A reply to Ryan Long on feminism

Ryan Long, who has recently begun contributing to these pages, took issue a while back to my oblique defense of feminism. As a welcoming gesture, I thought I would take the opportunity to offer a reply. By my count, Ryan raised about five concerns. I’ll number these just to help myself keep track. One. I suggest that feminism is an ideological lens, but

Unfortunately, Crider never mentions why this particular lens is a better or more valuable lens than any other. So while it may be true that seeing the world through feminist eyes brings certain issues into sharper focus, the reader is left alone to wonder whether the view we end up with is more reflective of reality or less.

To this first charge, I simply plead guilty. My defense of feminism was “oblique” because the post was actually about the structure and sociology of ideology generally, and feminism was just my primary example. In my original post, I mentioned one day I would write a proper Why I Am a Liberal Feminist essay. Alas dear readers, today is still not that day, but some hints of that future endeavor will be given below. Two.

[Feminism] which has come to mean not merely gender equality, but also a whole host of additional values. For example, the Feminist Women’s Health Center lists among its core values a commitment “to reproductive freedom and justice,” i.e. the belief that aborting a human fetus is a human right. If that were the only feminist organization that grouped pro-life abortion values in with broader feminism, then we might disregard it as an outlier – but it’s not. The message is clear: Women who oppose abortion, but support gender equality simply aren’t feminists.

This is really a particular instance of point #3 below, but it’s important enough to warrant its own treatment. First, Ryan acknowledges that there are at least some self-describing feminists who also oppose abortion. But he dismisses these as outliers. This dismissal is inappropriate, but more on that below.

More importantly, reproductive freedom generally and the freedom to terminate unwanted pregnancies specifically is enormously important to my own feminism. First, I am a naturalist, a physicalist, or whatever your preferred term is for someone who steadfastly refuses to avail himself to supernatural explanations. The vast majority of abortions occur before the third trimester, before any reasonable non-magical conception of a human soul can possibly take root. I readily grant that the ethics of third trimester abortion gets considerably more complicated, as the morally salient physiological line between a third trimester fetus and a “fourth trimester” infant out of the womb is quite blurry.

But even here, the notion that a woman may be forced to carry a pregnancy to term even for the sake of a fully viable fetus strikes against strong intuitions we have about bodily autonomy. Few people would condone forcing Jordan to undergo invasive surgery to provide an organ replacement for Taylor, even if Jordan had the organ to spare, and even if Taylor were a close family member whose life was in danger. This intuition also seems pretty robust: we require consent for virtually risk-free procedures like blood siphoning (“donation” in the consensual case) and even for literally risk-free procedures like posthumous organ harvesting. Restricting a woman’s freedom to abort an unwanted pregnancy is a rather conspicuous exception to the otherwise widely accepted value of bodily autonomy, and it’s an exception that specifically impacts women to their disadvantage. To suggest, as Ryan appears to, that abortion rights are beside the point of gender equality is to entirely misunderstand the issue. This holds even if one’s countervailing ethical concerns still commit one to oppose abortion. One must at the very least see opposition to abortion as in tension with gender equality and bodily autonomy.

The issue extends beyond bodily autonomy with respect to the surgical procedure itself. But I will outsource this to Laurie Rice (one of those libertarian feminists Ryan dismisses as an outlier):

[In addition to controlled substances, we] already know the dangers of smoking and alcohol. What if Loertscher had ingested shellfish, raw eggs, raw milk, soft cheeses, hot dogs, lots of caffeine, or Vitamin A? What about prescription drugs like sleeping pills or blood thinners?

What about activities that are dangerous to a pregnancy such as sitting in a sauna, running, bicycling, horseback riding, or scuba diving? Should we imprison women who threaten their pregnancies in these ways?

A sexually active woman can unknowingly become pregnant at any time. The logic of personhood laws should forbid all women from taking these substances or participating in these activities, so as to prevent her from unknowingly harming her new child.

Personhood laws treat women’s bodies not as their own, but as objects: incubators and environments for a separate being. They redirect the purpose of a woman’s life away from her volition and submit her to her reproductive function. She becomes defined by her biology; by her sex. It is the very definition of sexism.

Again, it is completely intuitive that feminists would seek to procure and defend reproductive freedom – including abortion – precisely because of its importance for sex and gender equality. Men simply do not face any issue where their bodily integrity is comparably questioned and compromised. Reproductive freedom is not an extraneous element of feminism, even if particular feminists may have their own particular beliefs or concerns about these freedoms.

Three. Ryan never says this outright, but he seems to take issue with the fact that feminists are not libertarians.

Feminists are expected to favor Title 9 legislation. Feminists are expected to favor mandatory and ever-increasing amounts of maternity leave at an employer’s or government’s expense. Feminists are expected to favor government-provided day care. We need not conduct a deep dive into each of these issues to simply note that feminism is often articulated as a package-deal. If you’re not all-in, you’re not a feminist. (Unless, of course, the over-arching goal of ideological feminism is not gender equality at all.)

Ryan is a libertarian, if I’m not mistaken. Most people – including most feminists – are not. Those wayward souls who do not identify as libertarians do not share the distinctive libertarian allergy to government. Non-libertarian (i.e., most) feminists use government because to them government is just another tool to effect change.

Now look at Ryan’s specific policies again. If you take away the government allergy for a moment, you see these issues as reasonable things for feminists qua sex- and gender-egalitarians to pursue. Title 9 is explicitly about providing equal opportunities for women. Maternity leave enables women to keep their jobs and have children too, just the way men can. And importantly, most feminists also demand paternity leave or more generally parental bonding leave. Subsidized day-care makes it possible for women, who have historically been tasked with raising children while depending on a man’s paid labor, to join the market economy themselves.

Libertarians have good reasons to raise the hue and cry about the inherent coercion of using the government to change society. Libertarians (who may or may not be feminists) can and should have this debate with “statists” (who may or may not be feminists). But this is simply a different debate than that of feminism itself.

Finally, note also that not all antifeminists are so scrupulously disinclined to using the apparatus of the state as are libertarian antifeminists. Nonlibertarian feminists can hardly be blamed for appealing to the state when conservative antifeminists campaign tirelessly for bans on or excessive regulation of birth control and abortion (including mandatory ultrasounds and being forced to suffer demeaning anti-abortion “counseling”), for personhood laws, against allowing women into military combat roles, and against legalizing sex work, among other issues.

Four. Ryan believes real sexual equality is a simple empirical matter, no philosophy needed.

The sexes ought to be equal for reasons of basic human dignity, not for metaphysical reasons. Any justification of feminism that can only be justified metaphysically is bound to be rejected by anyone whose views are rooted mainly in physics.

What I mean is, I think it’s simply unfair to assign a lower legal value to a woman than to a man. I think this creates a systemic prejudice against a population that ultimately cannot be overcome through “just living your life.” This isn’t a metaphysical belief about fairness, it’s a physical observation of legal outcomes. It’s an empirical matter. We don’t need a conversation about “what is justice?” in order to make our legal treatment of the sexes blind and equal. It’s incumbent upon advocates of gender-superiority to make the case that systemic inequality is more just than equality.

Would it were so! Unfortunately, for most of human history since at least the advent of agriculture it has been commonly (obviously!) understood that women and men simply had different roles to play, and that these roles were dictated by nature. Women were often understood in terms of their “natural” function of giving birth over and over again (if a good number of children were expected to survive into adulthood), tending children, and maintaining the household. This was not an optional lifestyle. Women were either not educated at all or were given whatever education (quite different from men’s) was deemed appropriate for their function. The man had all political rights and was assumed to represent the interests of his family. These common understandings were buttressed and sanctified by legal, religious and philosophical authorities from antiquity until very recently. Susan Moller Okin discusses the centrality of the patriarchal family in Women in Western Political Thought,

It is clear that Plato in the Laws, Aristotle, and Rousseau, regarded the male head of each family as its sole political representative. This is also true, and more paradoxically so, in the liberal theories of Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, and James Mill – paradoxically, because of the fact that liberalism is supposedly based on individualism. As Brian Barry has recently captured it, the “essence of liberalism” is “the vision of society as made up of independent, autonomous units who cooperate only when the terms of cooperation are such as to make it further the ends of each of the parties.” In fact, however, behind the individualist rhetoric, it is clear that the family, and not the adult human individual, is the basic political unit of liberal as of non-liberal philosophers. In spite of the supposedly individualist premises of the liberal tradition, John Stuart Mill was the first of its members to assert that the interests of women  were by no means automatically upheld by the male heads of the families to which they belonged, and that therefore women, as individuals, should have independent political and legal rights. That these proposals should have appeared so dangerously radical in the climate of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century opinion is ample testimony to the limitations of previous liberal individualism.

Emphasis mine. JS Mill wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century, and even he still believed that domestic duties were women’s duties, and that his radical notions of sexual equality could only really apply to single women and rich heiresses. In the same work, Okin details a number of important court cases as late as the 1970s that included legal language assuming that the central function of women is to maintain the domestic sphere. The rudiments of sex and gender equality – I call this “feminism” – only seem like “basic human dignity” and just an “empirical … physical observation of legal outcomes” precisely because feminist activists and philosophers critiqued “metaphysical” questions like “what is justice?” from a fresh perspective and persuaded their hostile audiences that what seemed intuitive and natural for millennia was actually thoroughgoing tyranny over and subjugation of fully half of the human race.

I’ll let the above remarks suffice to address Ryan’s contention that “there appears to be no inherent value in the [Feminist] label itself.”

Five. Ryan believes feminism doesn’t deserve the time of day until feminists get their own house in order.

[Crider] rightly implores feminists to root-out its worst arguments and dispense with them, but then suggests that non-feminists are not in a position to understand the extent to which it is already happening. Maybe not, but any ideology that has not yet rid itself of terrible arguments (or the aforementioned inclinations against free speech and non-leftist politics) is not ready for endorsement by any person who considers himself or herself a careful thinker. If feminism still has work to do on the inside, let it do its work before its insiders ask the rest of us to accept it as a worthy endeavor.

I could spend a couple thousand words writing about the worst arguments libertarians have conjured up that many of them still earnestly believe, but I’ve already done this. Let’s name names instead. Yes, Jacob Levy and Deirdre McCloskey are libertarians, but so are Wayne Allyn Root and John Stossel. Yes, Andrew Sullivan and Ross Douthat are conservatives, but so are Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Yes, Amanda Marcotte and Sady Doyle are feminists, but so are Martha Nussbaum and Elizabeth Anderson. (I’ve taken the liberty to supply some libertarian-palatable links for these last two).

But I don’t need to explain to Ryan that any ideology with more than a dozen adherents includes a rich diversity of perspectives and a panoply of knaves, sages, and everything in between. Ryan understands this extremely well, as he capably demonstrated with his recent post, Who are the Muslims?, which I encourage everyone to read.



One thought on “A reply to Ryan Long on feminism

  1. Just a point of clarification: Points 1, 2, and 3 are all the same point. What I meant that feminism is probably a biased lens – and I offered points 2 and 3 as evidence that it is. I don’t mind that feminists are pro-choice socialists. But any valid lens should produce people whose perspectives are more or less in line with the general population. The presence of such a significant skew in the feminist population suggests to me that feminism isn’t providing its adherents with a politically neutral lens; the image is distorted.

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