- February 2001

The Conservative Effects of the Feminist Movement

Feminism has been so identified with the Left in this country, with conservatives being generally opposed. How can one talk about feminism as being conservative?

by Dan Marshall
Copyright © 2001 by Dan Marshall


The paradox

The title of this essay is going to strike most readers as being a bit odd. Feminism has been so identified with the Left in this country, with conservatives being generally opposed. How can one talk about feminism as being conservative?

To understand this paradox, it is important to define both conservative and liberal, and for me to discuss my background a bit. I grew up in a very liberal family, with politics being a frequent topic of discussion. While my mother did not work outside the home, she was at least as active and knowledgeable about politics as my father, and their relationship was a model of mutual respect and equality. I grew up during the '6o's and '70's, and while feminism was struggling for acceptance in the larger society, its basic ideas of equality and respect for women were a given in my family. No thought required.

I learned, literally on my Daddy's knee, that Democrats were the ones who cared about the people - especially those unable to take care of themselves - while Republicans only cared about Big Business and the rich. The Democrats (or liberals) were against the war in Vietnam, and were generally peace-loving folks, while the Republicans (conservatives) were violent warmongers. While of course this is not totally accurate (I naturally assumed that liberals would be antiabortion, as nobody is less able to take care of themselves than a fetus, and abortion is a very violent act, but I digress), these oversimplifications contain enough truth that they still influence my political views.

In college, about the only things I remember from my first Political Science class were the definitions of liberal and conservative. I wish I remember the author of these simple, yet profound definitions, as they are more effective in burning off the fog of political demagoguery and obfuscation than anything else I have ever learned:

A conservative is someone who is resistant to change - who wants to maintain the status quo. A liberal is someone who thinks things are basically OK the way they are - we just need a few small changes. That's it - nothing about size of government or personal character.

These terms are relative - conservatives and liberals will look different in different times and places. I used to outrage my conservative, cold warrior friends by calling then-Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev a conservative - but in the Soviet Union at that time, he was.

Once I began to understand these definitions, politics started making a lot more sense. I learned why truly radical ideas are so seldom found within the liberal media, how a liberal like Johnson could escalate the Vietnam War, and how silly it was to call Bill Clinton (who is barely a liberal) a socialist - especially given how much my truly socialist friends despise him! Liberalism starts to look like a more tolerant and open-minded conservatism.

The capitalist connection

What does this have to do with feminism? Well, it has to do with how movements that start out as liberal or even radical can become conservative over time, as the more radical aspects become marginalized and the system co-opts and absorbs the parts it finds most useful.

It is also important to understand just what it is that conservatives wish to conserve. In this country, I believe that conservatives, especially conservative politicians, are most interested in preserving and strengthening the current distribution of wealth and power in this society. It is the capitalist system, and the power of big corporations and the rich that they are promoting.

The feminist movement has led to some big changes in social and family structure in this country, and that conservatives have opposed those changes - but feminism, like anything else that promotes greater opportunity and greater participation within the capitalist system, is ultimately quite compatible with capitalism, and helps strengthen it. After all, it is the most advanced capitalist countries that have made the biggest advances in women's rights. Since the economic elite of this country are more conservative on economic than on social issues, I believe that the feminist movement is something they can live with and support, even if it does not come naturally to them.

Certainly, many feminists are quite radical and lean toward socialism, but it is important to look not at the ideas behind the movement, but the actual political and economic effects of that movement. The main economic effect has been a large influx of women into the labor force. These women are at least as well educated as the men; so we have a significantly larger talent pool, educated and diverse, from which employers can choose. Besides giving employers more choices, it has also helped to keep wages in check - countless surveys show that real wages are actually lower now than the early 1970's, when this influx really began.

Also, many household tasks once performed by housewives, such as food preparation and childcare, are increasingly performed by the marketplace. Or else women perform them in addition to their jobs, becoming too exhausted to cause any trouble.

While median income has gone down, the increase in women workers has more than made up for it - family income has continued to rise. We live in much bigger houses than we used to, and fill them with more stuff. We eat out more, travel more, drive fancier cars, have more toys and gadgets - all eagerly supplied and advertised by our ever-expanding capitalist system. The frugal housewife of earlier times, trying to stretch her husband's paycheck to cover the needs of her larger family, who packs up the station wagon to take the family to grandma's for vacation, is now the smaller, two income family with cellphones, computers, a 3000 square foot house, an expanding stock portfolio, and vacations in Cabos.

The feminist movement, which measures progress in terms of how much money and power women have relative to men, has helped make the culture of commercialized consumerism more pervasive than ever. We have become obsessed with the state of the economy, with whole TV networks devoted to the latest trends in the stock market. Wealth and power are becoming more concentrated than ever. Coincidence? Well, even though feminism is hardly the only factor in all of this, it has certainly deserved a much closer look than it has received in the past!

Feminism is no longer a progressive force in American politics

It has reached the point where feminism - the movement, if not some of its worthy ideas like equality and respect for women - has become an obstacle for anyone wanting meaningful change in our society. Camille Paglia once said that the Left in this country has been severely weakened by feminism, and Betty Friedan once speculated that Gloria Steinem was a CIA agent; for why else would she be fomenting so much division?

When I was younger, I experienced firsthand how difficult it is for a self-respecting male to function within leftist politics - or some social service organizations - due to the level of anti-male rhetoric and suspicion within such organizations. I had to either leave or adapt - and I chose to leave. I began to wonder how many other good men (and women!) were driven out of leftist politics for the same reason - and how much the "gender gap" in politics was due to this factor. Divide and conquer is an age-old conservative tool - but in this case, the left has used it against itself!

Trouble also arises for men who wish to learn new ways of being a man in this society, as the feminist movement has been quite hostile to any men's movement not under its direct control. Men are asked to join women in fighting for women's rights - to become sort of a men's auxiliary of the women's movement - as if equality can only be achieved by both men and women fighting for women's interests under women's control! Men who have no interest in this version of the age-old protector role - men setting aside their own interests in the interests of women - who have no interest in this aspect of the "patriarchy" - are viciously attacked by feminists. The message is, "don't change, except on my terms" - hardly a liberal message! Feminism becomes, in effect, if not in intention, a major defender of traditional male sex roles.

The message is becoming increasingly clear: Feminism is no longer a progressive force in American politics. It has outlived its usefulness. Oh, one may still find a good idea here and there - and the basic message of equality is a good one, and widely accepted in American society even if the movement itself has little to do with equality anymore. Feminism has become an entrenched special interest group. What once was liberal and even radical has become orthodox.

Anyone who wishes for positive, progressive social change nowadays needs to look beyond feminism - and even tell it to get out of the way sometimes. Besides the men's movement, I have become interested in sustainable development, the environment, and simple living. These movements can all claim some inspiration from feminism - but from many other sources as well. In fact, some reverse inspiration might be a good idea - a feminist movement that can work on a truly equal footing with men, and that envisions a more environmentally sustainable, anticonsumerist society, would be a good idea, and may even exist in some form.

Of course, such a revolution would not be televised; nor would we read about it in Newsweek. Instead, we get Susan Faludi, Gloria Steinem, and Patricia Ireland - while the rich keep getting richer and the environment goes to hell.

This is not the way it was supposed to be!

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