Feminism is not an idea or a collection of ideas but a collection of appetites wriggling queasily together like a bag of snakes. Feminism has nothing to do with the proposition that women should be considered whole and complete members of the body politic, though it has enjoyed great success marketing itself that way. (Virginia I. Postrel recently denounced me as a “creep” for suggesting that the substance of feminism, if indeed there is any, differs rather radically from its advertising campaigns.) A useful definition is this: “Feminism is the words ‘I Want!’ in the mouths of three or more women, provided they’re the right kind of women.” Feminism must therefore accommodate wildly incompatible propositions — e.g., (1) Women unquestionably belong alongside men in Marine units fighting pitched battles in Tora Bora but (2) really should not be expected to be able to perform three chin-ups. Or: (1) Women at Columbia are empowered by pornography but (2) women at Wellesley are victimized by a statue of a man sleepwalking in his Shenanigans. And then there is Fluke’s Law: (1) Women are responsible moral agents with full sexual and economic autonomy who (2) must be given an allowance, like children, when it comes to contraceptives.
Feminism began as a simple grievance, mutated into a kind of conspiracy theory (with “patriarchy” filling in for the Jews/Freemasons/Illuminati/Bohemian Grove/reptilian shape-shifters/the fiendish plot of Dr. Fu Manchu/etc.), spent the 1980s in grad school congealing into a ridiculous jargon, and with the booming economy of the 1990s was once again reinvented, this time as a career path.
Which brings us back to Miss Fluke, who recently announced that she intends to seek a seat in the senate of California, a state in which she has resided for about eleven minutes following a Pennsylvania upbringing, a New York undergraduate career — with the inevitable bachelor’s degree in “feminist, gender, and sexuality studies” — and law school in Washington. She is a member of the California bar and therefore perhaps better situated for the office she seeks than was fellow feminist opportunist Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose residency in Chappaqua, N.Y., was pro forma. Miss Fluke’s accomplishments are thin: She served as president of the Georgetown chapter of a feminist law-students’ organization and produced a video on how to obtain a restraining order. The video was financed by the Women Lawyers of Los Angeles Fran Kandel Public Interest Grant; whatever Sandra Fluke is up to, you can be sure she’s looking for somebody else to pay for it.
For what is she known? For standing in front of a group of legislators saying “I Want!” It is worth remembering that Miss Fluke’s “I Want!” heard ’round the world was a demand for birth-control subsidies at a Catholic institution: What’s a few thousand years of practice and the most highly developed body of moral philosophy in the Western world compared with a callow young law student’s “I Want!”? Public policy can be complicated, but “I Want!” is simple. In the world of responsible politics, there are sometimes conflicts between competing legitimate goods, and there are occasions upon which the necessities of governance run up against the limitations our constitutional order puts upon the political enterprise. Miss Fluke spoke many, many words on the subject but, defying probability, never managed to stumble upon any interesting ones. She ended where she began: “I Want!”
The genius of that battle cry is in its simplicity. Given the desultory attention the typical American pays to public affairs and the general moral illiteracy of democratic electorates, the conversion of skepticism about a specific demand originating with a specific woman or group of women into a stinging accusation of hostility toward women categorically is child’s play for a minimally competent politician. That is how defending the position favored more heavily by women than by men becomes, through the magic of feminist rhetoric, anti-woman, even part of a “war on women.”
That certainly was the case in Texas. Wendy Davis, an undistinguished state senator who originally entered politics as a Republican before discovering the rich career opportunities on offer elsewhere, is known to the general public for one thing and for one thing only: her filibuster of a Texas law that would have imposed some restrictions on abortion, especially on those performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Women not only favored that Texas law, but they favored it much more strongly than did men. Women favored the law by a 3-to-2 margin, in fact. But the law has been successfully vilified as an attack on “women’s health,” and Miss Davis, now a gubernatorial candidate, reinvented as a champion of women, even though she achieved prominence by thwarting the interests of a majority of those women she is campaigning to govern.
There are certain standing openings in American public life. There is always going to be somebody in the Jesse Jackson role, the Pat Robertson role, the Warren Buffett role. And while the role of feminist-in-chief is currently occupied and probably will be at least through 2016, every sub-polity has a spot for its own Hillary Rodham Clinton, a wide-open channel for the communication of whatever it is that has feminists chanting at any given moment.
Being a feminist icon is a pretty good racket. Financial disclosures recently showed that Miss Davis, ex-tornado-bait trailer-park-refugee single-mom crusader for the common folk, has used some $131,000 in campaign funds to house herself in luxury apartments in Austin boasting “five-star resort amenities.” Among her most enthusiastic boosters is Cecile Richards, daughter of the late Texas governor, who is paid nearly a half-million dollars a year for her work defending the surgical dismemberment of unborn children in the furtherance of sexual convenience. Miss Fluke is very likely to find California politics an amenable environment and is no doubt headed for a lifetime of comfortable sinecures.
So the money’s good, but feminism throws up pretty poor leaders. The constant posture of wounded outrage — outrage that can only be salved with a ritual offering to the great “I Want!” — makes one poorly suited for the actual business of responsible governance, which is by necessity an exercise in prudent negotiation and compromise. In their moral zeal, the feminists are rather like the creationists on the Texas board of education, richer in opinion than in knowledge, not always clear on what’s going on but forever mindful of who their friends and enemies are. And if one should happen to note that marrying (and then enduring) one’s way into political power is poor preparation for, say, a secretary of state or a presidential candidate, well then there’s a war on women on, or hadn’t you heard?
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving reporter for National Review.