The Corner

The Right & ‘Feminism’

My column yesterday has generated a really interesting array of commenter, e-mail, and twitter responses. Many on the left simply think I have no standing to speak about feminism. There’s an interesting mix of identity politics and guild mentality in their arguments. Since I am a bad person who doesn’t agree with the professional feminist agenda, I can’t say anything about feminism with any credibility. Tellingly, nobody making such claims has offered anything like facts or counterarguments. They just say it is so.

Meanwhile, some readers on the right claim that little to nothing good has ever come from feminism. I am more than open to the idea that many bad things have come from feminism. I know it in my bones. I am on the same page as Kathryn, Kate O’Beirne, et al. on most of these issues. But it strikes me as lunacy to talk of feminism in the broadest sweep of things as monolithically negative if by feminism you mean the generic movement for female equality. Yes, the guild of professional feminists has done many bad things and at times have seemed at war with everything that is lovely and lovable about the fairer sex. But if we are to take the position that “feminist” is simply and in every regard an anathematizing word, then how on earth can we celebrate women like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, or for that matter Margaret Thatcher? 

Again, I am perfectly open to arguments and criticisms that I should have split hairs more or defined terms better or come up with some alternative term to “feminism.” And the question of when feminism hit the point of diminishing returns — post women’s suffrage? the 1960s? –  is an interesting and legitimate topic for heated debate.

But take a look at this reader’s e-mail, which is an extreme, almost parodic, example of what I’m talking about:

Mr. Goldberg,


I will give you credit—you’ve got a lot of nerve praising anything at all about feminism.  Feminism is, and was, a movement of the Left. Of course, you’re probably one of those newfangled right-wingers who doesn’t mind if your daughter benefits from the work of feminists. My point is that there is no principled basis for a conservative to support feminism, any more than there is such a basis for conservative support for the civil rights movement.


Feminists in the Middle East are, after all, resisting and attacking what is at bottom the conservative position of Islam on women. Once more, the ideological location for feminism is on the Left. Have you considered either switching ideological teams—or becoming a Muslim?

I think this is soup-to-nuts absurd. But it does raise a point I think many right-wingers and left-wingers alike need to acknowledge more often than they do. America is ideologically and politically syncretic. What is fundamentally American is a mix of ideas that are both on the “right” and “left” in other countries. A French conservative might hold positions shared by an American leftist, and a French liberal certainly holds positions shared by American conservatives. To say that conservatism must, of necessity, reject anything, anywhere, solely because at a specific point in time it can be dubbed “leftist” is absolutely ridiculous. So many ideas born on the left have come to be embraced on the right and for good reason. We on the right now champion governmental colorblindness, for example.

Conservatism isn’t about teams and hoarding ideological chips. It is about figuring out what is right and wrong, discriminating between the enduring and the transitory. This means, as Lincoln said, that conservatism will tend toward adhering to the old and tried over the new and untried. But eventually the new and untried become the old and tried, and there’s no reason for conservatism to reject ideas proven by time simply because of their embarrassing leftist parentage.

As I’ve been writing here for years (with all credit due to Friedrich Hayek and Sam Huntington), American conservatives are the only self-described conservatives in the world who defend a classically liberal revolution. That means something very special, indeed it is a great wellspring of American exceptionalism. A conservative in America doesn’t conserve theocracy or monarchy. He conserves the institutions of liberty. Perhaps not solely, for there are other things worth conserving as well. But a conservatism that does not conserve those institutions is not worth conserving. And in that fight, foreign and domestic, the Right should look for allies wherever it can.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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