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Feminism: Left and Right

April 25, 2012

Attempts to compare left- and right-wing strains of feminism will encounter the collective ambivalence Americans feel about the effects of the sexual revolution and the women’s movement. While Third Wave feminist discourse (which is what most of liberal feminism claims to participate in) generally rejects the value of a universal feminine ideal or essence, a substantial portion of the population actively – through politics and religion, in the name of morality – resists this new paradigm that no longer designates women (or female bodies, if you like) a unique societal role. They reject the liberal vision of males and females becoming basically interchangeable in family life, politics, business, or some combination of these arenas. The issue of same-sex marriage captures in sharp relief the “evolving” attitude Americans have toward gender neutrality in family life and sexual relations.

Social conservatives are not, of course, openly against equal pay, equal opportunity, and equal rights for women. The most pronounced political tension today related to “women’s issues” surrounds abortion and to a lesser extent birth control, which are matters unique to women and do not directly stem from an ideal of equality with men. It remains typical of “modern” or Third wave feminism to regard the abortion debate as mostly settled in favor of the pro-choice position, with perhaps some disagreement in the case of partial-birth abortion. Yet America at large remains split on the issue.

A liberal argument might hold that the pro-life view persists due to conservative anxiety over losing the ideal of a self-sacrificing mother-wife and replacing it with an ideal of a woman with power over both her body and societal role. In response, the pro-life camp might defend their position as grounded in resistance to what they view as a presently corrupt moral order in the “sexual realm”, to use Rick Santorum’s words, where sex itself has surpassed in value the “life” it can create. The pro-life position thus sometimes seems to reduce the choice of having a child to a no-brainer in the name of a religious or moral conviction, instead of openly recognizing the magnitude of the task that is child-rearing. Unfortunately for women, of course, their bodies are the battlefield of this persistent culture war, creating the illusion that abortion is a textbook feminist issue.

Unlike “equal” rights for women, the case for unrestricted abortion rights eludes a bipartisan feminist endorsement precisely because of one of the tenets of Third Wave feminism: there is no universal feminine experience or perspective, and so liberal, pro-choice feminists ought to tread carefully in their accusations of pro-life women as distinctly non- or anti-feminist. It is more helpful to frame the debate in terms of social conservatism and social liberalism. Despite the recent uproar surrounding the Republican “war on women”, “women’s issues” are not as incendiary to voters (male or female) as we might have expected, given how piggish and tone-deaf some of the right-wing gaffes have been this campaign season.

When conservatives shame women who have gotten abortions (or who just want their insurance to cover birth control) by arguing they have selfishly and unjustifiably escaped motherhood, their disdain comes through as directed at women’s liberation in general, just not on the level of “equality”; instead they mean to express a broader concern for family structure which they think was severely disrupted by the feminist ideals promoted in the sexual revolution. Yet at the same time it would be political suicide to actually champion a complete reversal of the accomplishments of the women’s movement. Conservatives are not necessarily on the fence about whether a woman can do a “man’s job” in the public sphere (though there are certainly exceptions to this); instead they seem to fret over who is going to do a woman’s job now that we’ve given her approval and encouragement to opt out of an insular, domestic life.

Conservative nostalgia (à la Rick Santorum’s 2005 book “It Takes A Family”, where he bemoans the modern creed that women can lead fulfilling lives outside the home) for traditional gender roles would not do well on the national stage in 2012, at least not unless it is sufficiently masked as the general advocacy of family life. The Romney campaign, for instance, has responded with “Moms Drive the Economy” bumper stickers, to left-wing pundit Hilary Rosen’s insulting remark that Ann Romney has “never worked a day in her life”. Rosen’s comment came at a convenient moment for the Republican campaign, which has allegedly needed a way to connect with female voters. The bumper sticker itself does not say much of substance. Instead it functions to link and monopolize two things for the Republicans, motherhood and money, that concern women but also form no part of a progressive or liberal agenda for them.

It has thus become doubtful that any kind of “feminist” – with that word’s unshakeable connotation of change and progress – discourse has a place in the future of the Republican party or in conservatism in general. Assuming social progress cannot form much of the current conservative woman’s narrative, what defining statements or messages about women could even become part of a Republican campaign? Is Romney’s best bet to steer clear entirely of any social evaluation of women, and instead launch the dubious but less heated argument that Obama’s economic policies have disproportionately hurt women? (Meanwhile Romney does not seem sure about his support for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, but moving on.) Or did Rick Santorum, in his appeal to evangelical Christians and the more orthodox conservative base, open the door for Romney to criticize more loudly abortion rights and birth control mandates in the name of “traditional” family values?

Even when they are made subtly, Republican calls for women to embrace their roots in motherhood and for them to be wary of the victories of the feminist movement contrast sharply with accepted Third Wave wisdom. In liberal circles it has become almost taboo to look critically at the sexual revolution or to question seriously whether and how family life suffered a blow from it. Instead, left-leaning public figures address certain effects of the feminist movement indirectly and perhaps unwittingly, as they promote causes that might offset some of what was lost when we relaxed the expectation of women to stay home to cook, clean, and raise children. Female parenting practices, for better or worse, have become informed by a calculus of optimizing their children’s brain and body development, and there is much emphasis on the concept of work-life balance. Any appeals to “maternal instinct” or “woman’s intuition”, two themes that seemed fitting in Sarah Palin’s 2008 Vice Presidential Campaign, have no place in liberal feminist discourse today.

Instead, we have things like the initiative to raise awareness of and regulate the quality of our food, and to make healthy food accessible, which have been a way for the left to remedy the havoc that convenience foods have wreaked on public health. Of course, conservatives bristle at government attempts to regulate the food industry and to get Americans to eat better, yet politically – and again, there are exceptions here – they cannot really afford to say out loud that women should get back in the kitchen to fix our children’s health so we can keep the government out of it. Of course, this message is implausible not just for its sexist overtones, but also because so many American families have no choice but to have both parents work full-time.

Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign has made healthy living and eating its cause, and while it certainly speaks to mothers, the campaign lacks an air of identity politics and focuses instead on nutrition and health. With convenience foods that were advertised and sold to families whose parents (read: mothers) had less time to cook, and the accompanying decline in the “home-cooked meal”, the American diet has spiraled out of control, and today it has been declared a public emergency. Instead of lamenting the loss of the housewife in the name of public health, however, we should disburden ourselves of any gendered attitude toward food and cooking. Nutrition and meals have always played a paramount role in family life and health, but they no longer fall under an officially female domain.

We cannot, however, forget the darker side of the right’s resistance to feminist discourse or to a manifest acknowledgement of gender equality. Conservatives do not resent the sexual revolution solely out of concern for the poor children of the future who don’t have traditional mothers. Many men and even women despair over the implication that since women have left the house to contribute in the professional and public spheres, men should expect to contribute more in home-life than they have in the past. The mild apprehension some men feel in assuming any conventionally “womanly” duties or traits can be traced back to the profound sexual distress and irritation induced in (a distinctly lower class of) men by any cultural endorsement of the “empowered woman.” Rush Limbaugh comes to mind.

The good news is that men like Limbaugh, with their primitive anxiety about the male’s loss of superiority and control, will simply die off, if gradually. It is more pathetic than excusable, but some men are simply still getting used to the idea that women can wield their own power, and the bad news is that it is hard to actively combat this problem since this male sentiment is rooted in emotion and insecurity rather than in logic or even morality. Because they cannot publicly admit their backwards inclinations, however, this group seizes upon the only issues that are open for discussion – birth control coverage and abortion – to vent their frustration on the matter. Hence Limbaugh’s request for sex tapes from women (instead of simply demanding a valid argument) in exchange for birth control coverage.

Male feminists, out yourselves! Your less-evolved brothers desperately need your insight, and sadly they are incapable of even hearing females express convictions that are identical to your own. Only once the fundamental achievement of the feminist movement – equality for women – is fully integrated into American consciousness can we recognize the radical modernity of the present debates about reproductive rights or “family values”.

While the Catholic Church and other conservative blocs base their aversion to birth control in general sexual morality, their side of the national conversation has focused almost exclusively on the sexual morality of women, so it seemed natural for the left to respond that Republicans were “anti-women” or “anti-feminist”. While this is certainly true to some degree, it is a mistake to frame the problem in such narrow terms. Theoretically, in a post-women’s-movement era, even the staunchest of social conservatives should hold men and women to equal moral standards, and it is those moral standards that social liberals should challenge them on (and vice versa). So long as questions of abortion, birth control coverage, sexual morality, and family structure are assumed to be divided along “feminist” and “anti-feminist” lines, the arguments contributing to these debates will remain stubbornly simplistic and polarizing.


Jackie Colvin is a staff writer for The Leftist Review. She is also a freelance writer and lives in Chicago.


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