This essay appears in the Winter 2021 issue of Modern Age. To Subscribe, click here.


Few grasped the significance of the feminist revolution at its onset. Even today, critics fail to see how feminism modifies dreams, sentiments, religion, mores, marriage, the job market, sex, and nearly everything else. An assessment of what the feminist victory has wrought is long overdue.

Feminism came in waves. First-wave feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill wanted to extend civil rights such as property ownership and voting to women, on the understanding that women would exercise those rights differently from men. Sex differences might narrow when each had such civil rights, though they would not disappear, since the sexes have different priorities and proclivities.

Second-wave feminism arrived like a fire bell in the night in the 1950s and 1960s. Early second-wave feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, and Shulamith Firestone were disappointed with the choices women made with their civil rights. Women still chose marriage, motherhood, a passive role in sex, part-time work, or careers in the caring professions. According to the second-wave feminists, a subtle “feminine mystique” (Betty Friedan’s term) or cultural hegemony pigeonholed women into roles fit for their gender.

These conventions, derived supposedly from the truths of nature, made women, in their view, “the second sex” (in Beauvoir’s phrase). Such feminists thus joined with critical theorists, who deconstructed what we thought we knew about the nature of women in an effort to show that women had an “indefinite future” defined by “liberation.” Before Beauvoir, women suffered oppression as the second sex; after her, the ground for liberation was successively tilled. Second-wave feminists aimed at cultural revolution.

Feminists conceptualized this cultural revolution as a separation of gender and sex and the creation of a world without sex disparities. No one put this aspiration more clearly than Susan Moller Okin (1989):

A just future would be one without gender. In social structures and practices, one’s sex would have no more relevance than one’s eye color or the length of one’s toes. No assumptions would be made about “male” or “female” roles; childbearing would be so conceptually separated from child rearing and other family responsibilities that it would be a cause for surprise, and no little concern, if men and women were not equally responsible for domestic life or if children were to spend much more time with one parent than the other. It would be a future in which men and women participated in more or less equal numbers in every sphere of life, from infant care to different kinds of paid work to high-level politics.

This scientific and metaphysical claim about the separation of sex from gender serves feminism’s political ideal—the creation of the “independent woman” (again Beauvoir’s term). The Independent Woman makes her own identity free from assigned gender roles and from the influence of her body.

More broadly, feminism presents itself as, and indeed is, a late stage in the development of modern aspiration to conquer and control nature. The old view was that women differed from men in their bodies and in closely associated psychological characteristics. Differences in sex gave rise to differences in the way societies envisioned man and woman or, as we say today, gender differences. The feminist view was that the human body and mind were “standing reserve” that could be made and remade through the manipulations of a technological civilization, laws, or different feminist socialization. As Beauvoir, following her existentialist forbearers, put it, there is no essence preceding existence.

Today’s feminist epigones serve these larger goals without articulating them or, perhaps, without knowing them. Most scholars of a philosophic bent, even especially those followers of Leo Strauss who discovered that modern thinking itself came in waves of increasing radicalism, subjected feminism to few critiques as the radicals announced their ambitions. These scholars can be excused by the fact that they were aiming, at that time, to grasp the narrative history of political philosophy itself, even as it was working itself out in practice beneath their noses. Even those attuned to the significance of other aspects of the sexual revolution (like the revolution in gay rights) failed to recognize the significance of the feminist revolution.

The heyday of feminist thinking was the 1960s to early 1970s, when the “big think” books of Friedan, Millett, Firestone, Phyllis Chesler, and Germaine Greer pointed to new avenues of scholarship and activism. The National Organization of Women (NOW) was established in 1966, and rallies on behalf of women’s liberation peppered the country at this time.

In response to this Women’s Movement, the most sophisticated critics, it seems, thought natural limits and society’s conventions would contain its effects: men would always be men, women would always be women, and thus feminism could only accomplish so much before it subsided. This early intellectual confrontation proved inadequate to the purpose, though its shortcomings are quite interesting and revealing. Much has yielded to feminism’s impetus. Feminists have been more successful in selling a new idea of womanly honor than their critics thought possible, but not without quietly reinforcing sex differences in unpredicted ways.

Gender within the Grooves of Sex

Science supports the view that sex limits gender, up to a point. Steven Goldberg’s Inevitability of Patriarchy (1973) argues that patriarchy and male dominance are inevitable because testosterone and other “differing biological substrates . . . engender different propensities, cognitive aptitudes, and modes of perception” between the sexes. History supports this view, too. Patriarchy and male dominance are universal, more than suggestive evidence that they are sown in the nature of man or society. Men and women are indeed socialized differently, but nurture conforms to the “limits set by nature.” Playing with dolls prepares women for motherhood, while sports and competitive games prepare boys for leadership in the rough and tumble world and to provide for a wife.

Goldberg calls out the big feminist thinkers by name. Their thinking is more a dream than a science. Feminist analyses of how society constructs gender fail, Goldberg writes, as “explanations of empirical reality.” Firestone chose “merely to ignore the evidence that renders her theory irrelevant.” Millett’s book Sexual Politics is “most annoying to the serious scholar.” Beauvoir’s book is “infinitely better” than the others because it was written in the boyhood of knowledge on hormonal matters and can thus be excused for not knowing these findings.

Arguments such as Goldberg’s are staples of anti-feminist writings even to this day, especially as they come from evolutionary sciences. Underneath hormones, there is simply no getting around genetic differences and neurobiology. From Donald Symons’s Evolution of Human Sexuality (1979) to Steven Rhoads’s Taking Sex Differences Seriously (2005) and beyond, few findings in science are as pervasive or persuasive as those that confirm what everyone knows: men and women are different.

Feminism’s metaphysical claim about womanly self-creation serves, as befitting an age of technology, a political vision. Goldberg is aware of this political dimension, but pretty unconcerned. Once feminists run up against “the limits of possibility set by biology,” their ideology will limit itself much as water pools when it reaches an incline. Relax—and let the invincibility of nature conquer man’s foolish dreams (to paraphrase Cicero’s couplet with which Goldberg begins his book).

Goldberg concedes this political point. Sex and the body are conservative forces, but not as much as biologists think, because how society registers each sex in gender is as important as the fact of sex differences. The old social environment emphasizing marriage and motherhood could collapse under feminist reconstruction. If it did, maleness and femaleness would be, as Goldberg postulates, “shunted in harmful directions or turned neurotically inward.” He does not explain what that means, precisely.

Midge Decter’s New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation (1972), a charming, trenchant criticism of feminism’s professed goals, complements Goldberg’s scientific approach and mirrors his hopefulness and complacency about the limits of feminism. Perhaps there is stability in gender, just as Goldberg saw stability in sex. If so, we should not worry overmuch that feminism’s new idea of gender would register sex.

According to Decter, feminists rightly saw modern women as restless and unhappy, but feminists made matters worse in blaming patriarchy. Women enjoyed unprecedented freedoms as feminism ascended. Technology relieved women of many time-consuming household tasks that had tied their mothers more closely to the home. Women could marry whom they wanted when they wanted. They could have sex however much they wanted, with whom they wanted, without social sanction or worry about pregnancy. They controlled, within limits, the timing of births and the number of children they would have. It is odd that feminists perceived that time of liberation to be an even deeper iteration of male oppression.

Women are frustrated and restless in their freedom because feminism, according to Decter, provides little guidance about how to choose. Freed from much housework, she can plan her time and work, but she worries that “she might be doing” something better. Her sex life is free but “without any orderly or persuasive terms, save those she devises for herself, by which to arrive at any decisions about her conduct as a sexual being.” The ability to shape her marriage keeps her “unformed.” The momentous question of whether to have a baby, when, and how many is now in her hands, but “what—at the dictates of what emotion and in accordance with what criteria—constitutes both a proper and an honest answer?” Women have unprecedented freedom but have shown themselves unable to find contentment in its midst.

Women’s Liberation may not live up to its own press clippings about liberation, yet that depends on whether press clippings are accurate. Decter sees women under feminism as unformed, but, in fact, they are differently formed. Arguments for liberation, for feminists, serve the effectual truth of feminism: a new vision of woman, the Independent Woman, apart from marriage and motherhood, made possible by a new kind of society. The unsettling of old ways was a move toward the new, not toward liberation.

Decter does not think that this new Independent Woman can arise or that women would want her to arise. Decter believes gendered institutions like marriage and motherhood will persist and be held in the same high regard. They satisfy a woman’s nature and meet “most immediate practical needs.” Sexually, “her true freedom and self-­realization lie in a sustained . . . ever more emotionally intimate connection to one man,” where she finds herself desired and accepted as an individual, not as a vagina. Much the same arises from having a child, when each woman comes to understand that she is “an absolutely single, bedrock, and irreplaceable individual.” Spiritually, “true fulfillment” derives from exercising “her special capacity for sustaining and enriching the materials of everyday existence.” Socially, her “true sense of value” comes from her connection to a “stable personal order” like marriage, family, and the broader community hub. As a result, “the plain, unvarnished fact is that every woman wants to marry.” Much the same seems to be true of having and raising children.

Feminism, for Decter, cannot offer satisfactory replacements for these deep womanly needs. Careers in restructured, affirming workplaces may treat you as a unique person, but hopes invested in careerism are ultimately unfulfilling. Almost no career satisfies the yearnings of women. Womanly happiness coincides with the solidarity alongside and support from a respectable, loving man. “Fur-babies” are way too easy to train and love to occupy anything more than empty vanity, while children themselves connect people to a web of interesting, community-minded people. No one will ever recognize and love a woman like a child, a sign of her importance to and effect on the world.

Recognizing the empty promises and dead ends of feminism, Decter seems to think, women would not throw out these more satisfying adult ways and would continue to value family, marriage, and community above careers. Feminism would appear as an elite fad or temporary insanity, and the women of Topeka would win out.

Or would they? Decter hedges. She concedes at the very end of her book that the “desperately nihilistic” feminist beliefs that there is no difference between men and women and there are no standards in nature could permanently distort female psychology and destroy decently satisfying social institutions. If this “social justice” ideology takes “firm root,” Decter vaguely prophesies, all will “reap the whirlwind.”

Decter ends where Goldberg ends—after describing what could limit the feminist impetus, they concede that some new, worse world could come about.

In retrospect, Decter underestimates the power of feminist ideology. She mostly draws her defense of marriage and motherhood from the positive characteristics of female psychology, ignoring vices to which many women are subject and how marriage can remedy them. She also overestimates the attractiveness of marriage and motherhood to women who receive a feminist education. She may also underestimate the freedom in nature to provide for womanly needs in different ways. This new understanding of womanly honor could take root and provide dams and dikes for natural impetuses, creating a new kind of woman. That is, after all, the feminist project. Nature and the body provide grooves within which society imagines gender, but there is more flexibility within these grooves than Goldberg or Decter imagine.

Sexual Suicide and Our Sexual Constitutions

George Gilder’s Sexual Suicide (1973), the most prophetic book in the genre, sees the whirlwind that Goldberg and Decter only allude to. Like the others, Gilder sees that society’s way of imagining gender resolves the challenges posed by biological sex and sexual desire. Feminism’s chief sins concern its blindness to nature’s challenges and its suicidal notion of gender. Gender can bend to feminist demands, but the results will be sexual suicide.

Gilder is earthy. At the root of human life are sexual or erotic needs, a recognition of human lacking and a striving for completion. Men especially are filled, as Gilder puts it, with “undefined energies” mirroring sexual desire but able to transcend it. Physically, women have the awesome ability to renew the species, while men are vulnerable and dependent in sexual performance. Psychologically, women are hubs of social life, just as children are hubs of community, but ultimately women are dependent on a man to have children and upon married men willing to support them.

From these natural needs Gilder derives what he calls the old sexual constitution. What feminists diagnose as patriarchal control are actually deep, fragile accomplishments benefiting men and women. Male energy can go in many directions. Under the old sexual constitution, it is directed toward sex within marriage and finding a place as the family’s “essential provider.” “Male rituals” of work and sport encourage men to compete with other men in an environment where the sexes are segregated from one another, which both of the sexes prefer. Such competition provides satisfactions that compensate somewhat for marital domestication while cultivating a responsible manliness, aimed at serving others without sacrificing those great energies. A woman receives the love and commitment of a man she admires and a father with whom to raise children. Thus marriage civilizes male desire by connecting it to community and ensures provision for women as they accomplish the unique task of their sex.

Marriage also disciplines female traits of vanity or hypergamy. Females think they deserve better and can do better. Marriage (before at-will divorce) constrains women from acting on this vanity and turns them into the more stable, natural partner in the relationship. Liberate women from the constraint of marital permanence and they are more likely to become the unhinged partner, escalating demands in marriage and insisting on their way. As evidence for this, women break up most marriages through divorce.

Feminists removed every plank from this sexual constitution. The technological revolution of contraception combined with the feminist moral revolution means that sex would no longer be connected to procreation, marriage, or monogamy. Women were to abandon motherhood for “meaningful careers” with support from government when they did not have sufficient earnings. Sexual segregation at work gives way to sexually integrated workplaces, where women change the culture to suit their caring, agreeable dispositions and their indirect ways of aggression; men find this workplace less satisfying. The sexes always mingling would become less interested in one another and harbor more resentments about unequal treatment.

For feminists, credentials and careerism replace marriage and momism. The icon is the tireless worker, striver, and achiever. Schools are now structured to evidence the career prep for the “good girl” (as Hanna Rosin observes)—obedience, conscientiousness, verbal skills, and regularity. Social pressure and public policy supply these upper-middle-class aspirations. The product is “The Rise of Women,” especially in credentialed education, as one book labels it. This New Woman will make fewer claims on male earnings; fewer demands for commitment before sex; have fewer children, if any; and place marriage and family life less at the center of her world.

This new feminist education, underemploying manliness and detaching womanliness more and more from marriage and family, yields sexual suicide. Man is likely to become superfluous to the family, less motivated to work, and hence alienated from civilization. Unless men perform “some masculine service for marriage commensurate in some way to bearing a child,” they shrink. Men will become, as Gilder writes, more willing to lose themselves in “hedonistic opportunism,” “pursuits of crime and drugs,” and “vicarious male rituals.” Not a few male rituals today, including indulgence in pornography and video games, fit into these categories.

Hectoring men to be more responsible or to “put a ring on it,” as many conservatives now do, ignores the vast change in women under feminism. American women demand a Big Ring, but they claim to want marriage without sacrificing their independence. Love requires mutual dependence—a recognition that one is incomplete without the other. Since feminist women shun dependence and celebrate independence, men must wonder if such women are really capable of lasting love, the only sure glue of family life in a time of at-will divorce. Women after feminism are easier to bed, but, Gilder asks, are they lovable or marriage material? Hedonistic male irresponsibility, such as it is, is as much an effect of this new sexual constitution centered on the Independent Woman as cause of marital decline.

Feminists seem to think that we can make of society whatever we want, since human nature and the body do not pose serious limits on our creativity. Critics of feminism begin with the intractability of sex, but not all see it the same way. Goldberg and Decter seem more impressed with the durability of gender as a means of translating sex into civilization. Appealing to necessity, there is less need to defend the institutions of the old sexual constitution. Those institutions will probably always be somewhat attractive, they seem to think.

For Gilder, sex differences are every bit as intractable as they are for the others, but those differences don’t translate neatly into social institutions. Recognizing greater freedom in how society translates sex as gender, he sees Western civilization heading toward an unprecedented sexual suicide. Against feminism, Gilder shows that necessities of human sexuality are always there. Under the new feminist education, predictably, male and female are engendered differently and destructively for society.

Sex, Gender, and Human Happiness under the New Sexual Constitution

Feminists have rightly seen that how a people translates maleness and femaleness into daily life is a political question. We are now into our third generation of feminist education under this new sexual constitution that attaches honor to the Independent Woman and stigmatizes the idea of male provision and initiation. Ever fewer girls are instructed in the virtues of housekeeping or praised if they aim to keep house: if it doesn’t fit in with a life plan for careerism, it is not honored. As a result, marriage ages have climbed. Marriage rates have declined. Birth rates decline ever more. The age of first birth climbs. More women, each generation, have no children and go through life without marrying. Male irresponsibility in the form of pornography, virtual-reality relationships, compulsive video-game playing, or underemployment escalates. These results are sown into the nature of feminism.

Those who would defend the family have responded to this with efforts to shore up parenthood and marriage but without touching the feminist infrastructure. Notable successes have been achieved, such as the adoption of the $500 per child tax credit in 1995 and its expansion to $2,000 per child in 2017. Family advocates seek Holy Grails like ending the marriage penalty in the tax code or giving parents increased social security benefits for each child they rear. These reforms operate within the critique of feminism offered by Goldberg and Decter, which presumes, mostly, the continuing vitality and attractiveness of marriage and family life that feminism questions and dishonors. Perhaps feminists and liberals allow some such supposedly pro-family reforms precisely because they do not get to the heart of the matter. The reaction to expanding the child tax credit is nothing compared to any conservative challenge against abortion. This indicates to feminists what really hurts.

Pursuing a pro-family agenda in a time of sexual suicide is even harder than its noble advocates imagine. Nothing of note can be accomplished without taking on the feminist gender ideology as it appears throughout our education system, our media, and our daily lives. Reestablishing elements of the old sexual constitution in our new situation and disestablishing the New Woman must be the aim. How could it be accomplished?

Pro-family advocates must stop singing a lullaby about sexual suicide. Evidence for it is everywhere, and we must highlight it and dwell on it. Men and women are its victims. Although some hard-charging careerists thrive in the feminist order, on the whole American women are more unhappy, more depressed, more anxious and neurotic, more medicated, and more into self-harm and suicidal ideation than ever before. This is part of the whirlwind Decter thought we would reap. Most women are not a little disappointed with the detachment of sex from relationships and from the decline in the quality of men that come from the feminist project—but they will not settle for anything less than they think they deserve. They want good men to provide for and love them, even as they remain independent within marriage.

Works of art like novels and movies could highlight this seedy underside to feminism. Sensations akin to Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, but from the opposite perspective, must highlight these travails and lay them at the doorstep of feminism.

Marriage and family life suit most men and women and make a great many things outside of marriage possible. Marriage encourages responsibility in both sexes. Married men work harder to provide, not to enhance their power so they can lord it over their wives (the inhumane feminist assertion). Marriage limits the vanity of women to a specific man instead of society as a whole or social media. It tames the fickleness of women, making them appeal to the solid, natural beneficiary of marriage. Marriage answers the needs men and women have for love so that they can each risk more inside and outside the home.

No one expects women to return to the kitchen barefoot and pregnant. At the same time, someone has to cook if the family is to have solidarity and children are to be hubs of community. Without someone prioritizing the home, neither of those things is likely to arise.

Family advocates should take their bearings not only from sex differences but also from constructing a notion of gender around those sex differences, in light of our changing circumstances. The ideal that should guide that notion is an honoring and incentivizing of part-time work for women, instead of the careerism of today’s feminism. Part-time work affords women the joys of motherhood and community with work outside the home. It is based on the recognition that a greater percentage of life will be lived without children in the home.

Those who would defend marriage and family life in the modern world did not recognize the threat of sexual suicide quickly enough, and they did not offer an idea of how an adapting society would accommodate sex differences. A part-time-work feminism would, it might be hoped, provide a lodestar for a genuinely pro-family policy in our prosperous but increasingly unhappy society.

Scott Yenor is professor of political science at Boise State University, a Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life, and the author of The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies.