THE INTELLECTUAL BACKLASH against feminism is not new. However, most anti-feminist books have either politely nibbled around its edges in the name of traditional ideals, like Wendy Shalit's A Return To Modesty, have focused on only one aspect of the problem, like Maggie Gallagher's Enemies of Eros, or have not actually defended conservative views, like Camille Paglia's Sex, Art & American Culture. But recently there has arrived a full-bore, unapologetic, and comprehensive assault on feminism as such. Carolyn Graglia’s Domestic Tranquility is the book America has been waiting for.
With a frankness that puts the normal prissiness of conservatives to shame, the author goes straight to the sexual heart of the matter. Unlike many conservatives, the 72-year-old Mrs. Graglia (as one assumes she would like to be known) is willing to discuss certain after-bedtime truths in a fashion that reminds one that decent society has always accorded grandma a little extra freedom of speech in these matters. It is only fair and logical to grant that a lifetime of happily married experience, something most feminists lack, qualifies her to opine on such things. She bluntly argues that a submissive attitude in the bedroom is the best way for a wife to keep her husband happy. She argues that modern women are pressured by cultural propaganda into playing the sexual aggressor and that this is a sexual turn-off to most men, resulting in the unhappy sex lives that lead to infidelity, kinkiness, or divorce. Dispelling the liberal accusation that traditional values were prudish or anti-sex, she frankly endorses the idea that a happy bedroom is a key component of a happy marriage. She argues that this was a part of traditional values that was lied about in the sexual revolution order to pretend that sexual liberalism constituted an awakening from ignorance.
Perhaps these things are obvious, but there are few serious political thinkers who will take them as the basis of political argument. Respectable people just don't talk about it, especially conservatives. But Graglia takes on feminist ideas about even the act itself in great detail and shows why they are wrong and have important consequences. Some readers who haven't been exposed to the things feminists have been saying, or whose devotion to clean living leads them to shy away from discussion of these subjects, may find her writing a shock at first. But adults do need to make up their minds about these things and frankly, the only alternative is to let feminism go unanswered.
Graglia argues, against feminists who have promoted it, that purely physical sex lacks meaning and is ultimately even inferior physically. She argues that part of the agenda of promoting purely physical sex was that feminists didn't like some of the meanings sex has, like marriage, parenthood, and a certain natural subordination of woman to man. If sex is just friction, none of these subversive ideas get implied. If it is something more, then feminism is in trouble, because in its implications, sex, to put it bluntly, is sexist.
Graglia argues that one of the things that sex traditionally implied for women was maternity. This may sound obvious, but the full-scale scientific assault of birth control has severed this link so completely that people nowadays think of motherhood as the least erotic thing imaginable. She argues that feminists have, with cruel intelligence, correctly figured out that the biggest threat to getting women to buy into their ideals is the maternal instinct. This is a feeling she says women discover when they become mothers -- that this is something they would actually find satisfying to spend their lives doing. She calls this feeling "awakened femininity," and sees feminists as trying to suppress it in favor of what she calls "spiritual virginity," a kind of failure of women to get in touch with their own womanhood.
She diagnoses this spiritual virginity as a flaw in the personalities of many famous feminist leaders. She bluntly voices the suspicion that intelligent people have long had that feminist ideologues are wounded souls who act out their personal traumas on the stage of ideology. She lists the failed marriages, self-inflicted bad relationships, lesbianism, childlessness and other forms of bitterness in these leaders' lives, and openly asks why American women should consent to be told how to run their lives by these palpable misfits. It's one thing to take advice about auto mechanics from someone with a wretched personal life, but feminism touches on how we actually live.
Graglia follows, in a less operatic way, the Camille Paglia line of thinking that likes its men virile and isn't ashamed to complain when it doesn't get them that way. But Graglia is much more pointed in blaming women for what she sees as the decline of American manliness, a decline that by making men less attractive to women undermines marriage as a whole. She openly attacks homosexuals for undermining the image of manhood. She thinks women should stop trying to make their men be like themselves and should accept that while a marriage needs sensitivity, giving, and nurturing to thrive, women are the ones who should be bringing these qualities to the table, not men. Men have their own, different, contributions to make, and trying to make them do what women are naturally suited to, only undermines them in this. Men have been guilt-tripped and lied into modifying their behavior to accord with the feminist fantasy of sexual similarity, and women have to take the lead in telling them to stop this misplaced attempt to give women what men imagine they want.
But if feminism doesn't make either sex happy, how did it become so dominant? Graglia documents the various ways that feminist-inspired social policy worked to pry people out of traditional roles. Easy divorce has made women fear to commit to a life as a traditional housewife because they know they can be dumped at any time. The growth of welfare has undermined the male role as breadwinner as the state becomes a surrogate husband. Graglia boldly argues, as one would only normally expect to hear from the crankiest of the old Archie Bunker working class, that the rise of women in the workplace has cheated men out of jobs that were rightfully theirs, and that the traditional justification for giving preference to male employment, namely that the man was a breadwinner, was perfectly valid and should be restored. She buttresses this claim with the fact (from Labor Department figures) that we are now facing the lowest rate of male workforce participation ever officially recorded. Something has driven men out of the workforce that did not drive women out. Graglia argues that this male unemployment is at the root of the badly-behaved and drifting males, mainly young, who plague our society and commit most of its crimes. She also argues that women have failed to perform their traditional role of civilizing these ne'er-do-wells by marrying them and remaining married to them.
Graglia argues that the other key feminist offensive was against the cultural prestige and legitimacy of the housewife. Graglia points out that in those industrial societies that have been the least affected by feminism, like Japan, the key difference is that being a housewife is a respectable role in life. It is not considered a waste of an educated woman's mind, or a choice that a woman would only accept because society forced her into it. But in capitalist America and socialistic Europe, postwar society has only really taken seriously what people do outside the home, which for most people means the economic arena. This intellectually ruthless materialism destroyed the credibility of the housewife, and the interesting thing is that there was no real difference between how capitalists and socialists viewed her. In our Cold-War zeal to frame the great questions of life in terms of a clash of economic philosophies, we forgot about the bourgeois (or bourgeois-aspiring) home that served as the basis of capitalist society. Since it worked so well that we could take it for granted, this was of course easy to do.
Graglia argues that now that the family has been weakened as an institution, the Left is moving in to cement its weakness by using this very weakness as a justification for moving many of the functions of the family into the hands of the state. They have damaged it and then used that damage both to deny that it ever worked well and to demand the right to do more damage in order to fix it. The utterly deliberate expansion of the public school system, for example, from a teaching institution to an all-purpose social-service delivery tool, has had the effect of making families assume that these responsibilities are no longer theirs, and has undermined those who still try. The classic rhetorical mode of the Left is to demand that we "acknowledge reality" by in effect endorsing our problems as normative. And what we will accept as normal gets worse every year. And time thins the ranks of people who even remember how to make the old ways work, particularly because they were a kind of folk-wisdom that is more embodied in people than written in books.
Graglia reminds us how brutal was the ideological war against the traditional family. She points out that the things feminists said about houseswives – if one substituted "blacks," "Jews," "Italian-Americans," or even, ironically, "women," into the same sentences – would get one hung, drawn and quartered by the PC police. Feminists have consistently and baldly claimed that housewives, insofar as they are not merely pitiable victims, are basically cowards to accept their role and morons if they dare to actually like it. The irony is that they also claim the housewife is a "parasite," so the common American housewife may be the first being in history to be simultaneously a parasite and a victim of exploitation.
Graglia argues that feminists are anti-woman in that they think that the quintessential feminine activity, childbearing, is something to be denigrated and run away from. They are in fact borderline misogynistic. They aren't really feminists at all, but androgynists using the rhetoric of feminism.
Graglia's relentless political incorrectness does not shrink from taking black America to task for its special contribution to our national mess in relations between the sexes. She argues that relations between black men and black women have reached a point of generalized hostility that is destroying the black family from within just as government policies attack it from without. Taking novels and the lyrics of music as examples, she shows how black men and women routinely generalize about the opposite sex in blisteringly negative terms and see each other as incompetent, selfish, and subject to only the worst motives. Naturally, this has a corrosive effect on behavior and the expectations of the young that makes it a self-fulfilling prophesy. She observes that blacks have been on the leading edge of most negative social trends in this country and that whatever they are doing wrong today, whites are sure to follow in a few years, which makes it hard to dismiss her critique as prejudice. She also has nasty things to say about Jewish women and other ethnic groups.
She uses her own life story to dispel some key feminist myths. She is a graduate of the same Ivy-League law school as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a noted feminist who has made hay out of her claim that when she graduated from law school in the 50's, no law firm would hire her. Graglia graduated a few years before her, and reports not only that she was given job offers commensurate with her experience but that she was not, at any point in her education, discouraged from pursuing a legal career. In fact, she had scholarships and encouragement all the way, something she needed with her working-class background. She argues that feminists have erected a vast myth that earlier generations of women were itching to pursue careers outside the home but were frustrated by an evil patriarchy. In fact, there were career options for those few women who really wanted them, but most did not, for the simple reason that most women are happier doing what she did, namely staying home to raise children.
It is worth making the point that in those days prior to the ‘60s boom in agreeable white-collar employment, the workplace really didn’t hold that much fascination as an ideal. Work generally meant things other than what was in those days called "indoor sit-down work," and the self-realization that feminists now proclaim work constitutes was a bit implausible in an often harsh workplace of fields, mines, factories, and corner stores.
But today most women don't work for self-realization; they work because they have to. The biggest problem with Graglia's position is that whatever individual couples may feel about returning to traditional roles, in the real world, most of them bump into the brute fact of needing two incomes to support the conventional middle-class American lifestyle. This has led to a phenomenon I have observed personally of wealthy young conservative couples committing to have the wife stay home as the kind of ultimate luxury. While one can certainly applaud them for spending their money on traditional values rather than expensive toys, there is something hollow about this kind of conservative bobo-ism of pantomiming one's ideological values while living a life whose real essence is just plain old-fashioned being rich. One can only hope that this is an example of the perennial phenomenon of elites adopting lifestyles first and thereby conferring a legitimacy on them that is followed by the rest of society. Still, ordinary working Americans do not need to have choices they make from economic necessity rubbed in their faces as implying inferior values.
Graglia has the intellectual honesty to admit that there may be some women out there who do not hold her high regard for a traditional woman's life. To these, she says, she has nothing to say. In the final analysis, she is prepared to rest her case on the brute empirical claim that most women, if allowed to freely choose in the absence of economic pressure and bullying by feminist propaganda, will choose the traditional way. In fairness to her, she does imply how we are to gradually return as a society to our former values: systematically reverse the ideological and policy measures that were used to put feminism into effect, and assume that what works in one direction can work in the other.
It well may. One hopes that our society is not yet so far gone as to make this impossible.