Time to Retire the F Word

In our last class a number of students had questions and comments about “the Feminist Movement”—reminiscent of my own kids’ remarks about the way things were in my “day.”

Although I remember the 50’s feminine mystique, Betty Friedan’s attack on it and subsequent changes in the social and economic role of women, I don’t recall a movement. To the extent that I remember the ‘60s, I remember an antiwar movement, which staged public protests, swung public opinion and ultimately helped change US policy. I don’t remember a feminist movement.

Things changed. The economic bubble of the ‘50s began to deflate. Real income for white males flattened out and it became increasingly difficult for families to maintain the ever-rising standard of living they expected on one income; meanwhile the growth of traditional “women’s jobs” in the expanding service sector drew women out of the home and into the labor force.

The Pill made sexual activity less risky for women: during the ‘50s conservative moralists denounced pre-marital sex on the grounds that it carried a risk of pregnancy, a decade later they denounced the Pill for making pre-marital sex virtually risk-free. The “traditional family” and the code of sexual conduct that went along with it were collapsing, without any help from a feminist “movement.” Moreover the civil religion that supported them was imploding. Most of all, perhaps, people just got sick of the ‘50s.

If there was ever a feminist movement it was epiphenomenal. Women’s roles were changing and, in an age of ideologies and revolutions, it was perhaps inevitable that that a movement should be invented to explain why.

Feminism is a very odd sort of ism. Most isms are either controversial political views, peripheral theologies, or physiological anomalies—Libertarianism, Arianism, astigmatism. If there is such a thing as feminist doctrine it is the claim that men and women should have the same opportunities at the same costs, that being male or female should not be a constraint.  This is neither peripheral nor anomalous, and it is hard to see why it should ever have been controversial.

Femimism seems more in the line of Literatism, the doctrine that children should learn how to read, or Dentalism, the doctrine that people should brush their teeth and see their dentists regularly.
I suppose “Literateism” and “Dentalism” weren’t invented, until now, because there is no work for them to do. When it comes to these doctrines, we don’t need to argue about them, anathamatize them or fix them so we don’t need to name them.

I am not sure that “feminism” ever did any useful work. Even if it did, it may now be time for retirement.