The Corner


Second-Wave Feminism Hasn’t Been a Victory for Women

In her piece today on NRO, my colleague Tiana Lowe is dead-right about one thing: Modern feminists are bullies. And she’s certainly correct that today’s women often don’t want to identify as feminists because they think they’ll be lumping themselves into a group that has “become an antagonizing, miserable, culturally Marxian code word for a far-left movement that seeks to confine women into boxes of wokeness.”

That’s well said. But I fear that Tiana’s piece misses the mark when it praises second-wave feminism and sees today’s feminists as a deviation from the ideals of the 1960s and ’70s. In fact, second- and third-wave feminism both operate under a fundamentally misguided view of freedom. More from Tiana’s piece:

Consider, for a moment, the legal and social reality of women in America. We graduate college in greater numbers than men to pursue careers, and, for the first time in human history, have readily available, affordable contraceptives that give us nearly total control over when or if we choose to have children. Clearly, we like this state of affairs. If feminism were actually about choice, all women would embrace it.

Would all women really embrace a feminism that’s primarily about choice? I, for one, wouldn’t, because I don’t believe that the “freedom to choose” is really the benchmark against which women — or anyone — should measure their happiness. That ubitiquous phrase — “freedom to choose” — is rhetoric that both second- and third-wave feminists use to justify a lifestyle that must be propped up by declaring government-funded birth control a human right and promoting abortion-on-demand as a backdoor out of responsibility when contraception fails.

Tiana argues that we can call second-wave feminism “a categorical success,” because it supposedly allowed women to “transcend the social and legal barriers that used to confine them to lives of a single mold.” Second-wave feminism succeeded, she says, because it “lauded the variety of choices a woman can have in her life.”

I disagree strenuously with that. Indeed, second-wave feminism, with its emphasis on “personal choice,” can be held responsible for much of today’s progressive agenda, including the Left’s embrace of a variety of deeply harmful choices.

By far the most significant of those is the evil of abortion. Second-wave feminism indisputably enshrined the murder of unborn children as strictly necessary to facilitate women’s “freedom.” Any worldview that pits mothers against their children — that tells them that those children are the biggest obstacle to their true fulfillment, and must be killed as a result — isn’t offering authentic freedom.

Second-wave feminism also carved out room for some less-harmful-than-abortion, but still harmful choices that have had destructive effects. It pushed for and achieved the legalization of no-fault divorce, a choice that nearly always places the emotional fulfillment of adults above the good of their children and, as a result, often leads to poor life outcomes for the now-50 percent of American kids who see their parents split. Second-wave feminism also pushed the view that marriage is unnecessary, contributing to a shocking rise in single motherhood, one of the strongest indicators of whether a child will grow up in poverty.

And while Tiana is correct that second-wave feminism’s most popular victory was its instantiation of effective, readily available birth-control methods, this is not the unalloyed good that she implies it is. Even aside from the serious medical side effects of some hormonal birth control, casual use of contraceptives has fostered a societal mindset that often expects women to intentionally sterilize themselves to facilitate their careers and a consequence-free sex life. This is part of why today’s third-wave feminists — whom both Tiana and I despise — so often deride women who believe that being married and having children is an equally viable path to fulfillment.

Do all women really like today’s state of affairs? I’d dispute that. On the face of it, some of our present policies are politically popular — though there are dissenters such as myself — but it is also the case that this view of freedom has wreaked plenty of havoc that is not popular at all – especially with the children who bear the cost of their parents’ pleasure. Indeed, the “freedom” that Tiana lionizes doesn’t make women all that fulfilled, either.

Tiana and I surely agree on her most important point: Neither of us wants to be lectured by today’s feminists. I’d take it a step further and say that today’s feminists aren’t a distortion of second-wave feminism’s “victory” at all, but rather the logical extension of a worldview that makes choice into an idol, regardless of whether those choices truly foster the common good.