Harvey Mansfield, in his response to my essay on feminism last week,
addresses our clash of definitions. [See URL for links.] The feminism
he takes aim at is that of an influential band of thinkers and works,
ranging roughly from The Second Sex (1949) to The Female Eunuch
(1970). I prefer to think of feminism as something more broad (no pun
intended), stretching from the first to third waves of the movement
and across various cultures.
There is one area, though, in which I'll go ahead and defend Simone
de Beauvoir, et al. As Professor Mansfield notes, they fought not
just (and in some cases not at all) for equal rights for women as
citizens, but for sexual liberation--a freedom from everything from
traditional femininity to monogamy to procreation. They fought for
choice, in other words, over matters relating to one's own sexuality.
Professor Mansfield is not the only writer to suggest that this
sexual liberty has made women unhappy.
He gives radical feminism too much credit for the sexual revolution,
in which possibly the single key ingredient was the birth control
pill--invented not by Germaine Greer but by a trio of male scientists
outside of Boston. Now that sexual liberation is here, though, the
more important question is: Has it hurt women? I think not.
I've lived and traveled in societies ranging from the most sexually
liberated to the least. Uniformly across the world, women are safer
in the former. In the most sexually liberated countries (Australia,
Holland) young women are treated to the least harassment and sexual
aggression; in semi-sexually liberated places (Mexico, Southern
Italy) they get a moderate amount and in the least sexually liberated
countries (Pakistan, Yemen) they receive the most. Ask any woman who
has traveled the world: It is in the most deeply conservative and
religious societies that she can expect to have to regularly fend off
propositioning, groping and rape.
I chalk this up to the degree to which young men are sexually
repressed. In societies where young adults can explore and express
their sexuality, it turns out that young men are far more pleasant
creatures. They are more likely to treat young women as full-fledged
human beings rather than objects of obsessive sexual interest. I
would choose to live, and raise a daughter in, a sexually liberated
society over a sexually repressed one any day.
What about reproductive rights? Have they made our lives worse?
Again, I think not. Abortion did not come into existence during the
sexual revolution, that's merely when it was legalized in some
countries. It has existed in one form or another since time
immemorial--precisely because the old social structures failed women,
producing unwed mothers and then ostracizing and abandoning them. Far
from seeking to be free of motherhood, as Professor Mansfield
suggests, many of the women (and men) who fought for legal abortion
did so out of a humanitarian impulse, that is, to prevent others from
dying on illicit operating tables.
To be sure, legal abortion and the pill have made it easier for all
of us to be more promiscuous. But where exactly is the harm in that?
Some people may choose to use their freedom to rack up as many sex
partners as possible, but that's not the point. The point of sexual
liberty is to allow a person to live in freedom and safety if, as a
consenting adult, she chooses to have two, 10, or 100 sexual
partners. Don't like promiscuity? Then don't engage in it.
Inevitably, liberty has annoying consequences, primarily that we have
to put up with the foibles of others. But would we rather have it any
Finally, we come to the happiness argument. All those sexually
liberated women--they're just so sad! Writers of both sexes have
argued as much in recent years. All the breakups! The longing for
security and babies! The free time and disposable income! Oh, wait ...
But let's assume, for a moment, that modern love, with all its
granting of personal autonomy, does make us unhappy. Dating has its
heartaches, God knows. The big question, though, isn't whether modern
romance, as it has evolved as a result of sexual liberation, causes
pain. It's whether it causes pain relative to the alternative.
Does anyone really think that romantic unhappiness didn't exist
before the Summer of Love? That no one had a bad marriage before The
Feminine Mystique? That love was never troublesome or tortuous before
Jean-Paul Sartre and de Beauvoir?
If so, I would direct them to--well, most works of art and literature
ever created. As with all fantasies of a past golden age, the sad
truth is: It didn't exist.
Elisabeth Eaves is the deputy editor of Forbes.com's opinions
channel, where she also writes a weekly column.