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.