Studying the History of Feminism Might Save Feminists from Themselves

The advance of women’s rights is one of Western Civilization’s greatest triumphs. Yet, in many developing countries, women are still treated like second-class citizens. So why do so many tenured feminist intellectuals holed up in our universities choose to rail against the supposed American patriarchy rather than seek to help their sisters in places where women don’t even enjoy the most basic civil rights?

Christina Hoff Sommers, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Freedom Feminism—Its Surprising History and Why it Matters Today, explains why as my guest on this week’s RealClear Radio Hour.

In her book, Sommers meticulously describes the two rival camps of feminism, which are often in conflict, but drive progress when pulling in the same direction. The first, “Egalitarian Feminism,” traces its roots back to a controversial 18th century writer, philosopher, and scandalizer of high society named Mary Wollstoncraft, who believed that, “Men and women were essentially the same in their spirits and souls, deserving of the same rights.”

Wollstoncraft’s ideas were centuries ahead of her time. “She was also unbelievably adventurous and lived one of the most exciting lives of her century,” says Sommers. “She had lovers and was running around writing books and being a reporter,” behaviors frowned upon by contemporaries. “It took 100 years for her reputation to be resurrected.” Today her writings are considered a foundational part of the feminist cannon.

Sommers contrasts Wollstonecraft with Hannah More, whom she calls the founder of “Maternal Feminism.” More evangelized for a different-but-equal concept of empowered femininity. “Hannah met women where they were. She believed there was a feminine nature and that women were caring and nurturing, different from men but deserving of equality.” Unlike Wollstonecraft, More was tremendously popular in her time. Her books outsold those of Jane Austen and Thomas Paine, and she was widely admired as an advocate of education and work opportunities for women. Today, however, she is not only forgotten, but denigrated as an apologist for the patriarchy.

In the late 1970s, the ERA was sweeping toward what looked like certain passage. “Americans wanted to affirm their respect and regard for women and their belief in equal opportunity,” says Sommers. The ERA had been ratified by 35 states and needed only 3 more to become part of our constitution. The Amendment simply stated that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Who could object to that?

“Well, along came Phyllis Schlafly who ‘read the fine print.’,” says Sommers. “She pointed out that not only would women be subject to the draft but everything from single-sex schools to separate bathrooms would become illegal. Schlafly began a one-woman, state-by-state campaign to derail ratification, raising worries that if it passed, ‘We would all be in court forever and ever.’”

And this is where NOW and its radical brand of Egalitarian Feminism lost the fight. Yes, they insisted, the ERA would mandate the elimination of all gender distinctions in law. Nothing less the the total reengineering of society lay ahead. Americans recoiled. And the more alarmed people became, the more strident NOW behaved, chaining themselves to statehouse doors and splashing pigs’ blood on opponents.

After the ERA failed, hardline feminists, rather than reexamine their tactics, retreated to the campus, erecting sinecures where they could safely nurse their grievances. They remain there to this day, training the next generation of women to become embittered enemies of the patriarchy.

“I do think feminism is the great American success story,” says Sommers. “I wish so much that American young women instead of talking about being traumatized and triggered by a statue or a song, were thinking about women in other countries, reaching out.”

Imagine: conservative women, Catholic women, and liberal campus feminists working together, right here in the United States, to help those for whom the fight for equality still lies ahead.

Stranger things have happened.

Listen to Christine Hoff Sommers discuss her book as well as the problematic Paycheck Fairness Act, the campus rape crisis hysteria, and more on RealClear Radio Hour here.