Commentary Magazine

What Moderate Feminists?

To judge by a spate of recent books and articles, there is a new willingness even among self-proclaimed feminists to speak frankly about the errors and excesses of their movement. Christina Hoff Sommers’s Who Stole Feminism,1 for example, is an excellent analysis of the damage feminism has wrought in the academy as well as in the culture at large. Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge’s Professing Feminism (1994) is an even more ringing indictment of academic feminism, insofar as both Patai and Koertge, unlike Sommers, actually taught in the field of Women’s Studies for many years themselves, and have now defected in disgust—something, they tell us, that more and more women’s-studies professors are doing. And even the well-known feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum has recently shown a readiness to retreat from the most extreme pronouncements that her academic colleagues have been making over the past years, and to declare at last that the Western philosophical tradition is not hopelessly misogynist but, indeed, the only basis on which feminists themselves can rest their case for greater freedom and equality.

The assumption behind all these reconsiderations is that there is a sound and healthy feminism which has somehow gotten sidetracked, derailed, misappropriated, hijacked by fringe zanies willing to promulgate “falsehoods and exaggerations,” in Sommers’s words, in order to gain certain political or personal goals.

Thus, Sommers draws a distinction between what she calls equity and gender feminists. Equity feminists, deriving from the “classically liberal” tradition, offered “women a liberal version of consciousness-raising whose aim was to awaken them to new possibilities of individual self-fulfillment.” Sommers argues that the contemporary women’s movement in its earliest days was built on this model. But, she writes,

by the mid-70’s, . . . the old style of consciousness-raising . . . rapidly gave way to one that initiated women into an appreciation of their subordinate situation in the patriarchy and the joys and comforts of group solidarity.

These new gender feminists, who now rule the movement, “believe that all our institutions, from the state to the family to the grade schools, perpetuate male dominance,” and their view that the “personal is political” makes them “impatient with piecemeal liberal reformist solutions and leads [them] to strive for a more radical transformation of our society than earlier feminists had envisioned.”

This is a nice, neat formulation which at the very least serves the purpose of allowing some criticism of some aspects of a movement whose fundamental premises—that our society’s treatment of women was/is unfair, unjust, inequitable, and that the standard feminist remedies were/are self-evidently right and proper—no longer seem even to be a matter of debate. The problem, however, is that the idea that the contemporary women’s movement began in moderation and was then deflected and corrupted by a turn toward radicalism cannot survive critical scrutiny.



Take Betty Friedan, the “godmother” of equity feminism for Sommers and many others. Looking back at her writings, and especially her most famous and influential book, The Feminine Mystique (1963), we soon see that Friedan “godmothered” the movement in more ways than one. While it is true that she did not deploy the quasi-Marxist jargon of oppression, gender antagonism, and patriarchy that would later dominate feminist discourse, she did inaugurate the pattern of hyperbole that came to fuel the movement after her. It was she who managed to make the condition of the postwar American woman seem one of soul-strangling asphyxiation and spiritual death. Indeed, for Friedan, submitting to the traditional feminine role was nothing less than an embrace of nonbeing:

It is urgent to understand how the very condition of being a housewife can create a sense of emptiness, nonexistence, nothingness, in women. There are aspects of the housewife role that make it almost impossible for a woman of adult intelligence to retain a sense of human identity, the firm core of self or “I” without which a human being, man or woman, is not truly alive.

It was also Friedan who helped initiate the now ever-expanding tendency to blame the most personal and complex of the ills of life on social or political conditions, and to remove them from the realm of individual moral character (thereby abetting our transformation into a society of victims and “survivors”). On the basis of very little hard evidence, she identified “the problem that has no name”—that is, the malaise and discontent among some educated upper-middle-class housewives—and blew it up into something of massive proportions urgently demanding society-wide solutions.

And it was Friedan who helped define that useful paradox so beloved by activist leaders, whereby unhappiness, anger, frustration can be seen as signs of health, inasmuch as these reflect a rejection of the status quo, in this case the bitter void to which women were consigned. (This conceit persists in a great many films and plays, like Plenty and Tom and Viv, about neurotic bitches whose very neurosis supposedly bespeaks greater authenticity than that possessed by the walking dead around them.)

From this premise, Friedan launched like a booster rocket into her biggest hyperbole of all:

In a sense that is not as farfetched as it sounds, the women who “adjust” as housewives, who grow up wanting to be “just a housewife,” are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps—and the millions more who refused to believe that the concentration camps existed.

What follows must be quoted in all its demented detail to be believed:

In fact, there is an uncanny, uncomfortable insight into why a woman can so easily lose her sense of self as a housewife in certain psychological observations made of the behavior of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. In these settings, purposely contrived for the dehumanization of man, the prisoners literally became “walking corpses.” Those who “adjusted” to the conditions of the camps surrendered their human identity and went almost indifferently to their deaths. Strangely enough, the conditions which destroyed the human identity of so many prisoners were not the torture and the brutality, but conditions similar to those which destroy the identity of the American housewife.

In the concentration camps the prisoners were forced to adopt childlike behavior, forced to give up their individuality and merge themselves into an amorphous mass. Their capacity for self-determination, their ability to predict the future and to prepare for it, was systematically destroyed. It was a gradual process which occurred in virtually imperceptible stages—but at the end, with the destruction of adult self-respect, of an adult frame of reference, the dehumanizing process was complete. . . .

To old prisoners [those who had been imprisoned for some time], the world of the camp was the only reality. They were reduced to childlike preoccupation with food, elimination, the satisfaction of primitive bodily needs; they had no privacy, and no stimulation from the outside world. . . .

It was said, finally, that not the SS but the prisoners themselves became their own worst enemy. Because they could not bear to see their situation as it really was—because they denied the very reality of their problem, and finally “adjusted” to the camp itself as if it were the only reality—they were caught in the prison of their own minds. . . .

All this seems terribly remote from the easy life of the American suburban housewife. But is not her house in reality a comfortable concentration camp? Have not women who live in the image of the feminine mystique trapped themselves within the narrow walls of their homes? They have learned to “adjust” to their biological role. They have become dependent, passive, childlike; they have given up their adult frame of reference to live at the lower human level of food and things. The work they do does not require adult capabilities; it is endless, monotonous, unrewarding. American women are not, of course, being readied for mass extermination, but they are suffering a slow death of mind and spirit.

Despite the qualification in that last sentence, Friedan ultimately does not shy away even from that aspect of the analogy:

If we continue to produce millions of young mothers who stop their growth and education short of identity, we are committing quite simply genocide, starting with the mass burial of American women and ending with the progressive dehumanization of their sons and daughters.

Given all this, the fact that Friedan, in a colloquy in the 70’s, defended a woman’s right to choose the homemaker role against Simone de Beauvoir’s insistence to the contrary does not really amount to much. Indeed, what the exchange between de Beauvoir and Friedan illustrates more than anything else is the marriage of liberalism and radicalism in our time, in which liberalism offers a cover of moderation to radical ideas. While the liberal gives lip service to things he is actually if not always consciously seeking to destroy, the radical is more open and honest; at the same time, the radical’s views are really what supply energy to the liberal.

So it was here: for women, the shift away from the primacy of the homemaker’s role was as radical a shift as there could be, and it set the stage for all the feminist radicalism that was to follow. To those who argue that this derived from economic necessity rather than ideology, we might ask why feminists did not demand measures, like higher tax exemptions for children, which might have bolstered the homemaker role for women who wished to choose it even in the face of financial pressure. But feminism was never interested in facilitating that choice. What it really wanted was to make the full-time homemaker role seem fit only for subhumans and to force women into “careers,” or, as would be the case in so many instances, into the job market.

And here too it was Friedan who set the prescriptive tone of feminist proposals that we hear to this day:

A massive attempt must be made by educators and parents—and ministers, magazine editors, manipulators, guidance counselors—to stop the early-marriage movement, stop girls from growing up wanting to be just a housewife.



In a recent article in Academic Questions, John Ellis points out that high infant mortality, lower life expectancy, more primitive technology, and the necessity of having children to provide for old age all acted to make motherhood the primary focus of most women in the past. As I can testify from the experiences of my own family, these conditions persisted even through much of this century. My grandmother died in childbirth at twenty-seven; my great-grandmother lost six of the twelve children she brought to birth; her daughter, one of my great aunts, lost four of eight; another of her daughters, my step-grandmother, unable to have children herself, was grateful for her two stepdaughters, my mother and my aunt.

As circumstances changed for women, largely thanks to “patriarchal” constructs like technology and medicine that feminism often deplores, new opportunities became possible. It is Ellis’s contention that these improvements allowed women more freedom from the biological role, and in this he is certainly right.

Yet, in truth, that freedom may be overstated even today. For the real reason that women seem to have so much time today to give to jobs and careers, leading them to decry what they see as female subjugation in past eras, is that as a society we have managed to convince ourselves that children no longer require the care and attention it was once thought they did. 2 Far from being an established truth, however, the spread of this idea has been accompanied in our country by a worsening of children’s lives on every count—poorer academic performance and higher rates of teenage pregnancy, venereal disease, accidents, suicide, homicide, mental illness.

If a movement begins from false premises, what else but falsehoods can ensue, together with determined exercise of power, coercion, and control—of the kind Patai and Koertge show are widespread in Women’s Studies—to keep the falsehoods going? In this light, the excesses presented by Sommers and Patai and Koertge are not at all surprising. Why—to cite only one example of many—should not people believe that 150,000 women die of anorexia every year (without proof and contrary to common sense, since such numbers would mean we would be burying a skeletal teenager every week); is this not of a piece with the rhetorical picture of women’s lot painted by feminists from the beginning?

Contemporary feminism could not have worked without such falsehoods and exaggerations, for the simple reason that the situation of women in America is not that bad today and was never that bad even in the pre-feminist past. American women are not comparable to women in the third world or during the Middle Ages, let alone to inmates of Nazi concentration camps. Even at the time The Feminine Mystique was published, American women were living in a degree of freedom, comfort, and prosperity probably unequaled in the history of womankind since Eve (before her unfortunate expulsion from the garden). And today, of course, they probably have more power and privilege of various kinds than women ever commanded before.



One place where all these repressed truths seem to be surfacing—not surprisingly in a perverse form—is in recent films like Body Heat, Disclosure, and The Last Seduction. These movies suggest that women are using both feminist and feminine wiles to advance selfish and even evil agendas, to gain advantages over men in ways that are dishonest, treacherous, and hideously destructive. The appeal of such films may lie in the opportunity they offer to see the part of the picture that feminism wants to leave out—that men are not the only villains, that women too can be wicked, that men are not the only ones with power, that women have powers of their own, including the ability to prey on men’s vulnerability to them.

Such films perhaps suggest an answer to some of Betty Friedan’s more philosophical musings. “For human suffering there is a reason,” she once pondered, and “perhaps the reason has not been found because the right questions have not been asked, or pressed far enough.” Perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps the questions are being pressed too far. As she herself wrote in the 1974 edition of The Feminine Mystique, “It was easier for me to start the women’s movement which was needed to change society than to change my own personal life.”



1 Reviewed by Cathy Young in COMMENTARY, September 1994.

2 See “Putting Children Last” by Mary Eberstadt in the May COMMENTARY.—Ed.

About the Author

Carol Iannone reviewed Wendy Wasserstein’s Elements of Style in the September 2006 COMMENTARY.

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