Sunday, November 05, 2006

What makes a feminist?

Obviously we are living in a feminist age. But why do we have feminists at all? What brought them about?

The answer, I believe, is given in a speech made by Iona Campagnolo on International Women's Day. Ms Campagnolo is the Lieutenant Governor, or Queen's representative, of British Columbia in Canada.

The interesting part of Ms Campagnolo's speech was her confession of why she became a feminist and what she thought feminism was ultimately all about. She said,

My mother is the one who taught me long, long ago, that I had no limits other than those I imposed on myself and that I was a free and an autonomous woman, capable of choosing my own path in life.

What is striking about this comment is its close connection to liberal first principles. Liberals believe that to be fully human we must be autonomous, self-directing individuals. That's why liberals stress the idea of our independence and our freedom to act as we choose.

Feminism is what happens when you apply liberal first principles to the lives of women. When the inevitable happens, and liberalism is applied to women, it becomes perfectly logical for a thinking woman like Ms Campagnolo to declare that,

I confess myself to being a proud feminist and throughout my life have used this definition of 'feminism', first published in the Athaneum Magazine at Oxford University in 1898: it says, "a Feminist is a woman or girl who has within herself the courage to fight her way to independence."

Self-governing women are the ones who can make their own choices about their own lives and be autonomous in seeking their own passions and their best and highest value-selves.

This is very clearly a statement of liberal first principles as applied to women. Note the emphasis placed on independence, autonomy, individual self-government, and on a freedom to make our own choices about our own lives.

And what does this connection between feminism and liberalism mean? Firstly, it's hard to fault women like Ms Campagnolo for being feminists. If we men insist on following liberalism as a first principle, then feminism will almost inevitably follow. Feminists are only logically applying the orthodox philosophy of the West to their own lives.

Secondly, the feminism of Ms Campagnolo suffers from the same inadequacies as liberalism in general. She says that she wants women to be "autonomous in seeking their own passions and their best and highest value-selves."

This sounds nice. And conservatives have no problem with people seeking their best and highest selves. The problem is that the inner logic of liberal individualism prevents us from doing so.

Why? Look at what it means for a woman to achieve autonomy and to have no limits to her individual will. It means, firstly, that women cannot aim to achieve the best of who they are through anything determined by their own sex. This is because we don't choose our sex; therefore, for a liberal, the influence of our sex on our lives is something to be overthrown.

A consistent feminist, therefore, will downgrade the importance of traditional notions of what is feminine. She is unlikely to accept the relevance of feminine virtues, or of a feminine role within the family. She won't be able to connect anything to do specifically with womanhood to her "best and highest self".

Similarly, a feminist won't like the idea of firm commitments to family life, as these represent a fixed obligation which limits our freedom to do what we choose at any time. A feminist is therefore likely to resist maternal obligations, or even a stable commitment to marriage. At the very least, these aspects of life won't figure largely in a feminist's efforts to achieve her "best and highest self".

So what can a feminist pursue, as an autonomous individual, in order to achieve her best and highest self? Usually, it is assumed that such things as money, career and social status are what a "liberated" woman will aim for.

But it is very limiting for a woman to define herself by such accomplishments. It is ironic that a philosophy which promises no limits, should in practice be so restrictive, but that's how it logically unfolds.

Most women end up with a very uncertain attachment to feminism, because they can't confine themselves to what a liberal philosophy allows. They can't define themselves solely by career status or money. They find that they do want a specifically feminine identity, and that a good marriage and motherhood are important achievements in their lives.

It would be less confusing for all of us if women could more openly accept that autonomy and independence are not the primary aims of life, and that in pursuing them as a first principle, much of what is important is lost.

But such a change of attitude not only requires women to reject feminism, it also requires men to reject the underlying philosophy of liberalism, on which feminism is ultimately based.

(First published at Conservative Central, 04/04/2004)

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