Is there a feminist case for virtue?

I’ve been reviewing like mad: first Amia Srinivasan’s The Right To Sex, which I found so evasive I concluded it was a coded cry for help from inside the woke ivory tower. And secondly, Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue, which I argue here makes a compelling case for trans activism as a legitimate daughter of second-wave feminism – complete with the ambivalent and sometimes matricidal mother/daughter dynamics that pervaded that movement. No wonder the so-called ‘TERF wars’ are so bitter.

Elsewhere, I proposed in American Affairs that what we understand as ‘feminism’ is to a great extent an effect of industrial-era economic shifts, that triggered wholesale re-negotiation of sex roles. But further, that we’re now leaving the industrial era, and thus once again re-negotiating sex roles; and if we try to do this on the industrial-era yardstick for what constitutes women’s interests, we’re going to end up somewhere very dark indeed.

I agree with the intersectionalists that feminism can’t be understood as universal; applying that logic across history opens the possibility that twentieth-century feminist ideals that were legitimately in our interests then may no longer be so now. And all these themes: economic transitions, matricide, woke feminism and trans activism, come together in reflections this week on yet another book: Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Legacy.

Another recent read, Susan Faludi’s superb 2010 essay American Electra, discusses the matricidal streak in the feminist movement. Faludi argues that what she calls this ‘persistent barrenness’ (in other words the repeated rejection by successive ‘waves’ of whatever their foremothers valued) has its roots in the 1920s. At this point, following the suffragists’ success in attaining votes for women, a movement that had sought political change with and in the name of its daughters fragmented from a more matrilineal approach toward an individualist, consumer one based on rejecting maternal heritage:

The prevailing pageantry of the 1920s wasn’t simply an infantilization of the girl. It was, more ominously, an eviction of the mother. The forces arrayed against the mother were many. Some of her antagonists would be presented as allies, sympathetic “experts” who knew better than she did how to do her job. Mothers, the new and reigning “behavioralist” psychologists held, knew nothing about “scientific” child rearing and would do irreparable harm to children if they followed their own instincts instead of the male authorities.

To this end, mothers’ homespun skills were cast out in favour of ‘experts’, and crafts in favour of a newly consumerist expert-led womanhood. Faludi quotes sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd, who reported how daughters “fresh from domestic science in school” now “ridicule the mothers’ inherited rule-of-thumb practices as ‘old fashioned.’”

A glance around Mumsnet discussions on unwanted advice from one’s own mother says we’re still living in that world. Putting together Faludi’s connection of consumer society with that ‘matricidal’ streak in feminism, and my own exploration of the relationships between economic transition and the emergence of ‘women’s rights’ as such, I was thrilled to speak this week with Erika Bachiochi, a legal scholar and director of the Abigail Adams Insitute’s Wollstonecraft Project, about how on earth she found time to write a scholarly pro-family re-reading of Wollstonecraft while caring for seven children.

“That is maybe the question”, she told me. Her approach, I gather, was first having a very supportive husband, plus ensuring her children didn’t expect her to entertain them: “I’d be around, but reading”. But while she acknowledges that Wollstonecraft’s own life didn’t match the ideals she set out, Bachiochi tells me she wanted to write this book partly because “I actually have the family life Wollstonecraft describes”.

Bachiochi’s recent The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Legacy seeks to recoup Mary Wollstonecraft from her current role in the pantheon as proto-liberal, for a more Aristotelian understanding of human excellence as rooted in our common experience of rationality and our obligation to order that to the good.

Wollstonecraft, as Bachiochi characterises her, wasn’t interested in a conception of humans with rights in some abstract sense, but in a more grounded, relational one: we have rights in order to do the right thing – which for her was centred around family life.

Bachiochi sets out the way Wollstonecraft challenged Rousseau’s vision of the ideal liberal subject, who was a male one possessing male virtues. Women, he thought, were fundamentally different, had their own set of virtues, and were (or should be) oriented toward pleasing men as well as manipulating them toward moral improvement by offering or withholding sex.

Wollstonecraft disagreed. “Wollstonecraft thought virtue was human, and God’s attributes reflected in humans,” Bachiochi explains. “You can only judge virtue by understanding the attributes of God, and it makes no sense to say they’re specific to sex.” But what about sex roles, then? “Different lives may mean different manifestations of virtue and these may be sexed; but virtue means using reason in principle to master one’s appetites. And that’s applicable to both sexes in pursuit of their duties.”

Wollstonecraft, she tells me, also saw how harmful Rousseau’s notion of sexed souls was for women, once you put it together with his idea that passion, not reason, should lead. “If we allow passions to direct, and we agree with Rousseau that men are more libidinous, then an ideology of passion means freedom mostly for men.”

Looking around, it’s clear who won. It wasn’t Wollstonecraft. One thing that intrigues me about this debate is the way it’s reproduced even among those who see themselves as fiercely anti-feminist: see for example the neoreactionary writer ‘Zero HP Lovecraft’ here expressing a very Rousseauian vision of proper relations between the sexes:Zero HP Lovecraft (HAVER OF VITAL MAGNETISM) @0x49fa98@JamesMaddenUWU @russiancosmist @The_WGD If your wife “thinks for herself” – that ain’t yo wife, that’s yo husbandAugust 23rd 202110 Retweets172 Likes

Much of what we understand as liberal feminism today consists, essentially, of women rejecting this contemptuously-framed role as second fiddle to the active, passionate, political man, and seeking to join men on the same terms. (The perennial question of who looks after the babies while we’re all smashing glass ceilings then spawns its own set of bitter debates).

In any case, Rousseau’s fantasy of a passive, second-order feminine Other to act as foil for his idealised, atomised, individuated liberal subject, is close to the beating heart of liberal modernity. And inasmuch as liberal feminism accepts these premises, and sees female humans as of a different metaphysical nature to male ones, it’s bound to reproduce its contempt for care and marginalisation of mothers.

Contrasting The Rights of Woman with my other two August reads, The Right To Sex and The Transgender Issue, it’s clear that the latter two argue from and within the matricidal tradition that’s descended from these early debates over sex roles, that took place in another immense economic transition. Srinivasan manages to write a whole book about sex without more than a passing mention of love, biology or children – all topics with more than a passing connection to the subject, or so you’d think. And Faye has argued convincingly for trans activism as the legitimate daughter of second-wave feminism’s intermittent trans-humanist fantasies of using technology to liberate women permanently from the need to be mothers.

As presented by Bachiochi, Mary Wollstonecraft’s vision of women’s rights wasn’t rooted in repudiation of the obligations and bonds that come with motherhood, in pursuit of pure atomised selfhood, but rather conceived of as one-half of a common human enterprise centred in family life.

As such it’s clear that Erika Bachiochi offers a radical challenge to modes of feminism that have become entrenched orthodoxy. She mounts a defence of common life that centres motherhood to an extent even I, a purported ‘reactionary feminist’, find challenging. That is, she situates the most profound marginalisation of mothers in the drive – led by feminists seeking freedom on equal Rousseauesque terms with men – for abortion rights.

Abortion, Bachiochi argues, has resulted not in greater freedom or equality but more ‘sexual risk-taking’ that largely benefits men, even as it places the women’s movement ‘on the side of the individualistic and consumerist economy, ever hostile to the priorities of the child-rearing family, and so diametrically at odds with the market-resistant logic for which the women’s movement originally stood’.

This is a difficult and emotive subject, and one I approach with some caution. So for now I’ll just say that we continue our steady advance into the ‘Meat Lego Matrix’, a worldview that sees us all – and women especially – as endlessly malleable flesh, and human fertility largely as a biotech market ripe for opening up. And in the light of these changes, it’s possible – though I reserve judgement still – that we may yet find ourselves needing to argue, for women’s sake, against a medical practice that in an earlier socioeconomic context seemed unambiguously to be in women’s interests.

In any case, Bachiochi makes a spirited feminist case against abortion, in the interests of re-situating mothers and motherhood in the women’s movement. And while I have a great deal more thinking to do before I commit myself either way on this topic, as a reader it was a blessed relief to step from the arid, disembodied, amoral circumlocutions of The Right To Sex to Bachiochi’s warm, woman-centred moral clarity.

Two books, then, feted in the mainstream, in different ways pursue the ever-more-disembodied vision of human selfhood first envisioned by Rousseau: a vision that structurally marginalises care, women and motherhood and takes entry into the market and public life plus the medical interruption of pregnancy as core political aims. This tradition has, perhaps unsurprisingly, spawned as its logical daughter a ‘transfeminism’ that unmoors ‘womanhood’ from bodies altogether, in the name of self-realisation and individual freedom.

A third, considerably more marginal book argues the case instead for an engaged, relational understanding of women’s rights and interests, centred in a common human pursuit of excellence and rooted in virtue the obligations of family life – to the extent of challenging our contemporary view of abortion as a feminist ‘right’ as inimical to that pursuit of virtue.

This right here is the emerging terrain of feminist debate in the early twenty-first century. Are we still killing our mothers? What if any are the links between matricide and feticide? Is there a feminist case for virtue? I’m going to leave this open, as this post is now long enough, but this is challenging terrain and merits a great deal more thought.

The Right To Sex: Srinivasan’s cry for help

If you were a greengrocer in Soviet Czechoslovakia, it would be prudent to display, in your window, a poster proclaiming: “Workers of the world, unite.” This is the famous example Vaclav Havel used, in The Power of the Powerless (1978), to illustrate mass conformity to Communist dogma. Havel’s greengrocer probably never thinks about that slogan, let alone believes it; he puts it obediently in his window to signal compliance with the regime. As Havel puts it: “If he were to refuse, there could be trouble.”

I was reminded of Havel’s greengrocer when reading The Right To Sex, a much-lauded new book on women and feminism by Amia Srinivasan — the holder of Oxford University’s prestigious Chichele professorship of social and political theory, a position previously held by luminaries such as Isaiah Berlin.

Despite — or perhaps because of — her standing, she opens the book with a statement typically found in the preface of any contemporary woke writing about women; I’ve come to think of it as a direct equivalent to the greengrocer’s poster:

“At birth, bodies are sorted as ‘male’ or ‘female’, though many bodies must be mutilated to fit one category or the other, and many bodies will later protest against the decision that was made. This originary division determines what social purpose a body will be assigned.”

Yes, commissar, the statement says, the definition of “woman” in my book about women is “anyone who identifies as a woman”. No, commissar, biology is not a thing.

Continue reading “The Right To Sex: Srinivasan’s cry for help”

Reactionary Feminism (First Things)

“A reactionary feminism seeks to honor women by accepting as givens the things that make us human: our bodies and our relationships. It asks how we might frame our obligations justly, between the sexes, in the interest of the common good. Women must negotiate new social and economic conditions, not in a spirit of zero-sum conflict with men, but alongside our friends, husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. The aim is not to return to some imagined perfect past, but to reach a future unshackled from the dystopian pursuit of progress. The only escape from a nightmare of atomization and war between the sexes is the recognition that we are embodied creatures, and that interdependence is not ­oppression but the very thing that makes us human.”

Link (First Things)

Love in the Marketplace (Plough)

“In the digital age, Adam Smith’s artificial separation of sympathy from the market is dissolving, along with the industrial-era divisions between the domestic and commercial. In their place we’re offered a single order of unchained and monetized desire, in which there is no outside limit to selfhood – with even our bodies increasingly seen as infinitely malleable to the demands of self. Our emotional lives are now big business, whether in the commercialization of desire via online dating or pornography, or the countless digital temptations that hook our brains to the next social-media dopamine hit. We no longer pursue our interests in a market informed by sympathy-driven moral sentiment; rather, we are consuming units in a “marketplace of sentiment” where every desire is valid providing it can be monetized.”

Read the rest (Plough Quarterly)

The Sexual Counterrevolution (Spectator World)

Charlotte is a 23-year-old Harvard graduate. Beautiful and willowy, she grew up in — her words — ‘a super-liberal environment’. You might expect to find her Instagram full of sexy, pouting pictures. But Charlotte has deleted all the bikini photos from her online life. And six months ago, she embraced ‘modest dress’: nothing that exposes her collarbones or shoulders and nothing that reveals her legs above the knee.

Narayan is seven years older than Charlotte. He is what matchmaking 18th-century matrons might have described as ‘very eligible’: a clean-living, highly educated and charismatic single guy with a well-paid job in tech. He’s the embodiment of Jane Austen’s famous observation that ‘a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’. And contra all the modern laments about single men preferring to play the field, Narayan actually wants to get married.

Narayan and his close male friends are all around the same age. They’re all elite guys working in tech and finance — and all either dating to marry, or already married. In what amounts to an informal 21st-century marriage brokerage, they and the wives of already-married members of their friend group collude to track down potential partners. But they’re picky — and Narayan is blunt about the criteria. It’s not just about being educated, ambitious or pretty. ‘Guys who say they don’t care about their wife’s sexual history are straight-up lying,’ he tells me. All the men in his group, he says, would strongly prefer their future wives to be virgins on marriage. Some categorically rule out women who aren’t: ‘No hymen, no diamond’.

Charlotte and Narayan are not the uptight fundamentalists or ugly, embittered feminists of stereotype: they’re members of the Ivy-educated jeunesse dorée. They’re pushing back against a culture of sexual freedom they see as toxic not just to individual wellbeing, but even to the long-term health of American society. They’re the forefront of what ‘Default Friend’, a Bay Area writer on sex and relationships, terms ‘the coming wave of sex-negativity’.

Welcome to the sexual counterrevolution.

Read the rest (Spectator)

On why we’re all post-liberal now, with Simeon Burke

I thoroughly enjoyed this challenging but very interesting chat with Simeon Burke on faith, motherhood, feminism, why I don’t believe in progress and why the term ‘post-liberal’ doesn’t really make sense because all politics is post-liberal now.

On surviving postmodernism, with Benjamin Boyce

Had the most wonderful epic chat with the delightful Benjamin Boyce, where we roamed across such terrain as the psychotic side-effects of postmodernism, why nihilism isn’t the answer, why I don’t believe in progress and what’s left out of the internet’s parody of the social. It’s on YouTube:

Opening remarks for Res Publica post-liberal feminism webinar

The Motherhood Blind Spot

The text below is my opening remarks from Res Publica’s 17 December 2020 seminar on post-liberal feminism, with Kathleen Stock, Louise Perry, Nina Power and Nimco Ali. Watch the full video below:

Before I had a baby, I believed all the usual liberal things about men and women. We’re all basically the same apart from our genitals. We all aspire to freedom and want to choose our relationships and values rather than have them imposed on us. A successful career is something everyone aspires to. Unequal career outcomes are the result only of sexism. Women can do anything men can: we just need the freedom to try.

Then I got pregnant, and found I was no longer a free individual as before. Instead, I was something my liberalism had no language for: a person in a symbiotic relationship. But my symbiote wasn’t some kind of parasite, she was a longed-for baby. She was loved and wanted as well as dependent, and her wellbeing was more important to me than pretty much anything else.

Then I found out this feeling of symbiosis didn’t end when I give birth and was physically separate from my baby. I regularly woke in the night a few seconds before she started crying for milk. I’d lose the ability to think clearly when she needed food. The only time I’ve ever damaged a car in 20 years’ driving was trying to get it round a tight corner with a hungry baby screaming in the back.

All these things get less overwhelming as a baby gets older, but talking to other mums my sense is that feeling of being not totally separate from your kids never really goes away. I’m 41 now, and my mum still often phones moments after I’ve thought of her. I call this the Mum Bluetooth. We have no language for talking about it. This blind spot has political repercussions for women.

Babies are weirdly missing from mainstream feminism except as a problem to be solved. Either they’re an unwanted pregnancy, or they’re holding your earning potential back, or they’re causing ‘unpaid labour’ (also known as caring work) which isn’t shared equally by men.

The unstated premise behind all this is that individual freedom is the highest aspiration for all humans, and inasmuch as female biology pushes against individual freedom women’s biology needs to be overcome.

The Economist, writing about the loss of earnings that accompanies taking a career break to care for children, calls this the ‘motherhood penalty’. That is, for a feminism that’s premised only on freedom and individualism, motherhood is not a superpower. It’s a punishment.

This grudging relationship of femaleness to the ideal liberal subject goes all the way back to the first liberal thinkers. Jean-Jaques Rousseau, one of the foundational thinkers of modern liberalism, didn’t even believe women could be free in this way, and envisaged an education for men that trained them to be independent liberal subjects while women should be raised as charming, compliant support humans.

It wasn’t long before Mary Wollstonecraft challenged the idea that liberalism was just a boys’ club. She claimed education, freedom and emancipation for women on equal terms with men, kick-starting the movement that eventually became feminism.

But here I’m going to be provocative and suggest that actually, in a way, Rousseau was right. Women are less well-suited to liberal autonomy than men. But this isn’t an argument against women, or motherhood. It’s an argument against liberalism.

If we believe the ideal human condition is autonomy, we have no way of thinking about humans as interdependent. And motherhood is the most concrete example of interdependence. An unborn baby is not a separate individual, but nor is it a parasite, or merely a thing.

Even after a baby is born, it’s not really a separate person. The paediatrician Donald Winnicott famously said ‘There is no such thing as a baby, only a baby and someone’. I wasn’t imagining that feeling of being merged, that was so strong when my daughter was tiny. It was an accurate understanding of her condition. If I, or someone else, didn’t love and care for her, she’d die.

In the framework of freedom and individual rights, we have no language for this interdependence.

Liberalism is a doctrine that gives a good account of human society only if you airbrush out all states of dependence. That means that to make the privileging of freedom work, you have to look away from childhood. From old age. From illness. From disability. And if you base your worldview only on freedom, you’ll also end up scribbling out the other side of dependency, which is care.

So it should come as no surprise that we have more freedom than ever before, but we also have a care deficit that no one knows how to address. We clapped for carers during the lockdown, then went straight back to underpaying them. We wince at every nursing home scandal, but have no idea what to do about them, because ignoring dependency and undervaluing care is baked into the liberal worldview. And women, whose biological superpower is the ability to create new humans through a process of symbiosis followed by years of loving care, find that superpower treated as though it’s in fact a handicap.

The sociologist Catherine Hakim has argued that developed-world women’s working preferences actually break down roughly as follows: 20% of mothers prefer to spend all their time with kids, 20% prefer to focus mainly on career, and the remaining 60% prefer a balance of the two. That certainly accords with my anecdotal experience.

But what this means is that 80% of women prefer to make some space in their lives for priorities associated with caring. And yet, because feminism has the liberal blind spot around dependency and care, we find the preoccupations of feminism heavily skewed toward the priorities of that 20% of women whose main priority is individual self-actualisation. That is, the 20% who want a career on the same terms as men. So we have a feminism of childcare, pay gaps, workplace etiquette, celebrating the achievements of successful women and so on. What about the other 80% though? Are we not also women? Whenever I tell people I don’t want to work any harder because I prefer to make some time for family, I sometimes feel vaguely as though I’m letting the side down. But loving your kids shouldn’t be a source of shame.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for sending women back to the kitchen. What I’m saying is that a number of key issues for women can’t easily be addressed unless we stop pretending it’s possible to worship individual freedom and also advocate for women.

If we privilege freedom over biology, we end up writing female bodies out of feminism altogether. That means obstetric care, reproductive healthcare and family issues are no longer specific to women.

It also means even where sex segregation is in place for women’s safety, this becomes difficult to defend. Likewise, if we see males and the careerist female 20% as the workplace default, we’ll struggle to rethink work in ways that meet the needs and preferences of the 80% of women who prefer a balance.

That in turn means a huge proportion of women will end up spending their working lives either having fewer kids than they’d like, which is now the norm all over the West, or else chronically guilty and burned out trying to live up to feminist ideals that were supposed to free us.

To repeat: this is not an argument that there’s something wrong with women. It’s that there’s something wrong with worshipping freedom and calling it feminism. The feminisms that reject this privileging only of freedom and seek to re-centre the women’s movement on female bodies re diverse and there’s plenty to disagree on. This is a space where conservative Christian thought overlaps with radical feminism, as well as with others such as me who don’t fit neatly in either of those groups.

My aim here is just to name the blind spot. To create more space for acknowledging the overlapping themes of women’s bodies, motherhood as a superpower, and the politics of love and interdependence.

Nothing makes it more self-evident than gestating a baby that we belong to each other, not just to ourselves. That’s an idea I’d like to see embraced not just by feminists, not even just by women, but by everyone. It’s sorely missing from our atomised and adversarial politics.