It is the thesis of Benjamin R. Barber, as argued in a provocative and thoughtful essay/review in the July 11 issue of The New Republic, that in the third decade of its existence the feminist movement has entered a "third stage" of development. Any time a man writes about women he risks the reflexive scorn of feminist extremists and of men anxious to flaunt their feminist credentials, and this risk Barber has taken; but his analysis is not merely cogent and balanced, it also has the look of being right.
Barber, a political scientist at Rutgers University, discusses the new ideology of feminism in the context of five recent books that deal in various ways and from various angles with current trends in the women's movement. For a sisterhood that is barely 20 years old--Betty Friedan's "The Feminist Mystique," its seminal document, was published in 1963--it has undergone remarkably rapid and traumatic ideological upheaval; this probably reflects its inherently upper-middle-class character, which equips it with highly skilled intellectuals and academics ready to do ideological battle.
It was this elite that set the terms for the first stage of the movement, in which the feminine mystique was replaced by a feminist mystique that proclaimed, as Barber summarizes it, that "marriage was hell, sex was political, coitus was killing, married women were prostitutes, babies were traps, intercourse was rape, love was slavery, families were prisons, and men were enemies." It was an ideology that ranted against men but that "often challenged and detested" women themselves:
"The feminine mystique had celebrated the insufficiencies of being female as palpable strengths; the feminist mystique denigrated the strengths of being female as palpable insufficiencies. The problem with being a woman was neither misogyny nor external oppression; it was simply being a woman. To liberate women could only be to extirpate the woman, leaving behind an androgynous shell of abstract personhood."
Small wonder that radical feminism never played in Peoria, or that eventually there was even a backlash against it in the places where it originated: " . . . an ideology that repels its own constituents is incoherent" and cannot hope to find a durable following. Radical feminism sought to throw out the baby with the bath, which was farther than all but a few women were willing to go. Hence the "second stage"--the phrase, revealingly, is Friedan's--in which "what women seemed to reject was not liberation but the price radical feminists insisted on attaching to it" a price that entailed endorsing lesbianism and other forms of behavior widely regarded as aberrant while repudiating marriage, motherhood and other treasured, if conventional, institutions. In the late '70s and early '80s, the tide turned against the radicals; as Friedan put it, "we must admit and begin openly to discuss feminist denial of the importance of the family, of women's own needs to give and get love and nurture, tenderloving care."
It's rather surprising that Barber, the political scientist, doesn't seem to recognize that this reaction is entirely consistent with the pattern of revolutionary upheavals as described by Crane Brinton in his classic "The Anatomy of Revolution." The first, or radical, stage of feminism is directly analogous to what Brinton calls a revolution's time of "crisis, frequently accompanied by delirium, the rule of the most violent revolutionists, the Reign of Terror." The second stage is similarly analogous to Brinton's "period of convalescence, usually marked by a relapse or two." And then there comes what Barber calls the "third stage," characterized by Brinton as when "the fever is over, and the patient is himself again, perhaps in some respects actually strengthened by the experience, immunized at least for a while from a similar attack, but certainly not wholly made over into a new man."
In this third stage, or period of recovery, the effects of the time of upheaval are clear, but how the culture is going to deal with them is not. What Barber calls "the central dilemma of feminism: how to be free without mimicking men--how to nurture femininity without relinquishing equality," remains unresolved. But now that feminism seems to have passed through the extremes of action and reaction, it "may be moving into a third stage that rejects both androgyny and inequality, both sexlessness and sexism"; the new feminists, as Barber sees it, "accept the validity of differences between the sexes , but insist on the need to reformulate the very categories by which differences are identified and accounted for."
This is an extremely important point: The radical feminists, in their avidity for a genderless world of "personhood," allowed men to dictate the shape of that world. The "new feminists" argue that "crucial terms in political and moral discourse have been effectively preempted by men to ensure that putatively generic and gender-blind concepts will in fact be patterned on male models." The archetypes of unisex are "male archetypes," whether they be those of politics or morality or attire.
Consider by way of example "androgyny" as a matter of dress and personal appearance. In the days of radical feminism the androgynous style was represented as a "sexless" ideal, yet in actuality it was almost entirely based on male models. The short hair, the trousers, the heavy jewelry, the pugnacious stance, the glittering belt--all of these were, in Barber's somewhat infelicitous phrase, "dominant male paradigms." Even those aspects of the androgynous style that might be described as "feminine"--makeup, hip-hugging pants, raised heels--probably had their origins less in feminine style than in that of the male homosexual community, which always has been intimately connected with androgynous fashion. And how many men, dressed to kill in unisex, have been seen wearing skirts or blouses?
The illustration may seem frivolous, but it isn't: The androgynous style in its heyday was vivid evidence of the failure of the radical feminists to break away from a culture whose values were shaped and ordered by men--to offer a genuinely feminine alternative to that culture. Third-stage feminism, by contrast, celebrates "sexual differences, the constraints they place upon us, and the plural values they make possible." Its radicalism is, if anything, considerably more challenging to the norms of society than that of the old radicals, because it questions the prevailing male values, postulates female alternatives, and thus challenges society itself.
Which returns us to Crane Brinton. The first two stages of the feminist revolution are over, and we now are entering the third. This is the time in which we will learn what, if any, lasting changes the revolution wrought. "The challenge of third-stage feminism," Barber writes, "is how to make 'different but equal' a reality, not because differences are ineluctable, but because equality is valuable only where it encompasses rather than destroys them." Those words won't get a warm reception in the few remaining cadres of retrograde radicalism, but they speak to the best interests of us all.