Oct 4, 2021
What is feminism, and what does it say about women? Well, that’s a tricky question, because there seem to be as many definitions of feminism as there are people who call themselves feminists. For some it is simply the belief that men and women are of equal value and should have equal rights.
But more often I find that cultural artefacts described as “feminist” portray women not so much as equal to men, but equivalent to men. The difference may sound trivial, but the results of equivalence-feminism are impossible to ignore.
Consider the endless stream of action movies filled with women I like to describe as 95-pound kung fu masters. These petite pugilists, more physically suited for underwear modeling than combat, are shown effortlessly throwing around men twice their weight or more. Were this only the case with female characters supposedly endowed with superhuman strength, like Wonder Woman, we could overlook it. Magic and imagination are fun. But this is true even in films and TV shows starring women who play, well, ordinary women. Confronted with a hallway full of large and well-trained bad guys, size-two action heroines routinely kick, punch, and grapple their way to victory, all without spoiling their hair. Sometimes they even shrug off punches that in real life would devastate a woman.
We don’t have to guess what happens when the physical differences between men and women are ignored. Recall a couple of years ago when transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox fractured his female opponent’s eye socket and left her with a concussion. While recovering from her injuries, Tamikka Brents told the press, “I’ve fought a lot of women and have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night…I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right.” She added that she’d be happy to honor Fox’s identification as a woman in any other profession, but that “when it comes to a combat sport I think it just isn’t fair.”
Physical strength isn’t the only way women are today expected to be the equivalent of men. We constantly hear the claim that a gender pay-gap plagues the corporate world. “Women only make 74 cents for every dollar men make,” goes the catchy factoid. To a public saturated in entertainment that portrays women as naturally ambitious and assertive leaders, managers, and bosses, this sounds outrageous. “Equal pay for equal work!” we are tempted to chant along with activists. But is it that simple? Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson famously got into it with British journalist Cathy Newman over this question. Citing the average pay difference between men and women, Newman seemed certain that the issue was settled. Women, even in today’s historically egalitarian society, are still the victims of measurable discrimination!
Peterson pointed out that there are other likely explanations for the “gender pay gap,” among them women’s own career choices. As many others have shown, women on average gravitate toward more social, intuitive work that tend to be less lucrative and require fewer years of education. We can look at the sex disparity among CEOs, doctors, hedge fund managers, and astrophysicists and conclude that these fields are rife with sexism. Or we could conclude that women themselves tend to prefer other vocations, and self-sort when given the freedom to do so. As Peterson observes, a casual survey of Scandinavian countries—which are among the most egalitarian on earth—shows that they are also some of the most gender-segregated in the developed world when it comes to career choices,
temperament, and interests. Women are supposed to be equivalent to men at work, but millions seem not to have gotten the memo.
Even so, there’s a third and more consequential area in which women are expected to behave exactly like men. We see it alongside the warrior woman tropes when we go to a movie or turn on our televisions. Entertainers would have us believe that women are sexual carnivores, insatiable in their search for casual encounters and utterly without fear of consequences. The women we see jump into bed with strangers act like the most promiscuous of men, and seem untroubled or even proud of their conquests. They certainly never suffer physical consequences.
Believing these portrayals, as well as those in darker sorts of media, many young women try to play the part. With the help of contraception, abortion, and oceans of antidepressants, they mimic the least scrupulous of men, ignoring not only the emotional devastation they incur, but the very design of their own bodies, which cry out against such treatment.
Of all the claims our culture makes about women, none cuts so violently against physical reality as this one. To say that a woman’s investment in sex surpasses that of a man is an understatement worthy of scorn. A woman’s entire biology—her joints, her immune system, her cardiovascular function, her brain, her breasts, and her primary reproductive anatomy—are all designed for children. Yet we encourage women to treat features of their bodies fitted for nurture as nothing more than toys for amusement and titillation—and disposable toys, at that. Trussed up on prescriptions that ensure none of this anatomy functions as intended, women are then stuffed into man-shaped roles, directed toward masculine modes of achievement, told to imitate the worst of male habits, and assured that the golden age of female rights has at last dawned, and they are free.
In all three of these areas where equivalence has replaced equality, women have not so much claimed their rightful place beside men as they have tried to become men. And in all three cases, female nature—especially the female body—has been treated as a liability, a barrier blocking the path to liberation and holding women back from realizing their true potential.
If a few years ago a conservative had ventured to claim that our culture is abolishing women, she would have been laughed out of the room. It’s tough to laugh now that the ACLU is literally editing quotes by the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg to remove all references to “women” or female pronouns, as they did last month on Twitter. “Abolition” scarcely seems too strong a description of one British medical journal’s recent cover story on menstruation, which replaced all references to women with the term “bodies with vaginas.” As Carl Trueman and alexander DeSanctis argued recently at Public Discourse, our determination to make women interchangeable with men—especially in the area of sex and reproduction—raises the question of whether our culture considers women as women to be properly human. After all, if a woman must declare war on every distinguishing feature of her body and mind in order to claim equality with men, what is the point of being a woman?
Toward the end of my discussion this week with poet and critic Jane Scharl on Upstream, I asked for her definition of feminism. She replied that, to the extent the word means women must be equivalent to men, she rejects it. I was pleased to hear it, but not that surprised. Over the course of our conversation,
Jane had painted a moving and masterful picture of God’s plan and purpose for women. Her picture was anything but stereotypical, drawn more from medieval piety that from 1950s sitcoms.
At its most basic level, Jane’s vision of female equality accords with the historic witness of Christianity, which sees women not only as real, but as indispensable. The first thing the Bible identifies as defective about the world, after all, is a lack of women. And the rest of the story, right up to the Revelation of John, depends on the assumption that female nature brings something into the world that male nature is utterly incapable of providing. In other words, Christianity makes a ground-level assumption that men and women are equal, but not equivalent. And if Jane is right, some of the Christian story’s greatest beauty emerges out of that difference.
I hope you’ll listen to our full discussion, and let it challenge your assumptions. But even more, I hope you’ll begin paying closer attention to the portrayals of and assumptions about women from those who claim the title of “feminist.” The difference between “equality” and “equivalence” may sound trivial, but in a time when the title “woman” itself is losing all meaning, it’s clear that the distinction between two words—or two sexes—can make all the difference