Culture

Was Feminism Always Bad?

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Most fair-minded people deplore the excesses of modern feminism—its triviality, its mean-spiritedness, and its claiming of special privileges for women on the basis of their putative suffering under patriarchy.

What happened to “equal rights”? What turned feminism into a shrill, rancorous movement that hounds men for a plethora of claimed sexual crimes, harps on female moral superiority, and seeks to rid the world of masculine energy, competitive drive, and frank humor?

Did rape crisis feminists such as Andrea Dworkin, who saw all sex as rape and presumed all men guilty, ruin what was otherwise a reasonable, egalitarian program for reform?

Or was the strain of man-blaming always there?

In “The Plan to Take Back Feminism in 2015,” PJM’s Susan Goldberg suggests that the suffrage activists of the nineteenth century had it right: these were God-fearing women who loved men and wanted to take their fair share of the world’s work, ridding themselves of the privileges and liabilities of traditional femininity.

Goldberg writes compellingly of what happened to the feminist movement when it lost God and put Woman/the Goddess in God’s stead.

But it is worth noting that even amongst those good-hearted evangelical ladies who campaigned for the abolition of slavery, the promotion of temperance, and all-round godly living—many of whom would not have called themselves feminist—the seeds of the present movement’s ills were being sown.

For always in the heart of the women’s movement, as in all well-meaning movements for reform, was the poison of utopianism, the dream of social perfection and the concomitant hatred of what seems to stand in its way. In declaring what women could offer the world, the suffragists inevitably flirted with the idea of female moral superiority, from which we can draw a straight line to the male-exterminationist fantasies of modern feminism.

One example may illuminate the larger issue: In the 1880s, a 24-year-old Canadian woman named Sara Jeannette Duncan, a native of Brantford, Ontario, wrote about the women’s movement for the Washington Post and Toronto’s The Week.  Duncan believed that as rational creatures, women should have the right to vote in order to share with men the burden of creating a just and democratic society. But she also mocked the tendencies she recognized in her strident sob-sisters: their debilitating self-righteousness, their fondness for anti-male generalizations, and their white-washing of women as victims.

In an 1887 article for The Week entitled “Extracts from the Woman’s Journal, May 2, 2001,” Duncan imagined a feminist dystopia in which an all-female Parliament, in the midst of debating dress-reform and the potential admission of men to the professions, received a deputation of men requesting that male suffrage, long revoked under a righteous feminist order, be reinstated. In Duncan’s scenario, a leader rises to speak against the men’s petition, reasoning that male disenfranchisement had not yet been in place long enough to serve justice, and that the male capacity for evil was too recently in evidence to admit men on an equal political footing :

In a stirring speech, the leader of the Radical wing of the Dress Reform Party compared the length of time disenfranchisement has been visited upon men with the period during which women were deprived of the glorious privilege of the ballot, according to which, she said, justice, working with compound interest, should withhold its voice from the subject sex for eons yet to come. Looking at it from the standpoint of mere expediency, their probation, she said, was comparatively short, and it was extremely improbable that its lessons could as yet have been thoroughly learned. The political depravity of man was not a thing to be eradicated in a century or two. Re-enfranchisement might mean, even in  this advanced and enlightened age, a return to the intolerable tyranny of former days.

Here, Duncan put her finger squarely on those features of early feminism that boded ill for its development: the vindictiveness of its most committed advocates, the intoxicating anger that fueled the pursuit of reform but was never satisfied with it, the determination to exact not merely equal rights but long-term retaliation, and the focus on sexual depravity as a kind of innate male imperfection that could never be overcome.

What Duncan saw all those year ago was that the women’s movement, even at the time of its greatest justification, always contained within it the strains of misandry, retaliatory fervor, and female supremacism.

It’s time we stopped idolizing our feminist foremothers, recognizing that improvements in women’s lives were as much owing to male fairness and technological developments as to feminist insistence. It is also time we recognized that feminism was fatally flawed from its inception, useful to the extent that it helped accomplish specific objectives, but never entirely sane or viable. As a movement, it has now nothing but a historical value, and we should give up the attempt to restore it to health.

Feminism is dead. Long live equality.