Most people speak of feminism as though it’s a single thing, as if the word “feminism” is a univocal word. But it isn’t. It’s an equivocal word, with a number of meanings, although they are all related. If you are asked, “Are you a feminist,” it makes little sense to give a simple Yes or No. It is better to reply, “It depends. What kind of feminism do you have in mind?”
There are, it seems to me, at least five kinds of feminism.
(1) Egalitarian feminism. A feminist of this kind believes that men and women should be equal in legal and social rights. They believe in equality of opportunity; anything a man (or boy) is allowed to do a woman (or girl) should be allowed to do also.
Decades ago, when I was teaching at a (no-longer-existing) woman’s college, one professorial colleague was a Catholic priest. He was a fine man and priest, but the complete opposite of an egalitarian feminist. He represented an older point of view, one still alive in those long-ago days. One day he said to me, “If a man had a daughter, he’d want her to go to a college like this. But if he had a son, he’d send him to Harvard.” I don’t know if he’s still alive, but his point of view is nowadays quite dead.
(2) Career-first feminism. A feminist of this sort believes that a woman’s first duty to herself is to find a career. If, having done that, she’d like to marry and have children, well, that’s fine. If she’d prefer never marrying and never having children, that’s fine too. But she absolutely must find a career in the world of work, the world that used to be, in the bad old days, almost purely a man’s world. As for women who put marriage and children first and career either second or not at all, the career-first feminist feels sorry for them and deplores them for setting a bad example.
(3) Sexual-liberation feminism. Feminists of this kind are great believers in sexual freedom for women. In part, this derives from a belief in the absolute equality of the sexes. If society has traditionally tolerated a high degree of sexual freedom for men, then the same tolerance should be extended to women. But in even greater part it derives from a disdain these feminists have for the old (Christian) ideal of female chastity: the ideal according to which a good woman has only one sexual partner in her lifetime (her husband) and remains a virgin until her wedding night.
This, according to these feminists, is an absurdity. Starting in her middle or late teens, a girl/woman should have a number of sexual partners. This makes for her enjoyment, for her emotional maturation, and for her sense of independence. Sexual liberation feminists are of course great believers in abortion rights, including the right to have your abortion paid for by taxpayers; and they believe that health insurance companies should be mandated to provide contraception coverage. Needless to say, they approve of homosexuality and bisexuality. They also approve of “sex work” (prostitution), provided this can be done in a way that is safe and non-coercive and does not involve exploitation of the sex worker.
(4) Anti-male feminism. According to feminists of this kind, society has always been, and in many ways still is, patriarchal. Men are dominant, women subordinate. Women are an oppressed class, men the oppressors. While there may be exceptions here and there – that is, men who are doing their best to renounce their “male privilege” – men in general are the enemies of women in general. A woman should presume, in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, that every man she meets is her enemy, for he belongs to the enemy class.
That a man is “nice” to you doesn’t mean he isn’t your enemy. Many a slaveholder was “nice” to his slaves. Feminists of this kind strongly approve of lesbianism. For the lesbian is evidence that a woman can live with no need of a man. (As Gloria Steinem famously said, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”) Many feminists of this type are themselves lesbians, and those who are not feel almost “guilty” for their heterosexuality – rather the way middle-class Marxists used to feel guilty for not being proletarians.
Not many women are feminists of this kind, since they find it hard to hate their fathers, their husbands, and their sons. But these are the noisiest feminists, the ones who get the most headlines. These are the ones who are currently promoting the idea that college campuses are crawling with rapists.
(5) Quasi-religious feminism. With the decline of traditional religion in the last few centuries, millions have turned to what may be called “quasi-religions” – that is, secular movements that provide their members with what religion used to provide, a sense that life is meaningful, that it has a purpose. In the twentieth century, Nazism and Communism were two such movements.
For many American women who have either lost their religious faith or never had it to begin with, feminism has been such a quasi-religious movement. Feminists of this kind have the feeling that they are earning their way to something like heaven by struggling for the right to be cops, politicians, boxers, or infantrymen (oops! I meant infantrypersons); for the right to have no-strings-attached sex; for the right to “terminate” unborn babies, etc.
Feminism as a quasi-religion was in full bloom in the 1970s and 1980s. It has rather faded now, as old feminists either die or become septuagenarians and octogenarians.
About 99.9 percent of American women are feminists of the #1 type. But as in other areas of public life, the numbers don’t determine who is most heard and gets greatest deference.