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National Observer Home > No. 49 - Winter 2001 >Articles

Second Thoughts on Feminism

Dr. I.C.F. Spry Q.C.

In the last part of the twentieth century a powerful feminist movement developed in the United States. Its influence spread to Australia and other countries.

Although it is certainly true that in some respects the position of women required amelioration, it became evident that in other respects what was being sought by many feminists was an aberrational system, whereby men would be deliberately and severely disadvantaged. It also appeared that some of the more rigorous feminists, such as Betty Friedan in America, and Germaine Greer in England, were expressing largely irrational views.

In particular, it appeared that the leading feminists were advocating positions which may perhaps have suited them personally, but which certainly disadvantaged the large number of women who preferred traditional roles. For instance, leading feminists were hostile to the normal desire of many women to be at home as much as possible in order to bring up children. Those feminists advocated policies that would in practice render home day care impractical and compel the use of day crèches.

The writing of such feminist leaders as Friedan and Greer is disturbing, for it contains a measure of anger and irrationality. Yet feminist influence was such that few commentators were prepared to provide public refutations.

However all extreme movements bring reactions eventually, and a re-assessment of feminist positions is now taking place, not before its time.

An important element of this re-assessment is "The Essence of Feminism", by Dr. Kirsten Birkett.1 Dr. Birkett, the editor of the quarterly "kategoria: a critical review", has set out to consider the aims and achievements of feminism in an objective and scholarly fashion, and her work represents a milestone in social thought.

Dr Birkett sets out first the problem:2

"Marriage has changed: it is no longer the only basis for romantic relationships, and is no longer a lifetime commitment that is dauntingly hard to leave. Work for women has changed: the place of a mother is no longer in the home, and the popular image of a mother has changed from housewife to the power-suited woman dropping the kids at childcare on the way to the office. Although we are told that these changes are indisputably for the good, that they represent the progress of justice and enlightened civilisation of the highest order, the actual statistics about women's lives fail to match the rhetoric."

On the subject of marriage Dr. Birkett turns to the depressing statistics. It was estimated in 1998 that 43 per cent of marriages will fail.3 This estimate may well be unduly low, since many still existing marriages are yet to show the full effects of the weakening of that institution. Dr. Birkett discusses the established ill-effects of divorce on children, and comments,4

"It is not just children who suffer ­ divorce is bad for everyone. For both men and women, marriage is the best protector against illness and premature death. Married women live longer and are less likely to have cancer than single women. Marriage breakdown is one of the biggest causes of suicide and depression. On just about any indicator, if you want to stay healthy, you should get (and stay) married."

By 1999, 15 per cent of all families were one-parent families. Further, whereas 16 per cent of couples with one child were classified as in "poverty or near poverty", the figure for sole parents with one child was 72.3 per cent, nearly five times as high.5 However, as Dr. Birkett notes, there are more subtle effects that contribute to the misery of separated patents. For example, only three per cent of children in single parent families have their other parent sharing their care.

A particular fallacy that should be highlighted is the often-expressed view that cohabitation prior to marriage is beneficial: This view "has been dominant since the seventies, that living together before marriage is the best way to ensure that marriage is successful."6 Yet the precise opposite is the case:7

"According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, after five years of marriage, 13 per cent of those who had cohabited before marriage would divorce, compared to 6 per cent of those who had not. Twenty years later, 56 per cent of those who cohabited before marriage would have divorced, compared to 27 per cent of those who had not. These trends have been found in numerous studies throughout the Western world. If you live together before marriage, you are far more likely to end up divorced. It is one of the strongest correlating factors. Rather than being a 'trial' marriage which will ensure a better result, living together seems to be particularly bad for marriage. Even those who do not divorce score significantly lower on measures of quality of marriage. Couples who live together before marriage have significantly lower scores in both perceived quality of marital communication and marital satisfaction. That is not the only way in which de facto couples suffer. The rare of violence is appreciably higher for cohabiting couples than for married couples. Children of de facto couples are also severely disadvantaged. Across a range of life issues, they perform at lower levels than children of married couples. At school, in sport, in social skills, in the level of education achieved, in employment, in drug use, and in crime and delinquency, children of cohabiting couples are far more likely than children of married couples to be at the bad end of the scale. Serial de facto relationships are even worse. A child whose mother lives with a man other than the child's father is at least five times more likely to be abused than one who lives with both married parents. The proportion of suspected killers in de facto relationships is 6.5 times higher than for the general population."

In the light of these and related statistics Dr. Birkett argues persuasively that the decline of marriage during the last quarter of the twentieth century has had extremely adverse consequences for women.

In terms of women's employment also many misconceptions need to be noted. From the Australian Institute of Family Studies it was established that by 1995, 48 per cent of wives with their youngest child under 5 were in the workforce, 67 per cent with their youngest child between 5 and 9 and 72 per cent with their youngest child between 10 and 14 years. In regard to full-time employment, the respective figures for wives were 34, 40 and 50 per cent. Feminists go to pains to disregard the economic impetus towards this position, which requires women to work who would prefer to be at home to look after their families. As Dr. Birkett states:8

"Since the Second World War, there has been a steady fall in real wages for middle and lower income workers, loss of employment at middle level for adult males due to economic recession and industrial restructuring, new standards of consumption, and increasing costs of housing. Many families need more than one income. Amongst mothers who decide to work part-time rather than full-time, 82 per cent do so to look after their children even though only 44 per cent earn enough income that way. Staying home to look after children, although the preferred option for most mothers, means economic hardship. By far the majority of mothers feel a financial pressure to work, whether or not they want to."

It is not surprising that a recent American survey of 3000 married and single young women indicated that 68 per cent had said that they would cease work, if they could afford to. As Dr. Birkett notes of the great majority of cases, "For all the rhetoric of choice, social, legal and financial pressures now limit women's choice to the extent that they cannot choose to keep a household (full-time) and care for their children."9

The history of feminist literature as discussed by Dr. Birkett is depressing. The seminal work, "The Second Sex", by Simone de Beauvoir, an embittered Frenchwoman who was a conscious victim of the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, may be seen in retrospect to contain an unhistorical and inaccurate view of women. In any other field than feminist literature, where objectivity and scholarship have little place, such statements as "marriage is obscene in principle" and her pretended endorsement of "erotic liberty" would have discredited her.

Amongst the most influential feminists was Betty Friedan. Her book, "The Feminine Mystique", was directed to persuade women, including women with children, to seek paid employment, suggesting that this was the proper path for "fulfilment". Her arguments relied heavily on anecdotal evidence, such as accounts of women who were dissatisfied at home and of women who enjoyed careers. The anecdotal evidence was, of course, biased: an attempt was not made to give balancing accounts of women who wished to look after their families and of women whose employment had proved damaging. In 1966 Friedan helped organise the National Organisation for Women, from which a "women's liberation movement" grew. Many of its members were politically experienced, and often from the left, through civil rights protests, anti-Vietnam War protests and miscellaneous "human rights" movements. Discussion groups spread at which women were encouraged to assert their grievances: "Anger was stoked, and then directed into activism." From this atmosphere extreme radicals such as Germaine Greer emerged, who urged that women "must refuse to marry" and who preached to women that they did not have a responsibility to their children, and certainly not to a husband: a woman's prime and overriding responsibility was to herself. Greer urged women to leave their husbands, avoiding at all costs to discuss the matter with them in order to avoid being "ridiculed and baffled".

As Dr. Birkett noted, under this hysterical leadership feminism's advance into Western ideology proceeded at an astonishing rate: "Bastion after bastion fell; feminist ideas were introduced into university curricula, school policies and family discussions."10 Rape crisis centres and battered women's centres were set up to take in victims. Women set up publishing houses, academic journals and collectives. The battle for women's ordination within mainline churches began with feminist writers such as Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Reuther, who rejected traditional theology and set up new, woman-based ways of doing theology. Central doctrines such as "God the Father" were attacked and even dismissed altogether, in order to adopt instead earth-mother figures. Female linguists battled over issues of gender-neutral or gender-free language. Academics instituted new areas of study, setting out their own versions of women's history and beginning feminist literary theory. Further, feminist activists increasingly set out lesbianism as an admissible and in many instances preferable assertion of the female role.

One of the most interesting chapters of Dr. Birkett's book is entitled "The Morality of Feminism". On what moral principle, she asks, should a feminist woman make decisions? How can it be decided that an action or choice is morally allowable? She concludes, "It is certainly not on the basis that it will hurt no-one. Feminist decisions have hurt many people ­ husbands, children and grandparents who no longer have access to heir grandchildren, to name but some. Families cannot be dismantled without severe hurt on many counts, and feminism has undoubtedly worked for the dismantling of family structures. According to feminism, this hurt may be justified, if the interests of the woman are served by her leaving."11It is difficult not to accept Dr. Birkett's assessment that feminism's claims that it "wants 'justice' and yet consistently recommends courses of action that are palpably selfish and unjust".12

Dr. Birkett tests feminist morality by reference to abortion, and succeeds in showing that feminist arguments do not have a proper basis in morality but rather are contrived in order to justify decisions that are essentially selfish. For example, there is the argument or proposition, "A woman must have the right to control her own body." But whatever this emotive statement means, if it suggests that a woman is on some moral basis entitled to kill a child within her, it goes beyond a consideration of the woman's own body and disregards the body of the child who is to be killed. In so far as the statement is often promoted as an argument it clearly is not valid. Similarly there is the argument or proposition, "A foetus is not a viable life, or real person." But if it is true that a foetus is not viable, it is also true that many others in society who are sick or infirm also are not viable, in the sense that they depend upon medical aid or the support of friends or family. Yet this does not mean that their interests may be disregarded and that they may be killed. Nor can an abortion be justified on the basis that the life terminated is "not a real person". As Dr. Birkett notes, "That child is a different organism from the mother, with different D.N.A.; it is not part of the mother's body. It will remain dependant upon the mother (or some other carer) up to ten years of age in some ways; up to eighteen years in others. There is no discrete point in all that time which differentiates between 'non-personhood' and 'personhood'. The line is arbitrary."13

It is to the lack of feminist morality that Dr. Birkett directs much of her attention. In her opinion one should not be surprised by the selfishness of feminism, for "it is based on a philosophy that says that the ultimate goal for any human being is complete freedom from any constraint": "In the end, the only coherent moral position that can arise from a philosophy of absolute freedom is selfishness ­ the pursuit of what I perceive to be my good, at the expense of others. Husbands, parents and children are not as important as my right to self-determination."14 Dr. Birkett's assessment that the basis of feminism is self-centredness is, unfortunately, clearly correct. In effect, this is conceded by feminist literature.

Dr. Birkett's conclusion, based on the matters set out in her book, is important:15

"Feminism is a selfish movement with no sustainable philosophy, a fabricated history, and an incoherent morality. It does not bring freedom and fulfilment for women, and it will not right injustices. Many of us in this world rightly feel anger and sorrow at the terrible lives women all over the world can face; poverty and starvation in some places, violence and abuse almost everywhere. The answer is not to become more selfish. That can only make injustice worse."

In one respect it would have been helpful if Dr. Birkett had gone further in "The Essence of Feminism". The irrationality of much feminist writing and behaviour ­ and not only the denial of biological and genetic differences, such as differences in nurturing instincts and in aims and in characters and personalities ­ requires the conclusion that much help may be found in psychological and psychiatric analysis. Irrationality requires an examination of its origins. With feminists, often these origins are found in difficulties in relationships with fathers, husbands or other male associates. These difficulties are not necessarily the fault of the latter, and doubtless in most situations there is a shared responsibility. But be this as it may, such emotional and personal difficulties are not a proper basis for an apparently aggressive and prejudiced movement, which, moreover, has now proved to be very damaging to many women.

The only proper solution to these difficulties is careful and objective analysis. Unfortunate this necessarily would on the evidence exclude most feminists, but that is an obstacle which could be overcome only through an abandonment by them of resentments and the seeking of counselling and by a greater concern on their part for the welfare of others in society, including others of their own sex.

1. Published in 2000 by Matthias Media, P.O. Box 225, Kingsford, N.S.W., 2032.

2. Ibid., at pages 13-14.

3. "To Have and to Hold: a report of the inquiry into aspects of family services", House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, 1998, pages 15-16.

4. Op. cit., page 16.

5. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1996.

6. See "To Have and to Hold", supra, pages 76-78.

7. "The Essence of Feminism", pages 18-19, citing statistical sources.

8. Ibid., page 22.

9. Ibid., page 25.

10. Ibid., pages 52-53. The intellectual level of feminist thought was exemplified by Erica Jong's assessment of Greer's tendentious and unbalanced "The Female Eunuch": "I loved 'The Female Eunuch'. I thought it brilliant when I read it."

11. Ibid., page 82.

12. Ibid., page 83.

13. Ibid., page 94.

14. Ibid., page 99-100.

15. Ibid., page 121.


National Observer No. 49 - Winter 2001