The Aspirations of Women

That “sex matters” is both the title of Mona Charen’s latest book and its central thesis. The syndicated columnist and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center reviews the Sexual Revolution and its aftermath, explaining the many grim consequences that have followed on the erosion of traditional sexual morals, and the effort to obliterate fundamental differences between men and women. This book stands as a thorough and very readable rejoinder to familiar defenses of sexual libertinism.

In fact it would be an excellent book to hand to a teenaged daughter or anyone steeped in liberal-feminist clichés. Charen has a talent for distilling the most reasonable incarnation of mainstream conservative views, and she deftly picks her way through hot-button topics (the breakdown of the family, campus rape culture, the “mommy wars”) without seeming bitter or shrill. She keeps her eye on a bigger picture, consistently linking her arguments back to the high-minded ideals that conservatives have traditionally cherished: civility, decency, mutual respect, and love. Her argument is counter-cultural, but it’s almost impossible to dismiss her as a revanchist crank.

Conservatives in Search of the Middle Path

Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense is more than just a topical summary, though. Charen humanizes it at appropriate moments with personal stories, recalling the loneliness she experienced as a latchkey kid, and her own struggles later in life to balance career interests against the desire to be with her children in their daily lives. She opted to lean out, dramatically cutting back on professional commitments so as to leave time for school pageants, Little League games, and zoo trips. She wants young women to understand what a rich and meaningful life this can be, but instead of scolding them, she regularly returns to happier themes: the joy of maternity, the beauty of marriage, and the dignity of woman’s unique contributions to family and to human society.

Don’t most women want to be mothers? Isn’t it worth making certain sacrifices to enjoy those precious moments?

Charen starts with a succinct précis of feminism and its development over the course of the 20th century. After that come chapter-length discussions of major social problems that have followed on feminist errors: the breakdown of marriage, the creation of a loveless hookup culture, the extension of that culture to college campuses, and the collapse of the natal family. She concludes with a chapter on mommy wars and the errors of trying to “have it all.” Throughout, she supplements her analysis with sociological data, illustrative anecdotes, and references to popular culture that help to illustrate the relevant trends.

It’s enjoyable to read a book with such an optimistic outlook on men, women, and their potential to be happy together. The tradeoff for that optimism, though, is that the book doesn’t yield a great deal of insight for anyone trying to chart a middle path between rejecting natural differences as non-existent or irrelevant, and embracing them as the foundation for the defining of social roles. That’s unfortunate—because that middle path is what is earnestly being sought by gender-interested conservatives today. In the search for it, we’ve encountered a number of difficult questions.

How should we feel, for instance, about societies or subcultures that expect women to occupy a traditional place as a domestically-oriented and protected class? Are working men rightfully entitled to full-time domestic support from their wives? If certain women do actually prefer the board room to the baby carriage, is that to their discredit? And if they find their ambitions frustrated by social norms or established “boys’ clubs,” should we protest?

Charen’s views on these matters (insofar as we can discern them) seem very far from radical. She says a few laudatory things about expanded opportunity for women, while carefully avoiding condemnatory statements about cultures in which the sexes are divided more strictly. If pressed, she might say that she’s comfortable seeing women in elite professions, but just suspects that most women don’t really want that, or wouldn’t if they weren’t regularly experiencing pressure to compete with men. That might be true, but it’s not really sufficient to answer the above questions. And answering them seems key to making good decisions about how children should be raised, how businesses or institutions should be structured, and what kinds of social expectations our churches, schools, and media personalities ought to encourage.

Imagine a World Without Second Wave Feminism

Toward that end, Sex Matters prompts us to contemplate the extent to which sexual libertinism is separable from other components of the feminist agenda. Clearly it is logically possible to value female education and professional accomplishment without abandoning traditional sexual morals. Charen implies that, without the Sexual Revolution, we might have seen women’s opportunities expand in a healthier way. She cites mid-century magazine articles as evidence that American society was entirely prepared to embrace accomplished women even before hard-charging Second Wave feminists like Bette Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, and Germaine Greer took it upon themselves to smash traditional social norms.

What if that movement had never existed, or had failed to capture a sympathetic audience? It’s an interesting contingency to contemplate, for it does seem it should have been possible to make appropriate modifications to social norms without so much cultural fallout. The feminists of the 1970s and beyond seemed at times to be almost gleeful about rising promiscuity and the damage sustained by the institution of marriage and, in turn, by family life. That cavalier attitude surely exacerbated the social trauma that accompanied our renegotiation of gender norms.

Having said that, it’s hard to imagine that this transition could either have been avoided or managed in an entirely painless way. The pressures that precipitated our changing gender norms extended far beyond feminist ideology itself. Over the past century, labor markets in the developed world shifted, de-emphasizing agricultural and industrial labor as they, or at least the leading ones among them, took on the characteristics of an information economy. Women are far more competitive in today’s workforce, since physical strength and stamina are no longer key requirements for most desirable jobs.

Information economies also attach rich rewards (money, status, opportunities for personal development) to education and rarified accomplishment. It was inevitable that women would want to claim some share of these benefits, and that they would accordingly be motivated to demonstrate a capacity to compete with men. But that effort inevitably came into conflict with certain traditional ideas about women’s domestic obligations and appropriate social pursuits—also with certain natural truths concerning the female body, its natural vulnerabilities, and its unique capacity for childbearing. In short, none of this was ever going to be simple.

To find a path forward, we certainly need to acknowledge that sex matters, but we also need to fill out the picture so we can understand how much it matters, and in what way. Interestingly, there’s at least some evidence to suggest that the happiest equilibrium between the sexes may be reached in societies where female careerism is actually encouraged and facilitated. Women in Western European countries (particularly the Nordic countries, which have both high standards of living and a spate of social programs designed to ease the burdens of childbearing) are far less inclined to pursue ambitious STEM careers than the women of Turkey, Algeria, or the United Arab Emirates.

The Aspirations of Women

Charen mentions this divide, but mainly just as evidence that feminists have once again “struck out” in their efforts to engineer an egalitarian society. This reviewer would draw a further lesson: When women feel confident that their interests and personal goals will be respected, most prefer less demanding careers that promise both personal fulfillment and family flexibility. If they feel as if they have to prove the legitimacy of non-domestic pursuits, the smartest and most ambitious among them aspire toward high-status and high-earning professions, where they can demonstrate their capacity to compete.

Nordic welfare states certainly have their own pitfalls, but these trends might indicate a larger truth: Women will be most willing to return to their kitchens if they don’t feel forced. Where it is widely understood that women are not exclusively designed for domesticity, they may actually embrace domestic life with more enthusiasm.

To get to such a point, we’ll certainly need to move beyond leftist tropes vilifying “the patriarchy.” But conservatives may also need to do more than extol the beauty of sexual difference and sexual complementarity. Social roles have just become too diversified in our time for sex to be a sufficient determiner of life obligations and appropriate goals. We need to find ways to preserve certain traditional ideals and morals, without reducing women, or men for that matter, to a caricature or anachronistic stereotype. As our present culture wars indicate, this is really quite difficult to do.

Sex matters, and Mona Charen’s book does a good job of explaining how much we’ve lost by running away from that basic fact. Now the task is to develop a strategy for getting those goods back.