Wednesday October 21, 2020

The Sterility of Feminism

by Christopher Chantrill
September 23, 2008

Remember the Sixties? Back then our liberal friends were sneering at “uptight” conservative men in gray flannel suits and celebrating creative people in flowered shirts who “did their own thing.”

Now uptight feminists are sneering at creative conservative women who decide to “do their own thing.”

But things were different then. Back then, the “uptight” conservative patriarchy was oppressing everyone, especially minorities and women, as it had for millennia.

Some people, African Americans in particular, resist the notion that women were ever as oppressed as blacks. All humans on the left are oppressed, of course, but some are more oppressed than others.

It is certainly true that feminism has never really been a movement of the oppressed willing to die for the principle that all men are created equal. It is more accurate to call it a movement of high-born women determined to liberate themselves from the humiliation of getting their hands dirty with domestic trivia—in the way that men have always seemed to have done.

The German sociologist Georg Simmel had understood this a century ago, according to Jerry Z. Muller in The Mind and the Market. It was not centuries of oppression that powered the feminist movement, but “the psychological effects of market developments,” the new technologies that “made for less labor in the household” for those that could afford them. The unaccustomed leisure provoked unease, even frustration, in middle-class women, and in response they sought activity outside the home.

Simmel understood that in the short term the public sphere for women would be defined by the rules “created by men and for men” but that eventually women would transform the public square to suit “a more feminine sensibility.”

The public square has indeed been transformed to suit a more feminine sensibility, but in a curious way. It has been transformed to suit a particular middle-class feminist agenda, rather than a more general feminine sensibility.

But this was what the middle-class feminists wanted. Like many well-born women down the ages, they wanted to farm the care of their children and their homes out to the paid help. What these women wanted, to deal with their guilt, was a society that told everyone that it would be better for leave the home and seek paid employment like men. And they got it.

Then Sarah Palin came along and drove the whole project into the ditch.

Many people still think the feminist project is alive and well. That’s what The Economist’s Lexington columnist thought last week:

[I]f feminism means, at its core, that women should be able to compete equally in the workplace while deciding for themselves how they organize their family life, then Mrs Palin deserves to be treated as a pioneer, not dismissed as a crackpot.

Oh dear. Haven’t we got beyond that kind of binary thinking at The Economist yet? Really, some people today are no better than the Puritans that Max Weber sneered at in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.

The success of the feminist agenda depended upon rigid control and compartmentalization of women’s fertility. Some have called this a death wish, but is more like an antiseptic sterility. The challenge that Sarah Palin poses to the “nullity” of the center-left culture is the challenge of fecundity. Conservative women do not aspire to the sterile life of the tenured academic sinecure or the strained consciousness of the government-funded “arts community.” They do not select from The Economist’s menu of competing equally in the workplace and/or organizing family life. They open themselves to Life itself, its risks, its joys, its sorrows, its faith, and, above all, its call to loving service.

The world we live in today is designed to make the world safe for cultural liberals and feminists. Resting comfortably upon their government sinecures and the flattery of their media courtiers, these people lash out with fury against anyone objecting to the wonderful world they have built. But theirs is not the only way to live.

The feminist way replaces the organic safety net of family and neighbors with rational, bureaucratic institutions that deliver social services to the needy, but without spirit and without heart. In particular the social services most important to women are sterilized into rigid bureaucracy: schools, health care, and relief of the poor.

The bureaucratic model is a male-oriented and goal-oriented culture. It is the structure of the army and of one-size-fits-all that orders everyone to serve a single goal from the top. It is hardly adapted to the community of women. Women’s culture relates less to fixed goals and more to the detection and satisfaction of particular needs in the welfare of families, the care of children, and the relief of the poor.

The chaps at The Economist assert that in the emergence of Sarah Palin feminism has won. They could not be more wrong. The flap over Sarah Palin points to the emergence of the genuine “feminine sensibility” projected by George Simmel and the exposure of uptight, sterile feminism as a dead end.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at