For liberals, the answer is the exercise of our individual will and reason, leading on to our individual autonomy (our "independence").
No doubt, this answer sounds appealing. But it has unfortunate consequences. It means that much of human life has to be rejected. For example, the inborn part of human nature is no longer allowed any authority, as it has not been chosen by our individual will or reason.
This includes the influence of our own sex, which is of course inherited rather than self-willed. For a consistent liberal there is no "dignity" in a man pursuing the masculine virtues, as his manhood is not a product of his own reason. Consistent liberals prefer the ideal of genderless human conduct or even role reversal, as this shows a personal liberation from the influence of gender.
Similarly, the liberal ideal makes it difficult for women to commit to love and family. As long ago as 1792 the radical liberal Mary Wollstonecraft argued that love, as a capricious emotion, was a degrading commitment for a woman compared to a life based on reason. In her book Vindication of the Rights of Woman she criticised marital love by noting that,
Love is, in a great degree, an arbitrary passion, and will reign, like some other stalking mischiefs, by its own authority, without deigning to reason ...
It's not surprising that Mary Wollstonecraft also argued against the influence of gender, writing that,
A wild wish has just flown from my heart to my head, and I will not stifle it, though it may excite a horse-laugh. I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society ... For this distinction ... accounts for their [women] preferring the graceful before the heroic virtues.
Mary Wollstonecraft didn't live to see these principles enacted in society. However, by the 1850s such principles were becoming a part of public policy and even of public culture.
The name we give to liberalism when it's applied to women and the family is feminism. The first great wave of feminism began in about the 1850s and finally exhausted itself in the late 1940s. It was so dominant that few dared to oppose it; one exception was an Englishwoman called Eliza Linton.
Linton herself began life as something of a feminist. With the financial aid of her father she became the first full-time female staff journalist in England. However, she came to strongly oppose feminism when she noted that women were following the call of Mary Wollstonecraft and rejecting the "graceful virtues."
For instance, in 1855 she criticised the emerging "lurcher woman" who "goes about the business of life in a rough, gruff, lurcher-like fashion, as if grace and beauty were the two cardinal sins of womanhood, and she were on a mission to put them down."
She also voiced criticisms of Lady Monson, a lesbian supporter of the women's movement in the 1850s, whom she described as an "uncompromising man-hater."
In the 1860s she addressed feminists as "you of the emancipated who imitate while you profess to hate". She wanted it made clear that she did not oppose women in general but "only the bad copies of men who have thrown off all womanly charm ... only of the fast, the immodest, the egotistical, the self-assertive, the unwomanly am I the bitter and uncompromising enemy."
By the 1870s she was writing of feminism as being "One of the modern phases of womanhood - hard, unloving, mercenary, ambitious, without domestic faculty and devoid of healthy natural instincts - it is still to me a pitiable mistake and a grave national disaster." She followed on by writing the highly significant insight that,
I think now, as I thought then, that the sphere of human action is determined by the fact of sex, and that there does exist both natural limitation and natural direction.
This is one of the clearest statements of historical conservatism that I have come across. It is a statement which would strongly offend a liberal as it denies that we as individuals are free to act in any direction according to our own individual will and reason. Instead, Eliza Linton asserts that our nature as men or women both limits and gives direction to our behaviour.
Eliza Linton was highly perceptive in some of her social commentary. She realised early on that "with the increased masculinity of women must necessarily come about the comparative effeminacy of men." She also recognised that the relaxation of divorce laws would not, as was expected, lead to a surge of men divorcing their wives but vice versa,
The restrictions on divorce are theoretically held as so many safeguards for women against the fugitive passions of men. In reality they are safeguards against her own irritable nerves and sensitive personality.
Eliza was very isolated as an opponent of nineteenth century feminism, and inevitably her opposition had little effect. The new feminist orthodoxy is reflected in the comments of a Girton College girl who, in 1889, proclaimed that,
We are no longer mere parts - excrescences, so to speak, of a family ... One may develop as an individual and independent unit.
This is a neat expression of liberal individualism: a woman's identity is no longer to be tied together with her role as a wife or mother within a family, but is to be pursued more as an atomised individual.
Historically, it didn't work because it didn't satisfy. By the late 1940s there were many women who had experienced lonely and unfulfilled independence, and who wished for a return to family life. (Also, after 1945 there was less pressure to pull women out of the family and into the workforce given the large number of servicemen returning from WWII.)
The underlying liberal principles remained, though, so it's not surprising that a second wave of feminism was initiated in the 1970s, with many similar features to that of the first wave.
The important thing for conservatives, if we wish to avoid a constant repetition of feminist cycles, is to replace the underlying liberal principle with a conservative one.
This means upholding the dignity to human life of forms of human identity and forms of human connectedness, even when these are not created by individual will or reason.
This would mean, for instance, that marital love could be viewed as one of the special expressions of human connectedness which adds dignity and meaning to human life, rather than the merely capricious, anti-rational emotion described by Mary Wollstonecraft.
Similarly the feminine graces could be openly admired as an expression of womanhood. There would no longer be a need to reject gender as an impediment to individual will and reason.
(First published at Conservative Central 06/09/2003)