I find feminist debates to be some of the more interesting on today’s left, partly because their participants want to alter everyone’s private behavior, as well as their public conduct. This is a project too ambitious to escape even your reclusive and parochial conservative columnist’s serious study.
I was reminded of a debate among today’s feminists by three recent events (more precisely: two events and one ongoing nonevent): Sigma Phi Epsilon’s invitation to women to rush, but not to join, the fraternity; the Whiffenpoofs’ refusal to admit women; and the absence of demands of sororities, female a cappella groups, and other women’s institutions to integrate. Why the discrepancy?
There are, I take it, two conflicting feminist views — let’s call them the essentialist view and the deconstructionist view — about cases such as these.
Here’s a stylized version of the essentialist view: there is something distinct about women — femininity, womanhood or something else — that is relevant to how women ought to live their lives. Unfortunately, current notions of womanhood and femininity have been defined by men for the benefit of men, rather than by women for the benefit of women. What’s needed is rethinking what “femininity” and “womanhood” mean, but whatever they mean, they merit acknowledgment as ideas and categories in public discourse. Furthermore, on the essentialist view, womanhood as an identity ought to be preserved by women’s colleges, sororities and so forth.
The deconstructionist view is this: there is no better femininity to be found. Femininity, womanhood and all gender, and maybe also biological sex, are constructed socially. Individuals exist along a fluid spectrum, too variegated for any but arbitrary categories. Any institution and any nomenclature that oppresses women or anyone else with such categories ought to be altered or abolished.
Most folks, I take it, are not complete deconstructionists about gender. For if they were, women’s institutions would be bombarded with demands to admit men. There are of course debates about how to define the class of women, whether, for instance, to include trans women, or whether to include people with the anatomy of women who now identity as genderqueer. But that is about what the rule ought to be, not whether to have a rule at all. Many feminists, at any rate, are essentialists when it comes to female institutions, and deconstructionists when it comes to male ones.
The asymmetry can be defended by appeals to differences in power between men and nonmen. Men are powerful as a class. This power and therefore that identity, the argument goes, ought to be diminished and diluted. Complementarily, women ought to be agential women, and on their terms, not male terms. Empower women as a group, disempower men as a group, and we’ll have a more just and progressive society.
Two obstacles, both from men, inhibit this transition. First, male resocialization proves difficult. Men have learned since the start of history to aggress, to control and to reproduce. And they seem to relish the role: it can be intense and satisfying. Second, superior physical strength and energetic libido jointly equip men so to function. I cannot prove (but who would deny?) that the continued dominance of men in a world that less and less requires virility and strength for survival and success is partly the product of an age that rewarded such traits. And even while civilization has pacified daily life, men still fight, pillage and abuse — largely at women’s expense. The male tendency towards aggression, now suppressed, now unleashed, persists in radical form, always threatening.
There is a faction of feminists looking to fix the biological problem at the root of all this aggression. Jokes about male castration aside, one ambition is to divorce completely reproduction from coitus. But this solution is restricted to the problem of children. General change — affecting not just childbearing, but the workplace, public life, marriage generally — will have to come from men assuming responsibility for their position and its power and governing themselves accordingly.
Sexual assault is only the most extreme, and not the most pervasive, consequence of male vice. What’s needed is a new code for men, prescribing restraint, deference, courtesy and respect in all interactions with all women. This code should demand that men themselves discipline violators. For the first obligation of a man is not to his fellow’s satisfaction or pride, but to his fellow’s virtue and to his sister’s welfare.
Call the code: neo-chivalry.
Cole Aronson is a junior in Calhoun College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .