29 September

The Closing of the Feminist Mind

Last month James Damore, a 28-year-old software engineer, was fired by Google after his critique of the company’s affirmative action policies was leaked online. The full text of the now infamous 10-page memo argued that average biological group differences between men and women ‘in part’ explain the current low representation of women in the tech industry. To both his employer and many in the media, this meant Damore’s views were necessarily ‘sexist’, but his accompanying defense of increased ‘gender and racial diversity’ complicate such claims.

The ideological battle lines between his attackers and defenders become clearer when we consider that Damore self-describes himself as a ‘classical liberal’, which noncoincidentally fits Steven Pinker’s positive description of ‘equity feminism’ in his book The Blank Slate. Following Christina Hoff Sommers, Pinker claims that this earlier egalitarian movement was hijacked by the later ‘social constructionism’ of ‘gender feminism’ . While there are real differences between these two broad schools regarding the existence and degree of sex differences, with each incorrectly diminishing the role either biology and socialisation does and should play, they both, as Damore puts it of himself, ‘strongly value individualism and reason’.

In Damore’s equity feminism, such hyper-‘individualism’ still demands that we ‘free’ individuals from their ‘gender role’, without considering gender identity’s impact on the ‘good of marriage and family’, whilst his instrumentalisation of ‘reason’ restricts gender egalitarianism to serving the straight-jacketed goal of ‘optimizing [profits] for Google’. The gender feminism Damore opposes is equally dogmatic in attacking pre-determined gender roles but instead makes use of traditional Marxist critiques of the family for this end and it displays the same irrational rationalism when pursuing perfectly equal employment between men and women, which was again propelled by capitalism’s desire to maximize the productive capacity of the workforce.

A corrective to both views can be found in feminist writings that predate the above conflicts. Many early femininists, such as Elise Oelsner in the nineteenth century, instead positively recognized both the biological and social components of sex and gender difference, with the accompanying conclusion that ‘people-oriented’ virtues such as empathy, mercy and charity were typologically female. This allowed those such as Oelsner to argue effectively for a better integration of the feminine into society in service to the common good: hence the rise of a ‘feminist’ movement.

Whilst this view was muddied in writings a generation later, it was still clear then that a woman’s cry for ‘A Room of One’s Own’ was not intended to be an end in and of itself. Susan Sontag’s late volume ‘Regarding the Pain Of Others’ missed this point entirely when making reference to Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Three Guineas’; there Sontag delighted in the misandrist hues of Woolf’s argument that war is a fundamentally male phenomenon, but she undercut the claim’s power when arguing that Woolf’s ‘general abhorrence of war’, regardless of context, only served to ‘dismiss politics’. Woolf, though, was criticizing a political context, since her whole argument was that the Western world was being ravaged by war and inequality precisely because it was destructively male.

Of course, such arguments were originally attempting to invert proto-fascistic critiques of feminine ‘passivity’ offered by figures such as Otto Weininger, and cannot therefore be understood in isolation. Femininity’s vulnerability to vice and masculinity’s capacity for virtue also need to be elucidated if we are to truly reconcile ourselves and society to humanity’s sexually dimorphic nature, with the complementarian writings of figures such as Edith Stein remaining amongst the most important contributions to the subject. Nevertheless, it is important to note the degree to which this original feminist project has been distorted and drawn into the service of our liberal capitalist culture, so that when we look around at our hyper-competitive, high-risk and status-oriented economy and our de-socialized and increasingly virtual society, we are again able to see whether the ‘feminine genius’ can offer important correctives.

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