whither feminism
Ron Lach / PEXELS

This essay originally appeared on April 7, 2022 in Comment magazine, a publication of Cardus.

Feminism. So easy in theory, so hard in the fine print. The easy: Yes! I support equal rights and opportunities for women. The fine print, for those who read it, includes dogmas about what ideas and opinions are permissible for “good” feminists, written by academics whose aim has long been to defenestrate the very things that matter most to so many countless women — namely, marriage and family.

Once in a while, these mainstream feminists notice that they ignore the voices of low-income or minority women. Well, yes. But they also ignore any woman who thinks marriage and children are desirable, not to be broken down but built up and woven into a rich tapestry called life.

This is why, for so long, I’ve been an outsider to feminism in spite of the “right” credentials — all-girls’ schooling, advanced degree, world travel, executive positions. None of it makes a difference, because I hold certain positions feminists aren’t supposed to take. I’m against abortion. I hope for non-state solutions to issues like child care. These views are not the type of diversity mainstream feminists have in mind when they talk about greater inclusivity.

In North America, a hopeless superficiality — call it “you-go-girl” feminism — coexists with an almost complete lack of interest. The result is that a slim minority of “good” feminists pretend to represent all women in public life. But other voices are starting to be heard, and in them we can find hope for a women’s movement renewed — one that is not sustained by the foundering principles of the sexual revolution but rather by a recognition of the importance of relationships.

Chronic misdiagnosis

We’ve all been to doctors who didn’t take time to listen yet presumed they had the answer. Today’s women get this kind of paternalism from mainstream feminism: a diagnosis from another era, in spite of drastically different presenting symptoms.

In her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan wrote of “the problem that has no name,” referring primarily to disgruntled women not living up to their full potential, trapped in boring, suburban lives. The women’s movement today continues to beat a similar drum, despite statistics showing high labour-force participation for women, greater rates of graduation from higher education than men, and increased access to even the most male-dominated of professions.

Yet evidence shows a deep problem with the basics of forming meaningful relationships. Women get married later or not at all — single-person households are on the rise. Women cannot always find marriageable men. Women are having fewer children and, importantly, fewer than they say they would like. And seeing fewer children normalises living without children altogether.

At a time when women have access to professional opportunities in ways that Friedan could only imagine, research points to declines in women’s happiness over the decades (with indications that married women are happier than those who are not). Faced with these problems, talking about systemic oppression from the very societal institutions that might actually help women thrive is a bit like going to the doctor with a broken leg and being told that a cast is what will really harm you.

When feminists recognise relational issues as problematic — such as in the #MeToo movement — the solutions feel, at best, peripheral. There may be a campaign to Believe Women or increased attention to the doctrine of consent, but there is yet to be an acceptance that women suffer in the absence of healthy connection, community, marriage, and family.

If women of yesteryear were trapped in scripted lives, the danger today is freedom from family. We are bobbing about in a vast ocean, no lifeboat in sight, the mooring of relational stability unavailable and even culturally undesirable.

The looming issue for the success of the women’s movement is not whether North America can have a rising percentage of female CEOs or equal numbers of female elected representatives. It is whether feminism can accept that equal opportunity will not result in perfect sameness of choices between men and women — and begin to celebrate motherhood as a commendable choice again.

The beauty found in difference

Erika Bachiochi’s 2021 book, The Rights of Women, reclaims this lost vision for feminism, pointing to Mary Wollstonecraft’s elevation of virtue for women, men, and families as a key to living today.

Wollstonecraft contended in the late 1700s that a “human being’s progress in virtue, not their attainment of property, wealth or status, would guarantee personal, familial and societal happiness.” Strong, stable relationships were of the greatest importance, because family life was the central place for this cultivation of virtue and thus happiness.

Channelling Wollstonecraft, Bachiochi speaks of motherhood as the very highest of callings, not a status that is nice but unnecessary, rather as the path to a fulfilling life: “Children were not a burden or impediment to a woman’s ‘real’ work; they were her real work, and an ennobling and important work they were.” This isn’t meant to limit women; Bachiochi goes on to write that “they might not be her only work. And they were not only her work.” Fatherhood, too, is the very highest of callings.

But for most men and women today, family has been sidelined rather than seen as important, necessary, or beautiful. For more than twenty years, in which I worked and had no kids of my own, children were not present in my daily life — apart from the odd photo or bit of cubicle artwork done by a child’s hand. While I always worked alongside parents of young children, I didn’t realise the delicate balance between waged work and family life that they were constantly navigating.

Even so, then as now it seemed unsurprising to me that women might need or want to spend more time with family in the early years of a child’s life. This is simply biology — the nature of babies born to women, not men. Yet this key fact is something we’ve come to view as peripheral and discriminatory.

Bachiochi provides language to think through the beauty of this difference between men and women, without canned answers about what it must mean. She notes that “women’s distinctive reproductive capacities gave way not only to ‘difference’ but to a deep sexual asymmetry.” This “asymmetry” is not the same as inequality, but rather reflects differing biological realities.

Yet without the cultivation of virtue, it can quickly lead to inequality; Bachiochi describes how “the decoupling of sex from marriage and marriage from childbearing, ushered in by the sexual revolution, unraveled a working-class culture of once stable marital bonds that children need and both mothers and fathers once relied upon for their success at home and at work, and in all of life.” This failure to connect sex, marriage, and childbearing has been unkind to women, who, no matter how reliable the birth-control method, still face bigger consequences that result from sex.

Chastity in Wollstonecraft’s time had become something of an obsession that applied to women only, creating a double standard. But rather than abandoning the whole idea, Wollstonecraft wanted it to be applied to men too, so that they would also take responsibility for the consequences of sex. She warned that “[sexual] intemperance… depraves the appetite to such a degree that the parental design of nature is forgotten.” If the telos of sexual desire — namely, marital unity and children — was neglected, sexual activity would become degrading and amount to one person using another for reasons other than love.

Wollstonecraft’s fears have been fully realised. It now seems quaint and undesirable to channel sexual desire toward marriage and children. Modern sexual ethics are so far removed from these connections that it’s nearly impossible to explain how the loss of chastity has brought us to a place where marriage is difficult to achieve, fertility rates are falling, and happiness has plummeted along with them.

Instead of raising the bar for all, as Wollstonecraft demanded, dominant feminist voices today call for women to lower their standards to those of absent fathers by likewise turning their backs on children — sometimes from their own unborn children, sometimes from conceiving children at all, and sometimes even by walking away from the children they’ve given birth to. The New York Times recently lent column inches to the idea of respect for mothers who desert their own children. The accompanying art shows the iconic Giving Tree of Shel Silverstein fame turning its back on a small person who looks hopefully, inquisitively toward it.

A job no one else can compete for

My story, in keeping with modern feminist scripts, includes getting married later than the average woman — followed by two miscarriages and the gift of a baby one month shy of my forty-third birthday. I hesitate to gush over what this means to me. At the forefront of my mind are the many women who long to become mothers, yet find their dream does not become reality.

But in staying silent, the risk is that other women, swimming in the endless ocean of the sexual revolution — the ones who ask whether it is conscionable to bring children into the world at all — never hear with any conviction that being a mother is one of the greatest joys in life. This remains true even when — or perhaps especially because — it is not the easiest.

For more than twenty years, I focused on waged work with few family concerns. I was the employee who couldn’t comprehend leaving work early for just about any reason, and I genuinely enjoyed my job. But contrasted with that work, I can say without any shadow of a doubt that being a mother to my daughter is far better than any project and incomparable to any assignment. It is the adventure of a lifetime.

If the smell of an apple crumble baked with the help of a toddler had value, it would waft in at the price of platinum. I worry I’ll make an idol of it all — of her — even as I scroll through my phone to enjoy the most recent photos of her while she is sleeping. There is no other job I’ve had where someone else couldn’t ably compete for it, except that of being my daughter’s mother. And there are no words I can give to this great journey but to say that simply seeing her makes every day “my best day.

I fight for my marriage all the more when I realise how the health of this family starts with the stability of our relationship as husband and wife. Chesterton spoke true when he said, “This triangle of truisms, of father, mother and child, cannot be destroyed; it can only destroy those civilisations which disregard it.”

Whither feminism?

Much ink has been spilled on where feminism can go. I can’t help but be encouraged. And many of these refreshing voices are looking back past Friedan and her peers to older (and wiser) models of feminism. Bachiochi draws our attention to the influence of Wollstonecraft, and reading her book, I was sold. I was Wollstonecraftian. It was amazing to read about a women’s movement powered by virtue, recognising reason, prioritising institutions like family and marriage in a way that enhanced our dignity.

Then I heard about Hannah More from Christina Hoff Sommers, who has called out women’s studies departments across North America for rewriting history — er, herstory — in their castigation of the first wave of feminism as either irrelevant or forgettable. Hoff Sommers juxtaposes More as the maternal feminist to Wollstonecraft’s egalitarian. (More herself had no love for Wollstonecraft, refusing to even read her Vindication of the Rights of Woman.)

I started second-guessing my allegiance; maybe More is the woman I’ll make a T-shirt about, with her proud convictions on the power of women and maternity. But really, how amazing to get lost in the details of whether I prefer Wollstonecraft or More — two women whose feminist thought overlapped a considerable amount — as contrasted with some of the more nihilistic visions of feminism in the second wave and beyond.

Other serious intellectual heavyweights are providing an amazing counter to the mainstream feminist narrative too, reminding us of the importance and richness of relationships. Jennifer Roback Morse has urged people to limit libertarianism to the realm of economics while pointing out the harms of the sexual revolution. Mary Eberstadt draws connections previously unmade between the radicalism of the sexual revolution and our modern malaise.

Elizabeth Bruenig is open about enjoying motherhood, despite the heat she has received for expressing that. Mary Harrington calls out anti-natalists, speaking truth into the strange world we inhabit when having children is denormalised. Leah Libresco Sargeant encourages interdependence as she writes about “other feminisms.” For the first time I feel included in a virtual community of feminists, all of us certain that mainstream feminism is missing the mark in enabling women to find happiness and fulfillment.

Almost sixty years after Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, there’s plenty of evidence that problems continue unabated for women. But many of these are the result of following the path Friedan and her peers mapped out. There is still time to correct course, if we only turn our attention to the other voices seeking to rewrite the feminist fine print.

These are good times to be a non-status-quo feminist. These are good times to learn about feminist foremothers who ought never have been forgotten. Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah More are sitting with a pot of tea, waiting to talk when we are ready to come home. They’ve been here all along — and so many women are grabbing hold of the vision they offer, one that recognises marriage and children as an essential part of living.

Andrea Mrozek is a senior fellow at the Canadian think-tank Cardus.