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Twenty-first century feminism

By Wendy McElroy
web posted March 18, 2002

The 21st century is knocking at the barricaded door of feminism. It falls to renegades within the movement, like me, to shatter windows so a new generation can flow in like fresh air.

The liberated woman of the 21st century does not resemble the ghosts haunting '80s feminism. Who is she? She is the estimated 17 million women who control their own self-defense by owning guns; the mothers of children who are schooled at home; the stay-at-home moms who sacrifice careers to pursue more personal values; the entrepreneurs and career women who rise through merit and reject the concept of "victim."

The 21st-century feminist is anyone — female or male — who rejects gender privilege and demands real equality for men and women under the law. She makes her own choices and takes personal responsibility for them, without asking government for protection or tax dollars.

In fact, many of them pay a forfeit to government as part of making their own choices: Homeschoolers pay taxes to support a public school system they do not use. They also pay a cost in social stigma: Female gun enthusiasts and stay-at-home moms are looked down upon by ancien regime feminism. They are often encumbered by laws that "protect" them. For example, the businesswomen and professionals who are diminished by a lurking suspicion that affirmative action, not competence, accounts for their success.

What are the goals of this new grassroots feminism that is generally ignored or deplored by the ancien regime?

There are at least four ends toward which 21st-century feminism should be striving:

1. The removal of all laws that distinguish and discriminate between the sexes. Today, such laws generally privilege women at the expense of men, most notably in hiring practices and family law — e.g. child custody practices. Real equality under the law is a first and necessary step toward ending the gender war that politically correct feminists declared in the 20th century.

2. A vigorous defense of choice for every woman who takes personal responsibility for her own decisions, whether she becomes a stay-at-home mom or the CEO of a top-40 company. Government should remove the obstacles it has placed in the way of women's choices, including the decision to own a gun or to run a business out of her home. No one should be hindered by laws or taxes that target such choices.

3. The opening of civil discourse on issues of vital interest to women, such as abortion. On the pro-choice side, this means renouncing government sponsorship of abortion through tax dollars. On the pro-life side, this means denouncing all use of violence against anyone connected with abortion.

4. A "welcome" sign for men must be posted on the door of feminism. They are fathers, mates, sons, friends, and neighbors. It is folly to "solve" a human problem without consulting and co-operating with one-half of the species.

A question arises: Why even call such a movement "feminism?" I hear this question regarding my own choice of self-label: individualist feminism or ifeminism. Let me explain.

The history of feminism in America has rich and honorable roots in the 19th century anti-slavery movement (circa 1830). In working to throw off black slavery, abolitionist women — many of whom were Quakers — became politically aware of their own legal oppression. A tract by the Quaker Sarah Grimke, Legal Disabilities of Women, compared the wording of laws that ruled slaves with those that then ruled women. The similarities were shocking.

But abolitionist women did not argue for privileges for women to replace legal obstacles. In a famous statement, Angelina Grimke, Sarah's sister, asked only for man to take his foot off the neck of woman. These early feminists argued for women's rights on the grounds of self-ownership. They believed every human being, simply by being human, had an equal right to his or her own body and the labor thereof. In short, they demanded equality under just law.

This is what "feminism" meant at its birth. It is what the word means to me now. I am too stubborn to let a fine tradition and a good word be relinquished to politically correct feminists who crusade for legal privilege and against equality.

The 21st century is the death knell of politically correct feminism. The ancien regime will not advocate the removal of discriminatory laws because those laws constitute their hard-purchased victories. They cannot champion gun ownership or housewifery because their theories pathologize those choices. They are not open to opening discourse on abortion, even around the edges, because they have made abortion the litmus test of what it means to be a feminist.

They will never accept the validity of men as feminists because their ideology is based on a class analysis that makes men a separate and politically antagonistic group.

The ancien regime is dead but it will leave with no more grace than it entered. The politics of rage will scream all the louder because it sees that no one is listening. And it will take years to heal the devastation it has wrought.

Perhaps, children now being born will adopt the label "feminist" as adults. If they do so, it will be for the same reason their parents rejected it: They respect individual choice and accept personal responsibility.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the forthcoming anthology Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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