Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The feminism which ends in tears

Virginia Haussegger is becoming well-known in Australia as a feminist critic of feminism.

She already had a public profile as a TV journalist when she wrote an explosive newspaper article in 2002, The sins of our feminist mothers.

In this article she describes how her generation of women was brought up to believe “We could be and do whatever we pleased”. This is the basic principle of liberalism: that we should be “free” to create who we are and what we do through our own individual choices.

At first things seemed to go well. She writes of a generation of women who “crashed through barriers and carved out good, successful and even some brilliant careers.”

But the story ends unhappily. The feminist mothers forgot “to warn us that we would need to stop, take time out and learn to nurture our partnerships and relationships.”

Virginia Haussegger describes very well the incompetent attitude to relationships of women brought up in a culture of liberal individualism:

For those of us that did marry, marriage was perhaps akin to an accessory. And in our high-disposable-income lives, accessories pass their use-by date, and are thoughtlessly tossed aside. Frankly, the dominant message was to not let our man, or any man for that matter, get in the way of career and our own personal progress.

Nor did the feminist mothers warn their daughters of the biological clock, so that:

We are the ones, now in our late 30s and early 40s, who are suddenly sitting before a sheepish doctor listening to the words:

“Well, I’m sorry, but you may have left your run too late. Women at your age find it very difficult to get pregnant naturally ...”

For Virginia Haussegger the end result is that,

here we are, supposedly “having it all” as we edge 40; excellent education; good qualifications; great jobs; fast-moving careers; good incomes ... It’s a nice caffe-latte kind of life, really.

But the truth is – for me at least – the career is no longer a challenge, the lifestyle trappings are joyless ... and the point of it all seems, well, pointless.

I am childless and I am angry. Angry that I was so foolish to take the word of my feminist mothers as gospel. Angry that I was daft enough to believe female fulfilment came with a leather briefcase.

It was wrong. It was crap.

Of course, Virginia Haussegger received a bucketing from the sisterhood for her bold complaints. She has, though, held firm in making criticisms of feminism, even publishing a book this month, Wonder Woman, in which she declares feminism to be “an inadequate structure from which to build a life.”

I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how far she goes in really challenging feminism. Not too far, I expect, as this would require a radical rethinking of the way things are valued in a liberal society.

Is the important thing in life, as liberals claim, establishing an unimpeded individual choice? If yes, then women who break down traditional restrictions on their choices, for instance by “breaking through” career barriers, really are the feminist heroines they are made out to be.

But what if this assumption is wrong? What if the important thing is to fulfil the better and deeper parts of our own inborn natures? Then the task would not be to break through traditional stereotypes but to create the best conditions in which we could fulfil our masculine or feminine natures – for instance, by protecting the conditions in which women could express and experience marital and maternal love.

Virginia Haussegger is trying to warn us that even when the liberal option is undertaken most successfully, even when we create the greatest level of individual autonomy, in which our individual choices are least impeded, all we get is a pleasant and comfortable, but barren and pointless existence.

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