Take a recent article by Laura Kipnis, an American professor of media studies. It was introduced by the following subtitle:
In our post-feminist Western world, women are supposed to be able to have it all. So why are so many dissatisfied?
What answer does she give? Ordinarily, a feminist would blame the patriarchy. The usual argument runs as follows: the primary aim of life is autonomy; men have established a patriarchy to dominate women; women are therefore oppressed by a social system in which men are autonomous but women are dependent; the pursuit of justice, freedom and equality therefore requires women to become independent of men, especially through the pursuit of careers.
Kipnis is strongly influenced by this orthodox view:
For the first time in history, women are relatively free from traditional fetters. No longer is womanhood synonymous with motherhood for those who don't so choose.
... with more control over maternity, record numbers of women are now participating in the workforce, meaning that womanhood is no longer synonymous with dependency. In fact, women can now be entirely free from men should they so choose.
The problem is that women still don't seem liberated. Kipnis thinks that modern women feel such a lack of control and sense of inadequacy that a whole self-help industry has sprung up to tell women how to live their lives.
This is where it gets particularly interesting. Kipnis believes that feminism has hit a brick wall because of a conflict between the goal of feminism (autonomy) and the "inner woman" (femininity):
Feminism ("Don't call me darling, idiot") and femininity ("I just found the perfect push-up bra") are in a big catfight, nowhere more than within each individual female psyche ... Gender barriers have largely crumbled, and women have increasing economic independence from men if they choose it. But one keeps stumbling across a certain ambivalence, an ambivalence among women themselves.
Which is why being female at this point in history seems an especially conflicted enterprise ... Which one should it be? The Feisty Feminist or the Eternal Feminine?
Kipnis herself would prefer to see the feisty feminist triumph. She recognises, though, that feminists underestimated the stubborn desire of the "inner woman" to live in relationship with a man:
Yet it turns out there are rather obdurate female longings with regard to dependency on men, despite pronouncements to the contrary - women need men like fish need bicycles - back in the heady years of the second wave. It turns out that fish are devoted cyclists. Indeed, the problem these days is that the bicycles seem to be fleeing the fish.
Which turns relationships into an "agonised business" for many women:
... we're facing a disastrous resource shortage .... single heterosexual men wishing to couple on a long-term basis. It's not just that demand exceeds supply but also that the majority of single men are - according to field reports from those who've hazarded dating them - "relationship challenged", in flight from commitment, their true feelings, real women.
Thus it falls to the intimacy seeking female to blockade the escape routes and lure those men out of ambivalence and into domesticity.
Kipnis finishes by again emphasising that the "inner woman" is the stumbling block for feminism:
So if something remains a little obdurate about female inequality after the past 40 years or so, it's because feminism came up against an unanticipated opponent: the inner woman ...
Feminism, once construed as a liberation movement, has somehow ended up producing more dichotomies and more impasses ...
So where is feminism supposed to go from here? Is it supposed to wage war on the inner woman in order to achieve its political goals?
The easier option is to drop the underlying assumption that autonomy is the overriding good in life. If autonomy is seen to be one good amongst many, then it can be left to individuals and communities to find a balance between it and other goods.
Finding the right measure is a much less conflicted option than seeking absolute autonomy and being caught between this political aim and your own "obdurate" inner self.