Harvey C. Mansfield:
Feminism in the universities is nothing new. The movement had its start among intellectuals outside universities—Simone de Beauvoir in Paris, Betty Friedan in America—but soon made its way to academia. Feminism was able to change American society from the top down, but that did not prevent feminism from expressing, teaching, and even thriving on a contradiction. Put simply, feminism did not, and still does not, know whether to say that women are capable or vulnerable. If women are capable, they deserve to be independent, particularly of men; if they are vulnerable, they need to be protected, particularly from men (and yet, of course, by men).
The most recent, also the most revealing, illustration of the contradiction can be found now in the movement on the campuses of universities to protect college women from sexual assault. The movement has support from students, but once again it is led from the top, this time by a branch of the federal government, the Office of Civil Rights (hereafter OCR) in the Department of Education. In fact, the OCR does not merely propose a program or lead a movement, it lays down a set of regulations with which universities must comply. So far, despite this unprecedented intrusion, universities have meekly submitted to be instructed by what the OCR, with a phrase for the books, calls “significant guidance.”
Before examining the OCR’s mandate, however, it is best to return to the contradiction within feminism that both characterizes and inspires it. To do so will require a brief summary of the theory of feminism, for feminism cannot be understood without examining its theory. One could even say that feminism is all about theory. It wants to reject all previous experience of relations between the sexes and substitute a new status for women in our society unknown in any previous society. Feminists can be diverse but they are all living, practicing theorists leading a revolution of theory applied.
What is known as “radical feminism” is simply the original feminism of Beauvoir and Friedan, and the later “waves” of feminism share the radical principles of the original version without drawing its radical conclusions. A moderate feminist might regard herself as independent of men but freely choose to live with one on terms of equal independence. Or she might feel free to practice, if not defend, feminine modesty.
For the fundamental assertion of feminism is that women are equal to men, and equal not as counterparts to men but in every respect. Feminist women refused to suffer a husband’s proud, or ironic, praise as “my better half,” which implied that women (and of course also men) have a natural role making them counterparts of each other as couples. So, taking the bull by its horns, feminists mounted an attack on the idea of “nature,” now put in quotation marks and, as they say, “problematized.”
Nature in the classical tradition refers to the whole of things composed of natures, with distinct definitions, delimiting parts of nature that are also wholes in themselves. Thus men and women each have natures defining them, distinguishing them, and in this case, joining them. As against this sort of thinking, feminism declared its opposition to all such definitions or essences, and crowned “essentialism” as the devil inspiring all oppression of women by men. This thesis in epistemology or methodology, made into a slogan for the initiated, illustrates the theoretical character of feminism as a popular movement.
Then, having no essence, women are urged, and actually compelled, to define themselves and make an “identity” of their own not given by nature. In the past, it was said, women’s identity was made for them by men, as in Beauvoir’s notion of an “historical” woman and in Friedan’s “feminine mystique.” Now at last in their new freedom, women can create their own identity for themselves rather than accept one made for the convenience and domination of men. Why would women want to create an identity rather than submit to one?
The demand to create implies that women have the freedom to create, and that such freedom is more suitable for women than is submissiveness. Suitable, however, means better suited to what? To women’s nature or essence. We are back to essentialism. To prevent this one must assert that women are right to make whatever they want of themselves without reference to what suits them. But if this is so, they could make themselves submissive to men as readily and justly as independent of them. If there is something wrong about this result, doesn’t it mean that women have an essential element of freedom in their nature, like men?
In fact, feminism makes a new feminist identity for women, replacing the old feminine mystique that Ms. Friedan condemned as having been made by men. The new one is to have the same freedom as men. This is what is meant by “having it all”: not to live like a god with no limitations but merely like a male without the hesitations and inhibitions previously imposed on women—and like a woman as well. A woman can become independent of men by learning how to imitate them, thus making actual men dispensable while retaining the use of all their qualities.
To prove that women can do everything men do, the most logical feminists find it necessary to practice their excesses, or at least boast of them—announcing with satisfaction that the murder rate by women is rising or discovering that rape is a gender-neutral crime that women too have the force and malice to commit. A strange independence of men that requires slavish imitation of their faults!
Yet if women are not imitation men but capable of improving on men, this would imply an essential character of women enabling them to do so. And if women excel men in any one respect, there is danger that men might excel them in some other respect. The suffragettes—old-style feminists—demanded the vote for women because they thought women were more moral than men; the women’s vote would purify democratic elections that had been corrupted by selfish men.
But of course it is a pain and a drag on one’s freedom, today’s feminists proclaim, to be held more moral than others and hence less aggressive. No more feminine modesty! For this is the grounding of the infamous double standard for sexual conduct, higher, and hence more confining, for women. The same is true of another alleged superiority of women such as aptitude for motherhood, for a woman’s mothering is too close to her supposed morality, and vice versa. Both of them smack of essentialism. Women must now take a risk and show their independence by imitating the most risk-loving males. In sex, this means adopting the ideal of sexual liberation in theory and in practice consorting with the most predatory males.
Now we have followed the logic of feminism to its culmination in the acceptance of risk. The greatest risk is to be found beyond the bounds of nature, where one is left to one’s own devices, alone in unguided freedom, so to speak in space, like the actress Sandra Bullock in the movie Gravity. Yet this is by no means the whole of feminism. In the new situation of total risk, feminists feel uncomfortable.