The same is true for the meaning of the relationship between women as sovereign individuals and as beings with female bodies. Increasing numbers of Americans on both sides of the culture wars think that barbarism will win and civilization will lose unless the federal government establishes that relationship by law, on birth control, abortion, prostitution, and other issues.
The premise of my recent column is that this increasingly common view is placing a burden on American politics that it may not be able to bear. This is one reason why embracing agnosticism on the whole question might be such a civilizational leap forward — there may, practically speaking, be no other way to avoid a fundamental crisis of governance that Americans won’t be able to successfully recover from.
Nevertheless, there may be a successful way to talk about how women’s bodies might equip them to play a particularly important social and political role. Since my original discussion of this point has led a number of people to imagine that I must want nothing more than to reduce women to bio-serfs, it’s worth rearticulating.
Relative to men, women have a naturally privileged relationship with the process of creating and recreating human life. If you think this claim is an act of patriarchal essentialism, consider that this claim helps justify the right of a woman to freely choose an abortion without regard to the interests or opinions of the inseminating male. In most ways, in fact, that naturally privileged relationship — call it the power of fertility or fecundity — doesn’t actually carry much moral weight, as the development of our civilization has made clear. Women are largely freer than ever to pursue their life plans without the burden of a moral obligation to center their activity and their ambitions around exercising their unique reproductive capabilities.
Yet the story doesn’t end there. We still argue and wonder about which life plans to choose in a civilization that has greatly and productively loosened the once-intense moral link between women’s fecundity and women’s lives as unique individuals. And one area in which patriarchal dominance has persisted is in privileging some kinds of human pursuits over others. Philosophers from Plato to Rousseau to Heidegger have disapprovingly warned of the apparently natural propensity of men to fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.
Difference doesn’t presume or ordain inequality. I’m not alone in thinking that women are uniquely able to help humanity avoid becoming enthralled to the more sterile cultural creations of men. But this sort of insight is far more circumspect and modest than the central principles of virtually all social conservatives. If my claim is doomed to be met with an avalanche of contempt, it seems likely that in our lifetimes social conservatism as we know it will be mocked, despised, and shamed right out of existence. You might be deeply uncomfortable with that even if you do hope to see an America without a social conservative movement.
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.