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PARTING SHOT: Department

Facing Feminism

A Closer Look at Its Discontents

by Colleen Carroll Campbell

I  had never given feminism much thought before I enrolled in a course on feminist thought. I knew that the women's liberation movement had played a large role in shaping the world that my friends and I inhabited, so I wanted to know what its leaders said about what makes a woman distinct from a man and how a woman can find freedom and fulfillment.

Feminism was simply the air I breathed as a girl growing up in the 1970s and 1980s and coming of age in the 1990s. Like most women in my generation, I was wary of associating myself too closely with the passé image of man-hating, bra-burning radical feminists. Yet I vigorously supported the basic feminist premise of equal rights for women. I was drawn from a young age to stories about heroines and suffragettes and had embraced the feminist conventional wisdom that I should spend the first few decades of adulthood establishing myself in a career and squeeze in marriage and motherhood when I found time. As for differences between the sexes, I always sensed that they existed but avoided acknowledging them aloud, lest that acknowledgment be perceived as a sign of weakness or an excuse for underachievement.

Now I was ready to take a closer look at sex differences and feminism itself. In my course, I eagerly devoured the first few readings we were given, manifestos of early feminists who demanded equal educational opportunities, the right to vote, and humane working and living conditions even as they acknowledged the uniqueness of women. As the semester progressed and we worked our way through more contemporary feminists, though, I grew increasingly uneasy with the theorists we were reading. Many seethed with resentment at men. Others raged against their own femininity. The more I read, the more I found myself bristling at their views of men and women, marriage and motherhood, and God.

I had met my share of chauvinists, and I knew that I enjoyed opportunities denied to earlier ­generations of women, including the chance to take courses like this one. I also knew that feminism comes in many forms. Yet most of the feminist writers we studied struck me as shrill and hyperbolic, with their denunciations of housewives and stay-at-home mothers as "parasites," as Simone de Beauvoir called them, or inmates in a "comfortable concentration camp," as Betty Friedan put it. It bothered me that so many theorists we read succumbed to one of two extremes: Either they allowed their insistence on the equality of men and women to obscure the differences between the sexes, or they allowed their emphasis on the differences between the sexes to obscure the equality of men and women.

Neither extreme made much sense to me. Nor did I find in what I was reading any viable blueprints for happiness in the real world. A friend who took the course with me felt the same way. "If all else fails," she would groan as we walked out of class together, "blame it on patriarchy." She was a convinced atheist and I was a churchgoing Christian, but we agreed that the theories we were learning did not address our most pressing questions and concerns.

There was another problem with the secular feminist thinkers we studied. For all of their criticism of men's fixation on money, sex, power, and status, most of these women obsessed over the very same things. They harped on which perks and privileges men had that women did not. I could see the logic behind some of their complaints, but their materialistic worldview felt stifling. There was no transcendent horizon, few references to truth, beauty, goodness, or God. It was all about what you could see, taste, and touch. I found nothing that spoke to the thirst inside me that material pleasures had failed to slake. 

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