What are women for?

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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.

Liberals, of course, generally and characteristically deny that abortion is barbaric. But the Casey decision substituted a progressive passivity for that very active moral claim. Today, the left is increasingly torn between old-school modern liberals who think like O’Connor and new-school postmodern liberals who find their cognitive elders in thrall to a haute-bourgeois conventionality that the deep premises of their own thought seem to strip of authority.

So postmodern Cynthia Nixon, who used to be straight but now isn’t, tells The New York Times Sunday Magazine exactly what establishment liberals don’t want to hear when it comes to the sexual politics of women — “you don’t get to define my gayness for me.” As Laurie Essig understated it in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Such talk is heresy among some people in the gay advocacy and the reaction was both immediate and predictable.” Nixon was swiftly accused by the left’s cultural policemen of “aiding and abetting bigots and bashers.”

Lip service is often paid to the impression that the point of empowering women is to empower them to do whatever they want, but much of the left stops well short of the more radical implications of that easy answer. The left’s culture of celebration is hamstrung by the very assertions of should and shouldn’t that contemporary women have inevitably come to make — as the ongoing debate over the advisability of marriage reveals. Reihan Salam has hinted that typically left-wing implications of academic theories like “erotic capital,” including mainstreaming prostitution, point in directions quite at odds with the dominant but failing framework of liberal sexual politics.

To the growing discomfort of many, that framework hasn’t come anywhere close to answering even the most basic questions about what women are for — despite pretty much universal recognition across the political spectrum that a civilization of men, for men, and by men is no civilization at all, a monstrously barbaric, bloody, and brutal enterprise. A few inherently meaningful implications about what women are for flow naturally from this wise and enduring consensus, but no faction of conservatives or liberals has figured out how to fully grasp, translate, and reconcile them in the context of our political life.

Ironically, one of the best places to look for a way out of the impasse is the strain of left feminism that insists an inherently unique female “voice” actually exists. That’s a claim about nature. Much good would come from a broader recognition that women have a privileged relationship with the natural world. That’s a relationship which must receive its social due — if masculinity in its inherent and imitative varieties (including imitation by quasi-feminized males of quasi-masculinized females!) is not to conquer the world.

James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.

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