Among moderates and conservatives, there’s a tendency to equate the word “feminism” with its most radical elements only — man-hating, anti-motherhood, “all intercourse is rape” MacKinnon-style feminism. The same moderates and conservatives who align themselves against what they call “feminism” would, for the most part, happily endorse the ideas that women should feel free to have jobs if they want them, find support for their decisions from their family, be payed the same for their work, and have access to reproductive options, from contraception to abortion (altough the latter would elicit some controversy). They’d defend those rights, without once realizing that they were defending what most feminists, male and female, define as feminism.
If I may, I submit that the reason so many of us feel so free to narrow and demonize “feminism” is that we forget the now settled, routine gains that “radical” feminism once procured. A glimpse at Mad Men, or a brief remembrance of decades past, is sufficient to remind us how recently it became permissible and common for women to be able to follow their dreams, whether those dreams involve family, professional achievement, or some mix thereof. And, lest we forget the novelty of these gains, there’s always Robert McDonnell, the Republican gubernatorial candidate for Virginia, to remind us just how far we’ve come.
In 1989, then-Regent University student McDonnell penned a thesis that labeled working women “detrimental” to the family; called contraception “illogical”; advocated for “covenent marriage” (which makes it much harder to divorce); demanded a “Judeo-Christian” focus in the public schools; and, of course, called anything other than a flat-tax “socialist.”
McDonnell claims to have changed; maybe that’s true. But McDonnell’s radical anti-feminist views place him in good company in his party, an increasingly conservative bunch that looks longingly back to a “golden era” that was only truly “golden” for some. That he once opposed women’s equality is a strike against his judgment, potentially a crippling one, and ought to matter.
As a man privileged to know brilliant, successful women, and call them friends, I consider myself particularly indebted to the triumphs of feminism, and particularly appalled by anyone who, now or earlier, would have denied them the chance to excel, or the earned rewards of such success. The lives of all are incalculably enriched by the successes of our peers, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation; who could deny themselves or their nation such gifts? McDonnell deserves to lose this election, if only as a reminder that America has since come closer to the dream of truly treating all equally.