Thursday, April 8, 2010

Taking Back Feminism

Here is an excellent and informative article by Christina Hoff Sommers, who is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. It is a policy paper from the Clare Boothe Luce Institute and it approaches feminism from a historical perspective in order to distinguish between constructive and destructive forms of the movement and to suggest how women can take back feminism from the radical egalitarians who deny any real distinction between the sexes other than social conditioning. The article is entitled "Take Back Feminism."

In 19th century first wave feminism there were two streams: individualistic feminism and social feminism. She discusses Francis Willard, the leader of the social stream as a key figure (though not well known today) in the success of the suffragist movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other more radical feminists were forced to form an alliance with Willard in order to win the vote for women. This tension between more radically individualist and more family oriented forms of feminism continued throughout the 20th century. Sommers describes this tension in the second wave of feminism that emerged after World War II:
But mainstream American women never fully embraced the egalitarian program of Friedan and Steinem and other leaders of the Second Wave. Rather, they adopted a compromise between the egalitarian and social traditions.

This compromise was once eloquently (and presciently) described by Clare Boothe Luce who in her heyday in the 1940s was a popular playwright and a member of the United States Congress. She wrote these words about women at a time when feminism’s Second Wave was still more than twenty years away. Her views are not celebrated during women’s history month, but they capture the style of feminism that seems to resonate with women everywhere:

"It is time to leave the question of the role of women in society up to Mother Nature—a difficult lady to fool. You have only to give women the same opportunities as men, and you will soon find out what is or is not in their nature. What is in women’s nature to do they will do, and you won’t be able to stop them. But you will also find, and so will they, that what is not in their nature, even if they are given every opportunity, they will not do, and you won’t be able to make them do it."

Camille Paglia, the brilliant literary critic and dissident feminist, once told me she found Luce’s words awe-inspiring. So do I. Luce takes the best of both egalitarian and social feminism. She is careful to say that women’s nature can only be made known in conditions of freedom and opportunity. But, she does not expect that, with equal opportunity, women will turn out to be interchangeable with men.
Read it all here. It is five pages long and very worth your time. Christina Hoff Sommers is a perceptive and balanced scholar who offers a take on feminism that could save the word, if her views ever became mainstream. I'm afraid that the term "feminism," especially unmodified, is beyond redemption in today's context. But if anyone could convince me otherwise, it would be Christina Hoff Sommers.

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