Photo by Martin Barraud
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The false choice of feminism

The secret to liberation is becoming a man

Last year a friend of mine was disappointed because the shoes she ordered for her daughter turned out to be hot pink. “I wouldn’t normally buy this colour,” she assured me. “I thought they were red.” She was reluctant to give them to her daughter and ended up stealthily replacing them.

Why would it bother her, I wondered, if girls should be free to wear whatever colour they want? Shouldn’t we treat pink as interchangeable with red or blue, not avoid it?

My friend’s anxiety gives lie to a pillar of feminism: that liberated women have more choices. Feminism claims to free women from conforming to traditional roles. In her review of Matt Walsh’s documentary What is a Woman, for instance, Victoria Smith contrasts feminism with “an anti-choice, conservative vision of what it means to be an adult human female”. By rejecting “gender stereotypes”, feminism has supposedly opened the door to a wider range of goals and lifestyles.

In practice, feminism redirects women to a different, but no less predetermined set of choices.

Why is it a virtue in him, but a sign of oppression in her?

Take for a thought experiment two hypothetical women, both superlatively successful in their chosen spheres. One has achieved the pinnacle of domesticity: she has raised healthy, happy children to adulthood and now entertains grandchildren at her tasteful and welcoming home. Her community knows and loves her; the poor and dispossessed greet her as a friend. Meanwhile she excels at the arts that bring joy and beauty to everyday life: cooking, gardening, sewing and decorating.

The other woman is a business titan. She has spent decades outmanoeuvring her rivals, amassing capital and acquiring influence. In her role as a competitive, driven, dominant and sometimes ruthless leader, she commands not necessarily affection but always respect from her colleagues. She has mastered the art of negotiation, outperforms her peers and endures grinding work conditions to achieve her goals.

Which of these women would we hold up as a role model for young girls? Which would we publicly praise and admire?

If our liberated age secured more choices for women, then we should expect praise and congratulations for both of these idols. Instead, today’s feminism would promote one and ignore or outright reject the other.

Behind the persistent bias, there is a kind of logic at play. Feminism is a social movement; the goal is social change. The principle might be equality and freedom — but the purpose, as with all activism, is to transform. If women exercise their freedom to wear pink and raise their children at home, there is no reason for celebration. We only advance the cause if we make choices tangibly different from the women who came before us.

As a logical complement to rolling back traditionally feminine behaviour among women, feminism encourages men to adopt it instead. Rather than urge the ambition and hard work associated with breadwinner roles, we now praise men for emotionally sensitive domesticity. A TV ad, for instance, features a young dad bouncing his baby in a carrying harness while loading up the washing machine, in what is presumably meant as a generally appealing model for family life — but only because he is a man. 

The effort to correct social imbalance has veered into uncomfortably unbalanced territory. Would a woman get kudos for carrying her child in a sling while doing the laundry? Why is it a virtue in him, but a sign of oppression in her?

Instead of liberating women to act as they please, feminism has fostered a culture that prefers women to act like men.

Feminism recasts masculine pursuits as the universal standard

Without openly stigmatising it, feminist messaging discourages women from choosing traditional femininity. The absence of praise and accolades effectively minimises achievements in the spheres of family, home and beauty. BBC’s 100 Women 2021 or TIME’s 100 Women of the Year, for instance, reserve their honours almost exclusively for business owners and political leaders. Women understand that living a good life means conforming to an identity oriented around careers and competition, when doing otherwise is met with silence.

Political campaigns reinforce this messaging by defining women’s advancement in terms of economic benchmarks. A typical discussion of women’s advancement centres on two statistics: pay gap and job titles. Before addressing education and safety, the UN’s 2020 report on women led with the headings “Unpaid domestic and care work holding women back” and “No cracks in the glass ceiling” (i.e., managerial positions). By calculating women’s success according to their salaries and job titles, policymakers impose traditionally male priorities. 

To evade this charge, feminist rhetoric recasts masculine pursuits as the universal standard for personal and social worth. Women should compete with men for money and titles because professionalism is inherently more valuable than domesticity. The unquestioned materialism of such a mindset calls for a more radical social movement. Instead of steering women away from traditional roles, let feminist reforms challenge the assumptions that rank a woman higher for founding a large and profitable company, than for nurturing the lives of other human beings.

In the meantime, women have traded one set of pressures for another. Make more money and fewer babies. Spend more time at the office and less at home. If we choose otherwise, the unspoken understanding is that we have chosen second best.

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