so there’s this phenomenon that’s been going on literally my entire life that has received little to no serious political attention, which is unfortunate because it’s kind of important. it has to do with how women are reacting to feminism and unless something changes, it doesn’t bode well for the future of today’s liberal democracies.
the poorly defined philosophy we label “feminism” — one which has long since transcended the realm of discrete ideology and whose essential thrust can now be captured only with the label of “female chauvinism” or, even more bizarrely but perhaps more meaningfully, “female nationalism” — is firmly established in the western canon. far from our historical confinement to the house and kitchen, women now outnumber men in post-secondary education, and are crowding into the classically masculine public and private professional positions throughout the west (the defense-industrial complex, for instance, is now pretty much run by women). but not everyone has agreed to play by the feminist rules. every now and again you’ll come across little fragments of a counternarrative, strange little anomalies that seem to defy the received wisdom of the day. there are two in particular i want to focus on.
years and years ago, i came across an article that offers us an excellent case study in what i’ve come to think of as the counter-feminist reaction; a rebellion from within that began in a day and age when banal neoliberal norms faced no meaningful challenge from without — an era when neo-nazis were no clear and present danger but a simple punchline relegated to the dustbin of history along with every effective leftist ideology, and the seeds of what was the become the idpol, neoreactionary, and alt-right movements had yet to sprout and bear their poisonous fruit. this article told the strange story of a charismatic christian pastor, one who defied the simplistic label of dogmatic fundamentalism that we so often attach to conservative christianity. the doctrine he preached was indeed very conservative and traditionalistic, but he preached it in a way completely unfamiliar to those who monitor and study the American religious right. among other things, he explicitly and confidently renewed a doctrine that has become a bit of a touchy subject in those western liberal democracies that have yet to end their love affair with Jesus: the doctrine that women should submit to the rule of men just as men submit to the rule of god.
so what could possibly be so interesting about another sexist old bore ranting at his congregation about how women should make him a sandwich? well, for one thing, he wasn’t old, spiteful, or remotely misogynist — he was an energetic young man who didn’t have a single hateful word to offer, and preached a passionate and positive message that took the unusual route of celebrating and encouraging sexual intimacy, nothing like nasty brimstone-and-hellfire sex-is-bad god-hates-uppity-broads decline-of-the-west disrespectful-youngsters-are-ruining-christendom jeremiads we’re used to from fundies. he treated his flock — men and women alike — with paternalistic but still very real care and compassion. he wasn’t a simple reactionary clinging desperately to shreds of unearned patriarchal power, and he showed no interest in exploiting anyone: he truly seemed to believe that his doctrines would help people.
the other thing is, he had a lot of followers. and a lot of them were women.
the reporter interviewed one of these women and she said outright, “i used to be a feminist.” she and her husband, a christian couple struggling with their relationship and faith, had decided, what the hell, why not give this preacher’s ideas a try — and they were surprised to find that when they reverted to the traditional gender roles he advocated, they were both a lot happier. she talked a lot about how much less stressful her life was, how much easier the day-to-day had become, and how much closer she was to her husband than when she had been fighting to maintain a career of her own. and she wasn’t alone — the reason this seemingly very conventional pastor was amassing such an enthusiastic following was that his word was spreading, and people were flocking to his church from far and wide to be reborn.
to your average orthodox feminist, as i was at the same, this sounds insane. like outright patriarchal propaganda. haven’t we fought for generations to be treated as equals, to be accorded the same basic human rights as men? what shortsighted self-hating madwoman would so cavalierly discard those victories and return willingly to a lifestyle of male domination? it felt sick, almost offensive in a way.
now, there’s something weird going on among western muslim women. during the Islamic State’s heyday, you could hardly pick up a newspaper without reading about some teenager or young woman who’d fled Canada or Britain or the United States to join ISIS. literally ISIS! the incarnation of extremist shāri’a itself, a wannabe caliphate so violently regressive that they made the Klan look like coolheaded moderates in comparison. on the face of it, this sounds like the worst, most self-destructive kind of madness — why on earth would an educated young western woman run away from her comfortable life in a land where her human rights are respected as fully as any man’s, to join a movement famed worldwide for its repressive and theocratic misogyny, a movement at literal war with multiple nation-states in a part of the world so wracked by religious and ethnic strife that it’s triggered a refugee crisis throughout europe? why would you throw away all those advantages your parents fought so hard to give to you, in favor of a future filled with hunger, rape, and degradation?
but these women are no more insane than their christian counterparts. in fact, i submit that these incidents are neither mere fluke nor propaganda, but in fact totally rational responses to adverse situations these women found themselves in, that may indeed have been the best possible outcome they could have hoped for. to understand their motivation, we have to locate it in broader context of the women’s movement in the west — and the politicization of everyday life it has induced.
the various waves of the feminist movement have absolutely succeeded — probably better than anyone could have imagined a hundred years ago — in securing for women a set of rights and protections we had never before in human history been accorded, making us in the eyes of the law the full equals of the men we used to be ruled by, and opening the door to careers of our own or even political office. not four years ago a woman won the popular vote in a presidential election, and by a strong margin! there’s no question about any of that.
but has feminism succeeded in improving women’s lives? on the face of it, this sounds like the same question — but it’s not. it’s a quintessentially american fallacy to mistake power for happiness, but the two are really very different things — in fact, i’d argue they’re in most ways diametrically opposed. and the reality is that, even as so many women are abandoning the now verboten role of homemaker and striving for a professional existence, our lives are on average getting harder. because feminism hasn’t just expanded what we’re allowed to be — it’s also changed what’s expected of us, changed what the capitalist class can get away with demanding of us, and taken away opportunities we might before have had. despite the lip-service feminists pay to the idea that we should be allowed to make our own decisions about how to organize our lives, a prejudice so strong that it has reshaped the basic underpinnings of society (so severe is the plight of the working class that dual-income households have become a totally unremarkable phenomenon) has been created against falling into traditional gender roles, or even traditional relationship dynamics, gender be damned. some feminists will seriously argue that even if one partner in a lesbian couple is the homemaker and the other is the breadwinner — frankly, if there is any sort of power dynamic whatsoever — then someone is being oppressed. there’s this idea that such arrangements are pathological reflexes of a patriarchal system that somehow abases the women who cling to it, and we’re so deeply deluded that the Judith Butlers of the world must rush to our rescue and prevent us from re-creating the same oppressive conditions of the CisHeteroPatriarchy®¹ whose clutches we thought we had escaped in our homosexual relationships. and heaven forfend you actually choose to allow your partner — particularly if he’s male — any explicit authority over your person and how you live your life. choosing of your own free will to submit to another must be the height of madness — after all, what rational woman wouldn’t want to be strong and independent and financially successful in her own right?
well, i don’t.
the problem with independence is that it is isolating. when you depend on no one and no one depends on you, you’re deprived of a natural source of interaction and cooperation — and there are no checks on your behavior. humans are natural assholes; being a decent person practically requires getting some sense knocked into us every now and again, and when no one has the power to do that to you, hubris can grow unchecked. when someone depends on you, whether a child, partner, disabled friend, elderly relative, or simply someone you’ve chosen to fight alongside in humanity’s endless and variably brutal battle for survival, it not only offers a sense of purpose, but a powerful motivation to take care of yourself and avoid risks that could jeopardize your dependent’s safety. interdependency is limiting, certainly, and it could leave some feeling fettered — but by its very nature it creates close bonds, trust, commitment, and a sense of community that is increasingly hard to find. in other words, it is a choice between a harsh freedom and a comfortable, affirming kind of bondage.
this is going to become a theme.
the thing about having a career amid the gears of the late capitalist apparatus is that it’s stressful as hell. everyone, from the “unskilled” warehouse laborers at the bottom of the shitheap, right up to the highly-paid programmers of Silicon Valley, is being overworked, mistreated, micromanaged, and subjected to brainwashing campaigns by obsessively controlling corporations that seem to care more about being worshipped than making a profit. and finding yourself a career in the first place all but requires a college education that will leave you shackled with a lifetime of debt — it’s getting so you can barely hope to become a bartender without at least a B.A. in classical literature. no wonder women who give traditional gender roles a try find their lives less stressful! unless there’s children involved, being a homemaker isn’t even comparable to the rat race of professional employment, and even then, in most cases, it’s still probably going to be easier and less stressful.
there’s this idea, especially in the individualist west where Freedom® is a revered and omnipresent brand, that submission to others (except for employers and law enforcement, obviously) is intrinsically a horrific and intolerable condition. total autonomy is seen as the naturally preferable condition for every human being, and anyone who freely surrenders or compromises their freedom is seen as brainwashed or mad. freedom is held as the highest, most important virtue of all, and lack of it is equated with suffering on a fundamental level, to the point where the most heinous of acts can be justified by a need to preserve one’s liberty.
but over the course of my life, i’ve come to understand things aren’t as simple as the dipshit teenage anarchist i was in high school would like to believe. there’s a term i use often, “decision-labor”² (by analogy with the ever-misused “emotional labor”), a form of labor i find particularly arduous and stressful: the expending of cognitive effort to plan out courses of action, and the taking of responsibility for outcomes. it is the form of labor that good, effective leaders dedicate themselves to wholly, but we all are forced to engage in it every day of our lives to some extent. to some people, this characterization as labor would seem absurd — the idea of giving up even a shred of autonomy is so repugnant to them and they so chafe under any encroachment of their liberty that the stress and energy expenditure of decisionmaking isn’t even noticeable by comparison. but this is not an attitude shared by all — i would even go so far as to say it is a distinctively masculine one.
you can argue ’til you’re blue in the face about whether the difference is biological, cultural, both, or neither (i’m of the “both” camp myself), but what it comes down to for me is that — whatever the reason — women and men simply are not equal, and even if something could be done to make us so for the sake of political convenience, it would be as repugnant as attempting to forcibly alter a person’s sexuality. there are exceptions to every rule, but for the most part, we differ in our capabilities, priorities, skills, and needs, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in dramatic ones, and often in complementary ones. this makes us suited to different roles in life. for instance, i strongly believe that women are on average less suited to decision-labor than men. this is not to say that decision-labor is easy for men or that women tend to make worse decisions or that women should never be leaders; none of these things are remotely true. but the strain of decision-labor does seem to wear on us particularly heavily, to the point where giving up control — far from demeaning and degrading ourselves — often comes as an enormous relief. so it makes perfect sense for us to feel happier and more comfortable in the submissive role.
our opponents, the neo-nazis and alt-right, are the only ones who seem to have noticed this phenomenon — or at least, they’re the only ones willing to talk about it. and talk they do: they gleefully interpret it as evidence that all women (especially feminists) secretly want to be dominated by men³; that feminism is itself a colossal shit-test which men at large are failing by not shoving it up against the wall and ripping its pants off. and while it’s tempting to dismiss this idea as the delusional fantasy of a cabal of basement-dwelling incels (which to some extent it of course is), there are however women among the alt-right who affirm and endorse this belief themselves, which i believe has to be sincere — unlike the women, the men of the movement are for the most part uninteresting, unpleasant, and unattractive, so their approval is worth very little. this would seem to imply the women of the alt-right can’t simply be dismissed as the contemporary reflex of the Chill Girls. (remember that bullshit? the Geek Feminism Wars? christ i feel old.) clearly, there is something afoot that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the light of day.
there’s another factor, however, which is particularly salient in the case of the young muslim women who traveled overseas to join a burgeoning caliphate. that attraction to a submissive lifestyle is almost certainly part of it, but more than that, we in the west live in a society that has been slowly but relentlessly torn apart and shredded down to the atoms by the antisocial machinery of capital. we have been deprived of the many institutions that gave structure, purpose, and meaning to our parents’ lives. many of us are bereft of faith and outright unchurched. there is no great arc of meaning to our lives: what was to our parents a well-paved and carefully pre-planned road that mapped out the course of their existence from birth to death, is to us a treacherous dirt path that ends amidst the wilderness just shortly after college. our lives are incredibly difficult and many of us are too busy strugging to survive from one day to another to even think about the long term — and most of us would never even consider having children. our lives are empty of transcendent experiences (aside from the occasional hit of lsd or ket), we can identify in ourselves no purpose and no part in a greater plan, we cleave to noxious granfaloons as a source of group identity, we bounce from meaningless relationship to meaningless relationship, permanently afraid of jeopardizing our freedom with commitment; and a great many of us are profoundly mentally ill. we have no community, no tribe, and no roots to put down.
so is it any wonder that a lonely young woman desperate for meaning might see her fellow faithful rising up overseas to bring back the olden ways as a spark of something truly real and think, “i want to be a part of this”? where the urbane feminist academic sees a horribly self-destructive path into oppression and subjugation, justified only by teenage irrationality and rebelliousness, the girl sees a chance to be part of something, a heroic and holy struggle in which she has a clearly defined place and role, in which she’s guaranteed a committed husband who shares her faith and fights for the glory of her God. if she ends up being physically abused, well, she might rationalize it as being what she justly deserves — there’s a epidemic of self-hate even among young people who didn’t grow up in a religion that degraded and dehumanized them. but that sense of community, purpose, togetherness, and security that religion and revolution offers is something deeply precious that many millennials have never experienced and cannot imagine — to some women, even physical abuse could end up being a small price to pay for a kind of happiness they could never have in the west. it certainly would be for me if i was in their position.
so is it any wonder that a woman who gave up her hectic career to focus on her home, her husband, and God would want to cling tight the life of intimacy and purpose it brought her, something she’d never before even imagined could be possible?
i criticize feminism a lot and i’m on the whole quite hostile to it, so let me be very clear about one thing: feminists have historically made genuinely important gains in the fight for women’s rights that we should all defend zealously. there was a time and a place for the feminist movement, and tho its story has been at times quite sordid, for the first half of the 20th century, it was, on balance, a movement that was deeply necessary, whose impact on the world was profoundly positive. it was, as they say, a movement who’s time had come — and has now gone. it’s time for the curtains to come down, for the stagehands to break out the shepherd’s crook and yank its prancing cadaver off the stage before it does any more damage.
it’s time to move on to something better, something more inclusive; a leftism that rises to the challenges of our brave new cyberpunk dystopia while recognizing our common humanity and respecting our differences. a movement that doesn’t get tangled up in the trap of affinity-group chauvinism and bourgeois nationalism, but embraces internationalism and welcomes any who wish to fight for the working class with an open mind and an open heart. a movement that rejects the stifling orthodoxy of identity politics and offers connection, meaning, and purpose to the whole of the long-suffering proletariat. a movement that teaches and practices discipline in both body and mind to keeps its members steady of foot on the path of righteousness. a movement that seeks to understand its members’ individual strengths and weaknesses in order to determine which roles they are best suited to, instead of assigning them according to the whim of political correctness or stereotype.
a movement that doesn’t try to force anyone to be something they’re not.
because if we can’t offer that? our enemies, be they christian reactionaries, muslim zealots, or secular foes of the working people, will. they already are, and it’s already won them converts who could have been our comrades. in particular, it’s all too clear they know exactly how to take advantage of female weariness and longing for connection & purpose — and if they’re the only ones offering it, i can’t honestly bring myself to blame those who go over to their side. this has historically been a weakness of leftism and a strength of fascism: it’s time we learned to do better, and offer neither the bleak, sterile vision of the orthodox marxists nor the harebrained sci-fi cartoon drawn in crayon by the self-proclaimed Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communists, but a warm, realistic, hopeful, and human vision of the future.
a vision that the masses will gladly fight for.
there are good arguments that can be raised against parts of this thesis, most of which have to do with the nature of decision-labor and how it impacts men. i’ve made some fairly bold assumptions in writing this in regards to things i cannot personally attest to — most importantly, if the apparent gendered difference in tolerance to decision-labor is a purely cultural phenomenon, a developmental artifact of toxic masculinity rather than any innate difference between the genders, an important point becomes problematic: the shielding of women from the burden of decision-labor becomes an unfair imposition of responsibility upon the opposite sex, a demand for the kind of coddling that feminism has become infamous for expecting. i make the assumptions i do for two simple reasons: the first is that the overwhelming majority of cultures throughout human history have evinced a similar distribution of labor, and the second is that, even if my assumption is wrong, it ultimately won’t matter.
my essential argument is not for imposing a gendered division of labor, not for taking opportunities away from anyone, but recognizing gendered differences in capacity that exist, whether for social or biological reasons, and respecting them instead of trying to force people to change their nature in order to conform with your ideology. this means structuring norms around the reality that exists in the moment, and in the long term, if i’m wrong and the distinctions aren’t biological, they’ll disappear naturally over the course of a few generations. either way, everyone benefits from ending the devaluation, demonization, and suppression of non-masculine roles and forms of labor — from abolishing the (ultimately patriarchal) status hierarchy of labor that feminism has ironically internalized as a roadmap for its transformation of the female sex.