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There are vast differences between the conservative feminist movements in the early 1900s and the radical, left-wing 1960s feminism that now dominate the narrative. The early women’s movement fought for equal social-political rights and respected the differences between the sexes. It culminated in the suffragette movement in the 1920s and was defined by free-spirited activism, demanding full participation in public life for women.
Important topics were the right to choose their own way of life, the right to higher education, participation in the workforce as professionals, the right to divorce, claim inheritance, win custody of children, the right to own property and more. Author Deborah Siegel states in “Sisterhood Interrupted. From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild,” that the movement ebbed after 1920 when women were granted the right to vote.
I would argue that this early conservative movement was based on constructive realism rather than ideology and therefore produced better results. We did not witness the breakdown of the family in its aftermath; marriage did not turn into a war zone. This type of feminism did not produce raging women who hate men. Mary Wollstonecraft, who at the entry of the 1800s published “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” acknowledged that men and women are different by nature; that the woman is weaker physically and therefore is structured in such a way that she naturally takes other roles than the man. She states that the woman deserves to be more equal to the man, less dependent on social opinion and reputation, yet, she rendered modesty and chastity as important ideals for the woman.
Wollstonecraft represented a feminism that not only respected modesty and respect for the biological differences between the sexes, but suggested that women should actively work for men to become more modest too. As Harvard University professor Harvey J. Mansfield points out in “Manliness,” she took it for granted that “nature has made the mother the guardian of the child.”
Lack of respect for womanhood was what the early feminist movement wished to change. They wanted to challenge society and its outlook on women, not the woman herself. The early movement demonstrated profound respect for the biological differences between the sexes, hoping to create equality by raising men to “higher moral standards.” The sexes were not viewed as a social construction that needed to be changed, which is the ideal in today’s left-wing feminism.
The second wave of feminism, in the 1960s, had completely different goals. The German author Dietrich Schwanitz argues in “Bildung” that in the late 1960s, the whole point was to go far beyond women’s rights. The goal became to reevaluate and smash up the traditional gender views. Somehow, feminists now found that most of what had happened to the “always innocent” woman in history were discriminatory, their rage pouring out toward the man who was seen as the “endless perpetrator.” I exaggerate to make a point: The woman was innocently “not capable of evil,” while the male race represented the “epitome of violence and guilt.” In other words, a dramatic break with the traditional, Western ideal of equality regardless of race, sex, class or religion. Schwanitz states that the new revolutionary ideas implied the end of traditional marriage and the family as we know it. The war between the sexes has been raging ever since.
The 1960s feminism attacked the very foundation of Western stability: the family. It was a full frontal attack on the traditional role of a woman as part of a family nucleus, an attack on her femininity and on the woman-qualities that characterizes her biologically: She was to dislike even her childbearing ability, her femininity, the very curves of her body, her abilities to form future citizens as a mother.
The 1960s focused on the woman as “the weak link” and tended to create women who view themselves as chronically discriminated against, causing all kinds of victimization.
Even female beauty seems to be disliked, often deeming feminine women as “male-dominated man pleasers.” A woman who takes care of herself has somehow become an offense. They fight the very biological characteristics of their own sex. No wonder so many women have low self-esteem. Detesting who you are is not a recipe for success.
Maybe the greatest weakness of the radical movement was the assumption that freedom and independence require the woman to step out of the fellowship of men. By disentangling her from the dependency on others – the interdependence that connects us all – freedom became her right to be selfish. And here we are in all kinds of war zones, while conservative feminism show a much better way.
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