendered voluntary.

We are so immersed in this that we can hardly see how revolutionary it is. A recent book that addresses the subject persuasively is Mary Eberstadt’s Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution (Ignatius Press). She sees the gravity of the situation, for both men and women. Among other things she points out that Pope Paul VI’s unpopular encyclical, Humanae Vitae (1968), opposing contraception, has been borne out in every particular.

There’s also a parallel with the Communist revolution. “Incredible as it may seem in retrospect,” Eberstadt writes, the moral facts of the Cold War “remained disputed at the highest intellectual levels, especially on American campuses, until about two seconds before the Berlin Wall came down.” Now we have another world-changing force, the “destigmatization and demystification of nonmarital sex and the reduction of sexual relations to a kind of hygienic recreation in which anything goes so long as those involved are consenting adults.” It’s defended in liberal circles as fervently as Lenin defended Communism.

The Communist revolution was Russian, but the sexual revolution (I regret to say) is authentically American—from divorce in Las Vegas to Roe v. Wade in Washington. It will be defended to the death by liberal organs like the New York Times.

Mrs. Eberstadt skirts one issue that is likely to provoke a reappraisal—population decline in the developed world. It surely has been a consequence, and a desired consequence, of the sexual revolution. I believe its impact is already being felt in Europe. Populations top-heavy with old people will not be able to sustain income-transfer programs (from workers to retirees). Young people beware. Anyway, we will be hearing a great deal about this in the years ahead.

Well, I seem to have strayed far afield—from Jane Austen to Las Vegas; from the premarital courting rituals in Regency England to the disruptions of the sexual revolution today. If you want to delve further into both, I heartily recommend both Elizabeth Kantor’s Happily Ever After and Mary Eberstadt’s Adam and Eve After the Pill.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).