Sunday, December 08, 2019

Can feminism be reformed?

PragerU, a classical liberal website, has published a video on feminism. The argument made in the video is that feminism has done great harm to society but only because it has veered away from its founding, liberal principles. Therefore, a new feminism is needed which returns to these principles.

Although I find it encouraging that a right-liberal organisation is so clearly acknowledging the damage done by feminism, it's not difficult to show that the larger argument is wrong and that modern day feminism is a logical development of those foundational liberal principles. Returning to them is just starting over and repeating the process. What's needed instead is a rethink of those early liberal principles.

Here is the video itself:

Tammy Bruce, herself once a leading feminist activist, sets out the first principles when she says:
Dignity is at the core of what feminism should always be about. Dignity means that a woman should always be able to freely choose her own path in life.

Liberalism was an attempt to create a post-Christian philosophy for the West. It argued that human dignity rested on man's ability to live according to self-determining choice, i.e. on his autonomy. Feminism applied the same principle to the lives of women.

Tammy Bruce believes that modern feminism has betrayed this principle. Her complaint is that:
Feminism has downplayed the desire for women to have a family and hyped the rewards of career and casual sex.

She goes on to complain about modern sexual mores as witnessed in music videos and the hookup culture.

However, if the aim is dignity, and dignity means always being able to choose freely what we do, then it is logical that women will reject traditional family roles of being a wife and mother and focus instead on careers. It is also logical that sexual mores will become increasingly libertine.

Let's start with sexuality. I wrote a post some months ago on the popular singer Cardi B. She made a music video showing a dozen or so women twerking - the kind of thing Tammy Bruce is complaining about. One woman on social media did criticise Cardi B for doing this. Cardi B defended her video on the grounds that,
It says to women that I can wear and not wear whatever I want. Do whatever I want and that NO still means NO.

She is defending her twerking video based on the very liberal principle that Tammy Bruce wants to base a "reformed" feminism on, namely that it displays women choosing for themselves as an act of empowerment.

A legion of other women chimed in as well to defend the video for much the same reason. A selection:
Leah: It's because we're free to do what we want with our bodies.

Fatimata: It shows that women can do whatever they want with their bodies...Encouraging women to be themselves and act as they please...

The Hoarse Whisperer: You seem troubled by women having autonomy over what they choose to do with their bodies...

Ahkweah: It shows that as women we can do whatever we want.

The mistake is to see dignity not as a quality in itself to be upheld as a matter of character but as something we gain as through the act of choosing or through self-defining our own good.

This is a debate that goes back quite some way within Western culture. I wrote another post earlier this year about a pamphlet published in 1620 on the topic of transvestism. In the pamphlet there is a woman who chooses to dress like a man and she initially defends this choice on the basis that it represents a genuine freedom. In her mind we are not free if we are subject to any "restraint from those actions which the mind of its own accord doth most willingly desire".

Yes, it's old-fashioned language but it's the same argument being put forward by the followers of Cardi B.

Her opponent in the debate rejects the notion that freedom is a liberty to choose as we please, as this encourages "unbridled appetite" and a "wilfull liberty to do evil":
...what basest bondage, or what more servile baseness, than for the flattering and soothing of an un-bridled appetite, or delight, to take a wilfull liberty to do evil, and to give evil example? This is to be Hells Prentice, not Heaven’s Free-woman.

There was a pre-liberal understanding in the West that we achieved dignity not by asserting our power to choose as we pleased, but by rejecting the baser aspects of our nature in favour of the nobler ones. The debate ends with the male character declaring:
From henceforth deformity shall pack to Hell...we will live nobly like ourselves...ever worthy: true men and true women.

Let me reiterate the basic point I am making here. If what matters is dignity, and dignity is based on a freedom to choose as we will, then you are going to end up in the long run with Cardi B, because that is what the "I will not be restrained or limited in what I choose to do" looks like. If you prefer a culture that has some level of modesty attached to it, then you need something besides the liberal definition of dignity to support it.

And what about women being wives and mothers? At one level, this sounds like it fits the liberal principle logically. If it's about dignity to choose, then why shouldn't some women choose to prioritise family over career?

But there's a catch. If what matters is my own autonomous choice, then I should, as a matter of principle, choose to do things that maximise this choice. And being a wife and mother fails this test. First, it is based on a predetermined gender role, i.e. on an aspect of self that is not self-determined. Second, it is not uniquely chosen but is based on a biological aspect of human nature that is shared by all women. Third, it is based on a notion of interdependent, complementary roles within the family, rather than on independent and individual self-achievement. Fourth, because stable, lifelong commitments place restrictions on who we might choose to live with.

For all these reasons, feminist theorists have often looked down on women choosing to prioritise family. Many have gone so far as to denounce the family as a patriarchal construct that oppresses women. And those who have accepted the family often want to reconstruct it so that it allows for female autonomy, for instance, by delaying family formation; or by having gender neutral roles within the family; or by outsourcing the traditional maternal role to the state; or by having easy divorce laws that favour women.

So you cannot uphold the family on the principle that human dignity rests upon a freedom of autonomous choice. Instead, you have to reassert the idea that we bring our own natures as men and women to fulfilment, in part, through participating in the offices of being a husband/father or a wife/mother, or that we express the principle of sacrificial love through what we give of ourselves to our families as husbands/fathers and wives/ mothers, or that we uphold the common good for ourselves and our progeny through the transmission of our own distinct culture, tradition and lineage through our willingness to uphold a culture of family life.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that some of the failings of modern feminism that Tammy Bruce criticises were in evidence from the very start of first wave feminism. It was not unusual for the leading figures of first wave feminism to believe that free love should replace marriage, or that the distinctions between men and women should be dissolved, or that women should prioritise independence via career rather than marriage and motherhood. First wave feminists were also criticised for hating men whilst nonetheless copying them, just as modern feminists are.

I can't give a complete account of this in a single post, but one general point I'll make is that once intellectuals accepted the liberal principle that they should not be subject to the will of another, only their own, they rapidly drew the conclusion that there should be a levelling of society, in which distinctions between people were abolished, so that there was something like an equality of sameness. It was thought to be "bigotry" for distinctions to matter.

Here, for instance, is a founding theorist of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, wanting women to become more man-like:
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.

Wollstonecraft was a believer in free love, travelled to Paris during the French Revolution in the 1790s and had a love child there with an American businessman (though when he abandoned her she tried to drown herself in a river).

Wollstonecraft later had another child, Mary, with William Godwin - himself a believer in free love. This child ran away at age 16 to live with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley too wanted to abolish sex distinctions in society. He wrote in 1811:
...these detestable distinctions will surely be abolished in a future state of being

Shelley was also a free love enthusiast who abandoned his first wife Harriet when she was pregnant with their second child. Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine River. Shelley's reasons for opposing marriage are exactly the liberal ones you would expect:
That which will result from the abolition of marriage will be natural and right; because choice and change will be exempted from restraint.

If we jump forward to 1837 we have the early American feminist Sarah Grimke also complaining about the existence of sex distinctions:
We approach each other, and mingle with each other, under the constant pressure of a feeling that we are of different sexes...the mind is fettered by the idea which is early and industriously infused into it, that we must never forget the distinction between male and female...Nothing, I believe, has tended more to destroy the true dignity of woman, than the fact that she is approached by man in the character of a female.

... Until our intercourse is purified by the forgetfulness of sex...we never can derive that benefit from each other's society...

John Stuart Mill was an influential first-wave feminist. In 1833 he theorised that higher character was androgynous rather than distinctly masculine and feminine: there really any distinction between the highest masculine and the highest feminine character?

In the 1860s, Eliza Linton addressed the feminists of her era as "you of the emancipated who imitate while you profess to hate" and as the "bad copies of men who have thrown off all womanly charm".

In 1889 a student of Girton College, a feminist college at Cambridge established in 1869, summed up the spirit of her education as follows:
We are no longer mere parts - excrescences, so to speak, of a family ... One may develop as an individual and independent unit.

Here you have the idea that what matters is developing as an independent individual rather than as an interdependent member of a family. Note the negative terminology applied to family roles: "mere parts - excrescences".

By the early twentieth century the radical wing of first wave feminism was just as extreme as that of today. Alexandra Kollontai, for instance, grew up understanding feminism to mean:
That I ought not to shape my life according to the given model ... I could help my sisters shape their lives, in accordance not with the given traditions but with their own free choice ... I wanted to be free. I wanted to express desires on my own, to shape my own little life.

Therefore, as you might predict, she disliked the idea of sex distinctions, wanting them to be levelled away. She gave public lectures in which she prophesied that even the physical differences between men and women would, as a matter of progress, dissolve. A record of one lecture recounts how she,
...longs for the female body itself to become less soft and curvy and more muscular ... She argues that prehistoric women were physiologically less distinct from men ... Accordingly, sexual dimorphism may (and should) again become less visible...

She even thought that love itself should be subordinated to the objective of individual autonomy:
this motive was a leading force in my life ... to shape my personal, intimate life as a woman according to my own will ... Above all, I never let my feelings, the joy or pain of love take the first place in my life...

We are stuck in a loop. We adopt an inadequate principle for our society, it does damage, we retreat a little but still keep to the principle and then we suffer another wave of harm. At some point in time we need to reconsider the underlying principle itself, the one that keeps setting us down the wrong path.

A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

For my people

I don't often get to review a book of poetry, so it's a pleasure to announce the publication this year of the first collection of poetry by Nathaniel Lucas titled For My People.

The poems vary in their content: a few touch on politics, others religion, women and nature. Most are reflections or musings touching on some part of the life of the poet, often a memory of a a past event, person or place.

My one criticism of the poetry was going to be that some of the poems are difficult to get inside of (that it's difficult to follow some of the references). However, I got into the habit of reading the poems a few at a time, when I was in the right frame of mind, and I came to enjoy the texture of each poem. Like a good film, you get drawn into a particular way of seeing or experiencing reality.

I'm grateful to have been pulled back into reading poetry, particularly contemporary poetry, and I look forward to a future collection.

As this is a political site, I'll mention two of the more overtly political poems. One,"The Tale of Boomer and Chen," is bitingly humorous and upfront in its social commentary. I heard it read aloud recently to a very appreciative audience.

The other is the poem from which the title of the volume derives, "For My People". Here are the first two stanzas:
For my people,
everywhere singing
their slave songs,
their despair songs, self-hate
songs, for those who
don't know they are
singing another's song.

For those who have never heard of prayer
who believe all transcendence Eastern.
For my brothers who would
disdain my brotherhood.

And the final stanza:
For my people who are all of this,
for those who find out who they are
let a people loving grace
barrel out of sweated suburbs,
blast floodlights out of shoebox
apartments, send bonfires up
from vast estates of wool and beef,
so all will know, though it won't be said,
let the rule of thirds return to rule.
let brother sing in truth once more.

I hope you find from reading this, as I did, that there is much ability to encourage here. You can purchase For My People very reasonably in both print and electronic versions here.