Feminism is in crisis. It’s in a crisis of its own making because it’s been an echo chamber for so long that its adherents only hear each other’s propaganda. Feminism’s problem is that it has lost the silent majority —people not politically motivated but who are necessary for the success of any mass cultural movement. And it’s lost them because of feminism’s bad faith and it’s lack of principle.
Traditionally, feminism’s success has rested on the simple truth that women have not been given a fair go. The reasons for this are complex and relate more to the survival of the human species in diverse environments throughout history than on any one-dimensional, simplistic cause called patriarchy. You don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that the material conditions in which humans live inform the culture, and that women, being physically weaker than men — and the sex that bears and nurses children — were given a status relative to a hierarchy of survival. Strong men were essential to the immediate survival of the group. Women were not. It’s not fair — but life’s not fair.
Freedom, and its offshoots, capitalism and technology, have changed women’s position in the world, to everyone’s benefit. Men are happy; they see their female relatives and friends flourishing. Men also have richer emotional lives because a true relationship requires autonomy. Masters and slaves are not equal. Only men with low self-esteem want the women in their lives subservient or not fulfilling their potential.
The status of men and women in a liberal democracy is grounded on the idea that freedom of opportunity and equality before the law are the principles upon which a decent society are founded. These are simple ideas, which are easily understood. They are negative rights in the sense that the state plays a small role and it’s up to individuals how they live their lives. People are not helped or hindered. They’re left alone, as it should be.
It’s at this point that the problems of feminism arise. Feminists have not understood that the advantages for women of the old dispensation no longer apply. The rules have changed for men and women. And it’s here that the unprincipled stance of feminism becomes apparent. It’s a complex phenomenon, but at its heart is an epistemological approach to the world that we can call the feminist two-step, a constant shift between two different domains of knowledge in order to gain an immediate advantage. The feminist two-step is distinguished by a simple move — no matter what the subject, feminists will shift their position to the one where attacking men or defending women gains them an advantage. Principles, which were previously defended with zeal, will be abandoned with alacrity the second they put feminism at a disadvantage. The fact that your relative position in the world constantly shifts from the positive to the negative around a principle — sometimes the principle works to your advantage and sometimes to your disadvantage — is rejected by feminists.
A perfect example of this unprincipled attitude is ubiquitous in our culture, and is easily recognised. It’s when a ‘go-girl’, women-are-superior, women-need-men-like-a-fish-needs-a-bicycle attitude meets ‘we need more resources for women because women are weak and vulnerable and it’s so hard to be a woman’. One minute women are Superwoman and the next they need the state — in other words, other people’s money — to survive. Both of these arguments are valid. But a principled feminism would not keep shifting the argument from one to the other. It would stick to a principle and accept the positives and negatives that follow in its wake. Trying to always come out on top is unprincipled rent-seeking.
Another way the feminist two-step works is by constantly shifting between the general and the particular. When someone points to the bad behaviour of a woman, that’s evidence that a particular woman behaved badly; when a particular woman does something good, that’s generalised to represent all women. When a general claim about women is made, and which is backed up by solid research, it’s acceptance or rejection depends on whether the research paints women in a good or bad light. Any particular instance of a woman’s behaviour that doesn’t fit the generalised claim is seized upon as proof that the claim is false. The mantra ‘that’s a gross generalisation’ which must be drilled into every Women’s Studies student, is used to end discussion. Cathy Newman used these tactics in her infamous interview with Jordan Peterson.
Individual feminists will claim that they argued for a particular cause that didn’t automatically benefit women. But even here the feminist two-step kicks in. Try and recall an instance where the broad mass of the feminist movement, acting on a neutral principle, agitated for a cause that would benefit men more than women. They didn’t. The particular, in this instance, trumps the general.
That feminism is unprincipled is beyond argument. Consider the following: the scientist, Matt Taylor, lands a spacecraft on a comet and feminists excoriate him for wearing a sexist shirt. While Miley Cyrus, who behaves like every crude, sexist man’s dream date, is a feminist icon. We’re told that more women in politics would make the world peaceful, which, on its face, means that women are biologically different to men, which can’t be true because men and women are, according to feminists, exactly equal. When Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s PM, feminists said that she was not a woman. A prominent American feminist says that she would like to take away Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s vagina — this wish was directed against a woman who suffered a clitorectomy in her native Somalia. The feminist two-step means that what is a sacred given one day is repudiated the next.
How, then, has feminism become so popular with women? This is where the most clever and disingenuous use of the feminist two-step is used. Most women think that feminism is simply a movement advocating for the rights of women. But women, en masse, are totally oblivious to the philosophical claims of feminism — the main one, which is the foundation of feminist epistemology, is that everything is socially constructed. The feminism that is seen on the pages of popular women’s magazines or at the Democratic party convention is not the feminism of Women’s Studies programmes at university.
The feminism of classical liberalism, which is how most people understand feminism — equal rights for women, equality before the law and equality of opportunity — is a principled form of feminism that is not antagonistic towards men. It’s time that feminism became principled again and returned to its liberal roots.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator Australia for less – just $20 for 10 issues