Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Is family a valid feminist choice?

The remake of the film The Stepford Wives has just been released in Australia. In a review of the film in the Sydney Morning Herald, Miranda Devine complains that the film,

degenerates into just another lame attempt by Hollow-wood to pillory conservatives. It is saturated with such hostility for suburbia and family values ... Targeted for special malice are conservatives, suburbanites, stay-at-home mothers, attractive women, blondes, women who bake, rural folk, men who are faithful to their wives ...

... it was clearly intended as a sneering backlash against the new feminism, which involves women reclaiming marriage, motherhood, femininity and domesticity as valid feminist choices rather than some sort of betrayal of gender.

According to Miranda Devine the new feminists of recent years didn't "want their lives dominated by an ideology that demanded they suppress their maternal desires and demonise the nuclear family".

She finishes her review with an endorsement of feminism in general, by asserting that,

The secret of the new feminism is that, thanks to the sacrifices as well as the mistakes of their feminist forebears, women have the freedom to make the choice that suits them best.

Which raises an important question. Feminism does claim to be based on the idea that women should be free to exercise choice in their lives. Given that women have a natural desire to be wives and mothers, you might expect that most women would choose to live a traditional lifestyle.

So is Miranda Devine right? Is it possible to have a "new feminism" which permits the majority of women to reclaim marriage, motherhood, and femininity?

I don't believe so. There are a number of reasons why feminism will always be disruptive to traditional understandings of family and gender.

1) The logic of feminism is to act against gender

Feminism is liberalism applied to women and the family. The basic liberal idea is that to be fully human we must be free to create ourselves according to our individual will and reason.

As noted above, at one level this means a belief that the individual should be free to choose in any direction. Therefore, you might think that liberalism would leave women free to choose a traditional female identity and lifestyle.

But this isn't the case. In part, this is because of a contradiction or tension within the basic liberal principle. Liberals ask that we create ourselves according to our will and reason. But our sex is not determined by our will and reason, it's simply an accident of birth. Therefore, we aren't supposed to be influenced in any significant way by the fact of being born male or female.

This means "emancipating" ourselves from whatever seems connected to our manhood or womanhood, i.e. from traditional sex roles. In a liberal culture, it will seem "politically incorrect" for men and women to identify too closely with such sex roles, as this means following "biological destiny" rather than individual will and reason.

This explains why the feminist Zelda Cawthorne, in a recent article in the Herald Sun, finds the social trend toward marriage and motherhood so discouraging. She complains,

You can hardly open a magazine or flick on the telly without being confronted by a new generation of glowingly contented housewives and mothers ...

'Work?' they chorus, as they cuddle chubby-cheeked Ruby or Angus. 'Of course we work! Running a household is full-time work. If you mean going out to work, that's the role of the breadwinner. A woman's place is in the home.'

If feminism was just about free choice for women, then there would be no need for Zelda Cawthorne to be at all perturbed by the sight of women following a traditional sex role. But in fact she tells us that she found even a single TV show featuring such women to be "especially depressing".

And that's because the liberal principles on which feminism is based make traditional sex roles illegitimate. This is the first major reason why feminism will always tend to restrict women from choosing a more conservative lifestyle.

2) The logic of feminism is toward autonomy

Liberals don't want us to be impeded in following our own will. This means that we are supposed to remain autonomous, in the sense of retaining our independence to do what we want to do and to be what we want to be.

The problem is that a traditional lifestyle means sacrificing some of our independence in order to achieve the higher fulfilments of family life. When a woman commits to marriage and motherhood she is accepting a kind of interdependence with her husband, and she is agreeing to limit some of her lifestyle choices.

For this reason, it's difficult for a feminist to comfortably accept the idea of marriage and motherhood. It goes against the underlying liberal quest to maximise our individual autonomy.

That's why feminists are so keen on the ideal of the independent, single career girl. Young, ideological feminist women generally try to remain single career girls for as long as they can, as they maximise their autonomy in this way.

So once again, although feminism promises a free choice to women, the inner logic of feminist principles makes the traditional choice of marriage and motherhood less legitimate or "correct" than the choice of remaining an independent single career girl.

3) Reason & the emotions

There is, unfortunately, another problem with the inner logic of liberal principles. Liberals believe that we are made distinctively human by our ability to create ourselves through our own reason.

This belief raises a particular problem for women. After all, as a general rule women are more emotional than men. Women appear to act through the emotions, rather than through cold reason, to a greater degree than men.

But if this is true, then a liberal would have to conclude that women are somehow lower on the human scale than men, because they are affected more by the emotions than by reason.

In fact, this was the problem taken up by the very first book of "modern" feminism, the Vindication of the Rights of Women. Written by the Englishwoman Mary Wollstonecraft and published in 1792, the book begins with a basic statement of liberal belief:

In what does man's pre-eminence over the brute creation consist? The answer is as clear as that a half is less than the whole, in Reason.

Mary Wollstonecraft was not afraid to draw out the logic of this basic assertion. For her, the "susceptibility of heart" of women was a weakness which could only mean that women were,

treated as a kind of subordinate beings, and not as part of the human species, when improvable reason is allowed to be the dignified distinction which raises men above the brute creation.

Again, given the assumptions already made, Mary Wollstonecraft quite logically concludes that women ought to become more like men. She writes that she is aware of an "obvious inference" from her argument and that "From every quarter have I heard exclamations against masculine women", but that regardless of these objections if being masculine means attaining rational talents,

the exercise of which ennobles the human character, and which raises females in the scale of animal being .... all those who view them must, I should think, wish with me, that they [women] may every day grow more and more masculine.

Obviously, if a woman accepts that she is inferior unless she grows ever more masculine, she is unlikely to accept a traditional role as a wife and mother within a family.

It should be noted that some feminists of the 1970s and 80s reacted strongly against the argument made by Mary Wollstonecraft. They defiantly reversed the argument by claiming that male rationality itself was a negative and destructive force and that men ought to become more like women.

Even this reactive counterclaim doesn't help traditional women very much. It undermines the masculinity of their husbands and continues to place men and women in conflict with each other.

4) Relationships & power

A basic principle of liberalism is that we should do whatever we have a will to do, as long as it doesn't directly harm the life, liberty or property of others.

This means that society becomes, in effect, a collection of competing wills, each trying to enact its own particular desires.

One consequence of seeing society in this way is that relationships between people are easily understood in terms of a "will to power".

Furthermore, for left liberals individuals can achieve a dominance of will over others through membership of privileged social groupings. For instance, a ruling class might dominate a working class, or one ethnic group might dominate another.

Left liberals believe that it is a major task of politics to overcome such inequality of will. This is understandable as within their philosophy it is a free expression of will and reason which defines our very humanity.

This logical progression of liberal thought has very negative repercussions for traditional family life. Liberals are led to interpret the relationships between men and women in bad faith as a will to power of men over women. For liberals, and hence for feminists, what is important is that women attain greater power, in the form of money and status, in order to achieve "social equality".

Realistically, this can only occur if women can be persuaded to compete with men in terms of careers. Achieving this goal means discouraging women from committing themselves, in a traditional way, to marriage and motherhood.

This is yet another reason why feminism, despite claiming to favour individual choice, in reality discourages women from freely choosing a traditional role within the family.

(Note too that this aspect of feminism, of interpreting relationships in terms of a will to power, also generates the idea of a perpetual sex war, in which men and women are inevitably in competition for power or suffering discrimination and victimisation. This too can only inhibit women from committing to a traditional, interdependent family life.)

Root and branch rejection

Feminism, therefore, does not allow women to freely choose a traditional role within the family as wives and mothers.

This is because feminism, based as it is on liberal principles, wants women to be self-created by will and reason and therefore rejects the influence of gender, including traditional sex roles; because the logic of feminism is to favour independence and autonomy rather than interdependence within a family; because feminism devalues the feminine emotions which are at the heart of marriage and motherhood; and because feminism interprets relationships in terms of a will to power, in which women can only achieve social equality through career status and earnings.

It's therefore misleading for Miranda Devine to thank feminism for creating choices for women, including the choice to be a traditional wife and mother. Feminism is always likely to try to close down this choice.

That's certainly what the leading post-War feminist, Simone de Beauvoir, wanted to do. She famously asserted that women shouldn't be allowed a choice to stay at home as a wife and mother because it was a choice that too many women would make.

Miranda Devine might also like to look at the example of the most "progressive" of liberal countries, such as Sweden and Denmark. In these countries, there is no longer much of a choice for women to opt out of the workforce to care for their families. The welfare, childcare and taxation systems of these countries are based on the idea of a two income family. It's been made less economically viable for women to choose to stay at home.

What's really needed is a root and branch rejection of not only feminism, but the liberal principles on which feminism is based. This is the only way to secure a long term future for the traditional family.

(First published at Conservative Central, 18/07/2004)

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