Let's Call a Truce in the War on Feminism


Remember the war on women? Sure you do. It was — and still is — in the news constantly during the election cycle. Prominent women on the left like Cecile Richards and Nancy Keenan battled against Mitt Romney and co to define the war as economic or as social, and to claim that they were fighting on the side of women. I was never a huge fan of the term, personally, but I get that "long-standing gender-based inequalities reaffirmed in legal and economic policy accompanied by slow but continual efforts to undermine a variety of hard-won recently-acquired rights on a multiplicity of levels" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

Then along came Suzanne Venker.

Venker's piece on the "war on men" was as controversial as it was widely read, mocked, rebuffed, and purported as a corrective to a version of feminism your mothers (sorry, I mean your fathers) warned you about. You know, the kind that's an amalgamation of common tropes about feminism without any sort of historical background or contextualization or citation or evidence — a.k.a straw feminism.

Now, Venker is back to call a truce. Who's waving the white flag in this faux war is unclear, but Venker wants to clarify how women should surrender to their femininity. That's right: surrender.

"It's easier than you think," she writes. "You begin by accepting that men and women are different. Equal, but different. This means you'll have to reject feminist dogma since feminism taught you that equality means sameness."

Women are dissimilar from men, according to Venker, because they are "nurturing and relational beings" who like to "gather and nest and take care of people." In contrast, men are "loners" who like to hunt and "build things and kill things." But then feminists came along and started agitating against the idea that gender essentialism is actually a real scientific thing, an idea promoted by books like the ones Venker cites as evidence.

Or so the story goes, according to Venker. But while her author bio at Fox News touts her as having "written extensively about politics, parenting, and the influence of feminism on American society," Venker might have to double-check her sources when it comes to feminism.

During the '60s and '70s, some radical feminists promoted reclaiming and valorizing what they called the "feminine essence." Feminist thinkers like Brooke Williams, referred to as "cultural feminists" by scholar Alice Echols, believed that women would be liberated by promoting "feminine" characteristics like peacefulness, cooperation, caring, and nurturing. (Or, as Venker might say, surrendering to their femininity.) Cultural feminism was associated with the "Goddess movement," which focused on reinvigorating matriarchal religious cultures, again believed to be more peaceful and "healing." The feminine essence was seen as a 'natural' counterbalance to male aggressiveness and violence; some even suggested that social institutions should be run exclusively or predominantly by women. (Earlier feminists, such as Charlotte Gilman Perkins, suggested the same.)

The fact that some feminists promoted ideas about "feminine nature" which sound suspiciously close to Venker's own seems not to matter to the author. She has made up her mind about what feminism is, and chooses to ignore any incongruousness in either her own thinking or the feminist movement, which has its own fair share of internal inconsistencies and arguments. (Cultural feminists were often critiqued for promoting essentialist ideas about "femininity" and for conflating "femininity" with "femaleness," for instance.)

And there is a key difference between Venker and cultural feminists: When it comes to women, Venker is fundamentally anti-choice — any kind of choice. While feminists who promoted the "feminist essence" wanted women to be more involved in public society, Venker wants the exact opposite. The "femininity" she suggests women submit to can be expressed only in the home. Women's involvement in any other sphere is detrimental to their very well-being, she claims.

"There’s no GOP war on women. The only war on women is the one that was waged more than 40 years ago," she writes.

In that war, Venker and other anti-feminists are losing. 97% of people in America believe that women should have equal rights, and 81% think that women should be able to work outside the home. And it's not just us. According to Pew, "Majorities in every country polled agree that women should be able to work outside the home. In 17 of the 22 countries, most say they completely agree with this assertion, including at least three-quarters in Brazil (88%), Britain (84%), the U.S. (81%) and Germany (79%)."

There's a great deal of confusion about what feminism is, and whether or not it's still relevant. This confusion stems, in part, from the fact that the feminist movement is diffuse, constantly evolving as society evolves. Venker's argument, and others like it, not only ignore the diversity of thought within feminism, but fail to acknowledge that some feminist ideas (like women working outside the home) are actually popular now.

In other words, surrendering to feminism means actually reading up on its history and recognizing its impact on all of our lives. It's okay if you're in charge. It's okay if you have choices.

In fact, it's rather liberating.