FEMINISM: HUMAN NATURE vs HUMAN RIGHTS
Until recently, one of the biggest advances in the evolution of life forms was sexual reproduction. In mammals, male and female are clearly designated in shape, biology, psychology and personality. While all kinds of permutations exist—honey bee queens and that insect that bites the head off of the male impregnating her—there is a general form that seems to be common, especially in mammals. Males and females are distinct. Males are usually bigger than females and often more dominant. Males fight intensely among themselves, while females often nurture offspring and may protect them fiercely.
As descendants of the great apes, humans continue their gender profile. In some ways they even continue it through the rise of various so-called higher civilizations in the world, more or less to the present day. Through political, religious and economic changes, the gender differences seem to have remained quite similar culturally to the ones established by nature in evolution. Sometimes one can tell by details such as women’s footgear—whether foot-binding or stiletto heels—which advertise a female’s inability to go far and therefore her primary role as seductive child bearer and/or sexual partner.
Despite some variation, gender roles have not changed much over the millennia. Even in 2018, as I write this, I have known women who have had six or even twelve children, and their roles have been pretty much those of wives and mothers, as those of females in the animal world. One couple I met in the Maine Retirement Community of Huntington Common was on their second marriage, and each had six children from their former marriage. Another couple there had twelve children, perhaps conceived every time the sea captain husband was home on leave. Such numbers may be uncommon today but were not unusual around 1900 in the West.
Male and female gender roles have been a little more equal in Western cultures than in some others in the world. In some modern democracies women were eventually given the vote and allowed to participate in political life, formerly the exclusive prerogative of men—mostly in the twentieth century. But gender roles did not really change with the vote and probably could not until the mid twentieth century when contraception became widespread in the West, and women could control their pregnancies. My life has spanned this transition, and if contraception had been available or widely practiced in the Hungary of my childhood, it might not have been necessary to terrify me so about the dire consequences of sexual activity before marriage.
“Feminism,” which we might say is the movement to increase the role and value of women in and out of the home, took off in the West and especially in the US in the 1960s and 70s. Only if we add the Suffragette movement for the vote in the nineteenth century has it existed maybe for a century. Which means that the current impact of feminism is out of all proportion to the time it has been around. Feminism as an ideology has been around for an extremely short time, considering how widespread it is. Feminism began in mid-century America, along with the fight for Civil Rights for African Americans, but it has been more successful. There seem to be many more women now in professional life than blacks, in the US.
There have always been extraordinary women in history: Cleopatra; Elizabeth I of England; Lady Murasaki, lady-in-waiting and writer of eleventh-century Japan; Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz, a learned nun in seventeenth-century Mexico; Madame Curie, scientist in nineteenth-century France; and even my former mother-in-law, Lily Pasztory, with a PhD in Renaissance art history in 1932, at the age of twenty-two, in Hungary. Such “extraordinariness” was perhaps always available for women, including eventually for me too, if I chose it. Institutionally, however, it did not exist, and that is the point. Entering Columbia University for a PhD in art history as late as 1965, I was not given a fellowship, because fellowships were then not given to married women at Columbia University. It was assumed that married women would have babies, drop out, and the money would be wasted. Being a woman was definitely secondary and a handicap.
Discrimination continued against women, even if they made it somewhere in the “man’s world,” which was practically and symbolically signified by making less money than men. I eventually received tenure at Columbia University but consistently made less money than my male colleagues. When I complained about this inequality, this was attributed to the fact that I seemed to get fewer outside offers than the others. Therefore it was my fault, not that of the institution. Perhaps I did not know how to play the game well enough.
The agenda of feminism in the late twentieth century is grand—the aim is to end all discrimination against all women, not just in the US but hopefully worldwide for good. Feminism asserts that you no longer have to be extraordinary. It seeks to elevate the status of all women. It imagines a utopian world in which women are equal to men in education, opportunity, work and compensation. Its goal is to redress the imbalance of the sexes entirely. Of course, biology cannot be overturned entirely, but society and politics are seen as artificial and should be reorganized along more gender-equal lines, equally artificially.
The thought is that maybe even biology could be reorganized; contraception could control childbearing when it is not wanted; new techniques could create fertility when children are wanted. Sophisticated medical operations could literally turn men into women sexually (and vice versa?); and what may yet be done with cloning and DNA we don’t know fully. Such medical changes of human gender have begun and have been publicized so that people in general should accept them. From birth to death, ideally gender could be artificially determined.
Socially, the West has gone far. Anyone of my generation watching documentary scenes or news on TV must be impressed by the great number of beautiful, young, professional women in almost every field—doctors, lawyers, politicians, newscasters—now active in the world. One knows that it is not yet necessarily all true equality of the sexes. Even given an equal number of men or women in a field, the woman are often chosen as spokespersons to prove lack of discrimination. They are also presented as role models for the young to follow. All the women in media advance the impression of the success of feminism. In itself, the very appearance of gender equality is felt to encourage the advance of women in society, in reality. Pro or con, therefore, even the appearance of feminism in publicity enhances the general acceptance of feminism. We all admit to being “feminists,” at least in lip-service.
Many women feel empowered to succeed in doing anything men can do. They become marines, combat soldiers, lobster fishermen, arctic explorers, trying on even the most physically challenging tasks. Such extremes may be few in number, but well publicized they prove that women can do anything. Some of this idea came from WWII, when women were asked to do in factories and in the field what men had done before men were in the military. And women discovered that not only could they replace men, but they enjoyed doing so. Communist countries under Russian domination promulgated their idea of gender equality and actually insisted that all women work along with men in most fields—the idea was that everybody must work. In those countries, women did not consider this “liberating” at all. It was a new form of slavery to them, since this work was added to their tasks as wives and mothers. Women there would have been delighted to go back to more old-fashioned roles. Nevertheless, this too proved that women could do almost everything a man could.
From a noble goal, “women’s liberation,” as it was called in the 1960s, has become a form of pressure on women in the West. I taught countless college girls from Barnard and Columbia University over the years who were weighed down by the current expectation to be wives, mothers, professionals and perhaps creative geniuses, all at the same time. They were quite confused about their life goals, abilities, and future possibilities. They believed in the goals and tenets of feminism that no one could dispute but had trouble living it.
I too had been confused. When I had a child in 1971, I very much hoped that it would be a boy and not a girl, because I felt I knew how to raise a boy—masculine but sensitive. I didn’t think I knew how to raise a girl. I didn’t know what a girl was and what she should be. My son and daughter-in-law have solved this by giving both their twin son and daughter stuffed animals as well as Lego building toys. But they have not solved the conundrum of what is male and what is female, either, and struggle with old and new stereotypes.
As the West embarked on new, artificial, industrialized societies in the twentieth century and could envision “rational” control over gender, the question also arose as to what was “natural” to man and how to construct gender in modern times in line with the dictates of nature rather than against nature. This could be studied by analyzing small, “primitive” societies existing presumably in the “state of nature,” as early man must have done. In the first half of the twentieth century, small “primitive” societies still existed in isolated and marginal parts of the world. Some used stone tools and were supposed to be remnants of the ways in which humankind lived before cities and “civilization.” It was supposed to be the state of nature or as close as you could get to it.
A number of anthropologists, like Margaret Mead, studied them in order to find this out. In a series of widely read books, Margaret Mead recounted that gender ideals often varied among primitives, too, and that mankind was therefore “flexible.” In New Guinea, some tribes were aggressively masculine (the Mundugumor), while in others (the Iatmul) near them, men were more effeminate. This showed that both ways could be right. Similarly, homosexuality has been argued as either “biological” or created by “society.” In Samoa, premarital sex was accepted as normal and could help decide what normal sexual activity should be in the West. All these were possible “natural” models for modern life.
What neither she nor others found were societies run by women, like the imaginary Amazons of Greek mythology and science fiction movies of the nineteen fifties. Mostly, women had a secondary status, even in small societies. Along the Sepik river in New Guinea, for example, men spent their days in head-hunting raids or in the spectacular men’s houses, busy with rituals like initiation and funerals, developing artistic communications systems in masks and images. Women and children lived in the periphery of the men’s house, in their own houses, involved mainly in food preparation, horticulture, and serving as audience for the ceremonials. As far as I know, no matriarchy, as such, has ever been found in history or anthropology.
Closest to matriarchy were matrilineal societies in which genealogical descent was counted in the female line. Such societies existed, somewhat in the minority but not uncommon, in many parts of the world, the Hopi of the American Southwest being the most famous of them, to us. Women had more power in matrilineal societies, over matters such as inheritance. However, actual rule was still in the hands of men—that is, especially, in the brother of the woman and in her other male relatives, rather than in the husband and his family. Of course, there were extraordinary women in primitive societies, but no extraordinary feminist institutions.
But what the anthropologists did find was that the most ideal gender relations from the modern point of view were to be found in the simplest, nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies, like the Bushmen of South Africa. Owning few portable goods, including art in material form, work was reasonably evenly divided among men and women, both being absolutely essential for survival. Respect was as high for women as men. Hunter-gatherers on occasion probably committed crimes, too, but generally did not go to horrible wars, as we do. Recently, well-known historians like Jared Diamond argued that the hunter-gatherer life-way was the happiest and most fair that humanity has ever known, based on the former life of Australian Aborigines. How is one to translate that into the twenty-first century?
Pushback against feminism is shrill but also inchoate. Contraception and abortion rights, key features of feminism, are opposed on religious and traditional patriarchal grounds. Less visible but just as strong are racial arguments in the support of the survival of certain—usually white—races. There is distinct yet vague opposition from men about the mis-education of boys, who often do not do as well as girls in elementary schools and in classrooms in general. There is complaint that young white men are discriminated against in higher education by anti-discrimination laws favoring women and minorities. There is complaint that these days women are sometimes hired ahead of men—sometimes for show. There is a sense that in feminism women gained a lot and men lost something they still need to be compensated for. Feminists argue that they have not gone far enough. Computer science is mostly a male preserve, for example.
These forces were among the combined issues that helped elect Donald Trump to presidential office by disenchanted men and their supporters. And maybe, in all the rapid changes of the industrial and electronic ages, there is a vague yearning for a return to older times and to more traditional patriarchal values. There is the vague sense that feminism has appropriated so much of masculine power that it has left very little for men who are now bereft. What could they get in return for their loss? Cooking classes? Or is this simply their just punishment for centuries of dominance?
And, insult upon injury, women are not only complaining (understandably) about rape—but even about the lesser charge of harassment, which is the near-universal practice of men touching, kissing, verbally teasing and/or abusing or whistling at women aggressively, when these are not desired or permitted by women. In the Me Too movement, women now demand that men keep their hands to themselves and their mouths shut and not approach women with even less offensive sexual forms than actual assault. The Me Too movement has struck a chord with women in the US, who demonstrate their solidarity on this issue in great numbers.
So what exactly is going on? In the nineteenth century, sophisticated and intuitive thinkers described the complex psychology, gender identification, unconscious interaction of masculine and feminine traits in humans as absolutes that have existed in such forms since times immemorial. They were not changeable, but they could be understandable and decodable. This often turned out to be bizarre—like the Oedipus complex of Freud, in which a male child in a middleclass family has fantasies of killing his father and marrying his mother.
The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have decided to reinvent everything from scratch, to create a new biology, psychology and gender relations, on the basis of what is considered a human right and not necessarily human nature. The “human right” idea of gender is more simplistic. Women, oppressed through the ages by men, are to be liberated and allowed to rule whenever or wherever possible. Not just the equals of men, they are just as good as men and can do everything men do. They are also not necessarily nicer than men, either. Nevertheless, in the absence of any evidence, it is assumed that rule by women would be less warlike, more nurturing and kind, or at any rate more fair.
Feminism has been through our times like a brush fire or like Christianity and the Crusades in the centuries of the Middle Ages, rampaging through the Old World. There may be retrograde times or persons, but its rightness is impossible to oppose. This new construction of gender is happening along a world electronically connected and more and more full of artificial intelligence. Gender and sexuality are determined by fiat, not by tradition. Gone is internal psychological complexity in favor of the simple external appearance of equally valuable diversity.
Tradition is definitely the loser, as the Western reception of the African tribal practice of clitoridectomy indicates. The removal of the clitoris in young girls in Africa in some tribes had been a “traditional practice,” perhaps to ensure female fidelity in marriage. It wasn’t approved of by anyone in the West, but until the mid twentieth century it was accepted by anthropologists as tradition—barbaric to be sure, but traditional, like it or not. For a while, there was a discussion of the merits of “tradition” versus “human rights,” that is, specifically “feminism,” in newspapers and scholarly journals. Gradually feminism won out, and no argument could top it. In other words, feminism is combing through traditions to find and reject customs and values that do not agree with it and to select those that enhance its agenda in creating a new gender ideology for a new era. Arguing for tradition was taking the side of the species or community over the individual. Arguing for the feminism of human rights is favoring the individual, whether homosexual, transsexual, or female over the group.
Whether that is good or bad, I do not know. How far will it go? Will it last? How fulfilling will it be intellectually or emotionally? Good or bad for art? Good or bad for children? The hopes and fears for it are now very high. Perhaps like some of the other philosophical underpinnings of other ages, it has its bright and dark aspects that are, as yet, not quite visible. But – they are there.