by Samantha Schroeder, Ruth Institute “It Takes a Family” Summer Conference 2012 alumna.
Last Friday, Rush Limbaugh made a comment toward the end of his talk show blaming feminism for “ruining women.”
Limbaugh commented on feminist academic Camille Paglia’s article in The Hollywood Reporter. He read excerpts from her article critiquing American pop culture, citing it as the source of poor role models for young men and women, and the inaccurate portrayal of a “manliness” epitomized by the Twilight series:
“Middle-class white girls will never escape the cookie-cutter tyranny of their airless ghettos until the entertainment industry looks into its soul and starts giving them powerful models of mature womanliness.”
He proposes that it is not, as Paglia says, Hollywood that is ruining women; it’s feminism.
Has feminism “ruined women”? While the waves of the feminist movement may have opened up a world of opportunity for women in America and abroad, feminism as it is understood today has gone too far. The modern feminist movement has fostered a culture of fear surrounding woman’s traditional call to motherhood and the family. In a show from April of this year, Limbaugh expressed this idea quite well. Feminism “changed forever the normal human nature relationships between men and women.”
In a recent article published in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a testament to her experience as a working woman in Washington, D.C. Torn between work life and her family, Slaughter made the difficult decision to sacrifice her high-powered position for the call of motherhood:
“For the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.”
This choice, Slaughter explained, was an unthinkable one for a modern woman. Among her peers, the response to her decision ranged from “disappointed” to “condescending.” The women around her responded to the news as if it was a “sad or unfortunate” circumstance that a woman had to leave her career for the calling of motherhood. Once a woman “congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause,” Slaughter now found herself on the other side. The feminist virtue of work as the ultimate calling for both sexes, it seems, was a bit out of touch with the reality of motherhood. Other assumptions made by her peers left her in a “blind fury.” The backlash from other women in response to a woman’s choice to raise her children is a consummate sign of our times.
A recent book published on the effect of feminism on single girls has garnered a lot of attention. Lori Gottlieb, author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, released her book after a series of articles appeared in the Atlantic. Her motivation for writing the book is simple: women are waiting too long to marry, have exceedingly high expectations for a mate, prioritize work over relationships. The title of one of her chapters — “How Feminism Fucked Up My Love Life” — says it all.
“To the outside world, of course, we still call ourselves feminists and insist — vehemently, even — that we’re independent and self-sufficient and don’t believe in any of that damsel-in-distress stuff, but in reality, we aren’t fish who can do without a bicycle, we’re women who want a traditional family.”
Unfortunately, for women who do want a traditional family, tradition itself is on the decline. In her book Women’s Figures, economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth provides extensive statistics on the recent trend in family life in America and around the world. Studies show that the average age of marriage is hovering around 30, as is the age of the woman at the birth of her first child. The number of children born to each family is unprecedentedly low, so low that European countries like France are making national strides to recover from a population crisis. As more and more people choose to have children later and later (if at all), choose to have children before marriage, choose to not get married at all, many of us wonder if these statistical figures are either a direct or indirect consequence of the choices won by the feminist movement.
For women who aren’t buying the feminist rhetoric on relationships and family, what are the alternatives?
Human intellectual history has provided women with figures both male and female who embrace womanhood and motherhood as beautiful concepts. Karol Wojtyla and Edith Stein write on the role of women in society without believing that work and family are spheres for one sex in particular, nor are the spheres mutually exclusive.
In his Letter to Women, Karol Wojtyla — more commonly known as Pope John Paul II—recognizes the vocation of all women — mothers, wives, consecrated women, working women, every woman — and thanks them for their unique contributions to the community and to the world. In the conclusion of the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II gives thanks “for all the manifestations of the feminine ‘genius’ which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations.” This compliment is explored at length in his papal letter to women. But for some, hearing about this “feminine genius” sounds like nails on a chalk board. The pope missteps — feminists would argue — by invoking the “feminine” when he lauds women for their genius. Feminism has steeled the pathos of women from receiving praise laced with essentialism, making them fearful to accept such a compliment. And rightly so. Just consider for a moment the contemporary cultural environment that the feminist movement has helped carve out for women today. The idea that chivalry is “benevolent sexism,” and the oppression of patriarchy are mantras of American feminism right now.
In the last century, many women within the intellectual tradition wrote works to advance the placement of women without fear of philosophical traditionalism. Just eighty years ago, philosopher Edith Stein — a veritable Catholic feminist for her time — dared to speak of the “essential.” A Jewish convert to Catholicism martyred in the Holocaust, Stein was a philosopher who wrote on the nature of men and women, asserting that there are essential qualities inherent to men and women. Today, to hold this philosophy is taboo. It has become too dated, too “normative,” too offensive to claim that there are some qualities that belong intrinsically to the sexes, and that they create differences in nature between men and women. For Stein, humans have three aspects of individuality: individual person, male or female, and human nature. Today’s culture exalts the individual person — the rights, freedom, and dignity of the fully-formed adult person. This differs drastically from the personalism espoused by Wojtyla and Stein, for the value of the human person is not held at the expense of others or the community. The differentiation between “maleness” and “femaleness,” however, is hardly a clear-cut concept. Even the idea of human nature has become relativized. We have lost right to speak in terms of the essential, and for that, both women and men are paying for it.
Let us consider where these movements have brought us philosophically. We don’t dare to accept “essentialism” because it means that there lays unalterable truth out there in the world to be discovered, truth that is nonnegotiable. The face of feminism today seeks to dismantle any vestige of essentialism in favor of relativism, pluralism, or any philosophy that “deconstructs” gender roles and even bolsters the position of women and minorities in society. And this driving philosophy can be applied to many social and economic issues supported by feminist activists: marriage equality, women’s “reproductive rights,” and equality in the workplace. The feminist movement is dedicated to deconstructing essentials and to revising tradition to make room for change. This is not philosophy; it’s propaganda.
Until feminism embraces the different calls of women to all areas of life, the movement continues on its trend toward disenfranchising women. Feminism may not have ruined women on the whole, but feminism has indeed ruined woman. The goals of feminism have jeopardized the future of the family. Until the feminist movement opens its membership to the women who embrace traditional vocations — from the call of stay-at-home motherhood to the call of consecrated virginity — feminism does not speak to all women. It will continue to contribute to the deprecation of woman who choose to stay home and raise their children, who choose to marry young, who elect to save their virginity for their husband, who choose to make conjugal love that is open to life, who choose to homeschool their children, who choose life at all costs, who choose to leave their sphere of work for the sake of the family, and finally, for the deprecation of men who support their women in their choices.