The writer Sally Howard appeared on ITV’s This Morning to explain to two darts girls why it is a good thing they have lost their jobs. Not only were their jobs ‘demeaning broadly to women’, but their imminent unemployment is ‘necessary’ for social change. This is a version of feminism that is more concerned with ideology than with genuine benefit to women.
Where have we heard before the idea that the lives of individuals are a justifiable sacrifice in order to achieve a better society? Whilst modern feminism is a far cry from some of the appallingly oppressive ideologies of the Twentieth Century, it is as well to be aware of the intellectual antecedents of a movement. It might give some clues as to where we might end up if we continue to indulge some very bad ideas. Some of those ideologies explicitly placed the ideal society of the future before the suffering and misery of ordinary people whose sole crime was to exist in the present.
Feminism in the beginning grew out of the Enlightenment understanding of human liberty. The kind of feminism that can continue to improve the lives of women (and men) around the world is one that remains true to those ideas of individual liberty and equal respect under the law. However, a very different strain of feminism has grown, and its roots lie in a philosophy that is utopian and in the end misanthropic and misogynistic.
For the modern feminists, any woman that fails to adopt the radical view that sees oppressive male patriarchy lurking in every part of our culture is suffering from “false consciousness”, and is no more than an ignorant victim of an oppressive system. When Simone de Beauvoir commented on whether women should have the choice to stay at home and raise their children if that is what they chose, her view was:
“No, we don’t believe that any woman should have this choice. No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.”
The presumption here is that too many women will choose what more enlightened beings regard as immoral, and that the correction is to be made by “re-socialising”. Remind you of Orwell’s 1984? Contemporary “gender feminists” argue for a “feminist reconstruction of self and society [that] must go far beyond anything now contemplated in the theory or politics of the mainstream women’s movement.”
And the reason of course is that “If individual desires and interests are socially constructed…, the ultimate authority of individual judgment comes into question. Perhaps people may be mistaken about truth, morality or even their own interests; perhaps they may be systematically self-deceived.” Ultimate authority must lie instead with a vanguard that has the insight to unmask all those self deceptions. This is a chillingly totalitarian dogma.
Feminism as a movement concerned with winning equal rights and respect both under the law and in culture more generally is something that still has a vital role to play. In Western societies there is still an under-valuing of roles traditionally occupied by women. In other parts of the world, women still suffer appalling levels of abuse and discrimination and are cut off from educational opportunities. On these however the gender feminists are sadly all too silent.
We don’t need less feminism. We need more. But we need less of the ideologically driven and over-privileged first world variety.