Culture  /  Argument

Feminism in the Dock

Can (and should) conservatives reclaim feminism from the radicals?

I am often asked by young women if we should take back the term “feminism.” It still carries the cachet of caring about women, and most of us are quite happy with the achievements of first-wave feminism: equality before the law, voting rights, and property rights. But feminism in its current form is a radical devolution: divorcing sex from gender, vilifying all masculinity as toxic, and warring against nature and the family. How do we take back a feminism that has become so distorted? And do we want to? It’s worth considering some of the reasons feminism resonated with women, to identify questions that remain unanswered, and challenges women will potentially always face.

What is Feminism? 

The debate over taking back feminism is complicated by the fact that no cohesive and consistent definition of feminism exists. It seems the only thing that unites feminists is that they care about issues that are related, and sometimes only tangentially related, to women. Underlying that are strong disagreements about what is good for women and human beings and what encompasses a life well lived. Feminists can’t even agree on what defines “women.” For example, trans-exclusionary feminists rebel against the encroachment of trans women into female sports and spaces, while other feminists do not—at least publicly—voice such objections. 

Often, feminism is discussed as coming in three or more waves. First-wave feminists wanted to be treated as equal citizens, a project that culminated with the passing of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Second-wave feminism of the mid-twentieth century focused on eliminating discrimination in the workplace and expanding educational opportunities. The movement soon allied itself with abortion advocates, connecting it to a Sexual Revolution ethos that saw marriage and family primarily as impediments to women’s personal goals and ambitions. Third and subsequent waves of feminism are even more difficult to describe and delineate, as factions within the movement have grown leaving no clear breaks from one wave to the next. The element that labeled gender a social construct has taken off and advocated for positions with radical implications, including transgender ideology.

This summary of feminism is short and has proved inadequate for many women, not the least when women are attempting to discern how much gratitude they owe feminists. For the most part, conservative women agree that first-wave feminism was a positive development, but they abhor the Sexual Revolution and its offspring. The Sexual Revolution itself was not a monolithic and concentrated development but a rolling cultural and intellectual transformation that challenged sexual norms and interpersonal relationships. These challenges run from questioning traditional gender roles to the normalization and promotion of hook-up culture, pornography, and diverse sexual orientations. Contributors to the sexual revolution range from Playboy’s Hugh Hefner to psychologist Sigmund Freud, who emphasized the primacy of sexual urges in driving human behavior, to revolutionary Kate Millett, who aimed at the destruction of the nuclear family.