What are women for?

Editor’s Note: Poulos responds to critics of this article here.

In a simpler time Sigmund Freud struggled to understand what women want. Today the significant battle is over what women are for. None of our culture warriors are anywhere close to settling the matter. The prevailing answer is the non-answer, a Newt-worthy challenge to the premise that insists the real purpose of women is nothing in particular.

Such an answer may or may not be a landmark in the progress of the human race, but it is anathema to most conservatives of any political party, and for that reason conservative folkways, prejudices, and ideals are once again on trial.

Rick Santorum may be easing up on the rhetorical throttle as his fortunes seem on the upswing, but everyone else feels their civilization is in peril, and the bile rises accordingly. On birth control, the Catholic Church is portrayed as the extremist fringe of its own faithful. On abortion, activists labor to extort Komen for the Cure.

As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes observes, Republicans are being excoriated for voting against the Violence Against Women Act, for pushing transvaginal ultrasounds, and for holding an all-male hearing on birth control. Conservatives are even being reviled for “slut-shaming” sexy CPAC attendees. “Is there no one in the upper echelon of the GOP establishment,” Hayes wonders, “who can explain to them how all this looks when strung together?”

Alas, Carly Fiorina is not quite upper echelon. But before liberals ritually invoke the glass ceiling, they might want to conduct an agonizing reappraisal of their own. If the conservative movement’s nominal unity is actually belied by a stunning range of right-wing views on the status and purpose of women (and believe me, it is), the left’s alleged philosophical uniformity on the woman question is a complete fabrication — despite the fanatical discipline and norm-enforcement of much of the liberal cultural establishment.

The purpose of lifting the left’s Potemkin skirts is not to score tits for tats. Anyone serious about thinking through the role of women in today’s civilization is doing worthless work unless they take the controversies on the right hand in hand with the unsuccessfully suppressed tensions on the opposite side of the spectrum, where disagreements far more volatile in their profundity roil respectable liberalism.

Left opinion is no longer defined by the comfortably careworn liberal consensus that Sandra Day O’Connor conveyed in the abortive plurality decision of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. There, the metaphysical trouble kicked up by the elective killing of fetuses was relegated to the realm of life’s cosmic mysteries — a place liberals contemptuously deride as beneath human dignity when referenced in terms of the suffering of the crucified Christ. No judge, O’Connor and company concluded, could judge what it so much as meant to end fetal life.

Lurking beneath this procedural non-judgmentalism was a stubbornly conspicuous judgmental end. Roe couldn’t be overturned, the plurality argued, because Americans might think the Supreme Court was bending to public pressure. The court’s solution was to bend to the public reality that millions of women had altered what it meant to be a woman — and what status that meaning conferred — by having or supporting abortions. On the bogus theory that all linear change is progress, the plurality embraced the immoderate view that a descent into barbarism is impossible.