Has Feminism Failed?

female symbol
This column was written by Ross Douthat.
It's a testament to feminism's success that so many people, over so many years, have been so eager to write its obituary. From the 1970s onward, the public has been treated to regular bulletins announcing that feminism has failed, is finished, has expired of natural causes or been slain in a gangland-style hit involving, in no particular order, Ally McBeal, Phyllis Schlafly, the editors of Maxim, Martha Stewart and the Republican party.

Last summer, feminism's failure was proclaimed by Judith Warner, whose charmingly solipsistic "Perfect Madness" trumpeted the difficulties that well-off women in the Greater Washington, D.C. area endure while trying to balance their careers and the demands of motherhood — or as she put it, the "choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret poisoning motherhood for American women today." (A moment's pity, if you will, for the travails of the Mid-Atlantic upper middle class.) But her tone was mild and reasonable compared to this winter's entrant in the "after-feminism" sweepstakes, Maureen Dowd's "Are Men Necessary: When Sexes Collide" — which, if the excerpt in this Sunday's Times Magazine is any guide, will be a lot less entertaining than its title might suggest.

Dowd isn't interested in anything so minor-league and mundane as the work-life balance: She thinks the whole world of women and men has been going to hell for years, and she's not going to take it any more. Having missed out on the glory days of feminism — in the 1970s, she longed for the "Art Deco glamour of '30s movies," and left the revolution to her "earnest sisters in black turtlenecks and Birkenstocks" — she's appalled at her youthful self for failing to realize that "the triumph of feminism would last a nanosecond while the backlash lasted 40 years."

Everywhere she looks, Dowd sees feminism in retreat. Women don't want to split the checks anymore; they favor Mrs. over Ms.; they still flirt and play hard to get and wear makeup and agonize over whether to return a man's calls; they take their husband's name, and in higher percentages than in the halcyon year of 1990; they read superficial, sex-obsessed glossy magazines; and some of them even dare to stay at home with the kids, eschewing both the fast track and the Friedanian idea that domestic life is at best a "comfortable concentration camp."

As for men — and Dowd reserves her real contempt for them — the poor boobs never quite managed to shed the "atavistic desire to be the superior force in the relationship." They want to pay for dinner and they're easily intimidated, both by Times columnists and by the girls (sorry, women) from Harvard Business School; they think their wives and girlfriends should have Pamela Anderson-sized breasts and speak only when spoken to; they want nothing more to marry a docile, not-too-desperate housewife and then divorce her a few decades later to take up with "their secretaries, assistants, nannies, caterers, flight attendants, researchers and fact-checkers."

As with much of what Dowd writes, it's hard to know how seriously to take her mix of cheap shots and caricature. Still, it's worth at least suggesting, by way of counterpoint, that the world we inhabit isn't one in which the feminists have been backlashed into retreat for the last 40 years — it's a world where feminism won, at least insofar as it could, and the sexual confusion that so dismays Dowd is the unexpected consequence of its victory.

Admittedly, some of what we call "women's liberation" had more to do with inexorable economic trends, pushing females out of the home and into the workforce, than it did the activism of bra-burning ex-bluestockings. But to the extent that feminism was a realistic political movement with realistic goals — as opposed to a utopian fantasy — its achievements have been remarkable. Women have moved into nearly every professional arena in American life, from law and politics to ministry and the military, and an edifice of regulation has sprung up to protect them from gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and to encourage their hiring and promotion. Laws against rape and domestic violence have been strengthened, public awareness of both has been dramatically raised, and the rates of these crimes have been falling for some time. Abortion and birth control are not only widely available, but enshrined as constitutional rights. Real sexism has been banished beyond the pale of public discourse: Whatever men mutter to each other on poker night, no public figure would dare to suggest that a woman might not be qualified for any position, anywhere, simply because of her sex. Even suggesting the possibility of the existence of meaningful gender differences can get you tarred and feathered and forced to recant, as Larry Summers recently discovered.

There's more: today's women are dramatically better-educated than men, something that would have been unthinkable half a century ago, and by nearly every available metric, the young female of the species is healthier than the young male — less prone to suicide, drug addiction, and alcoholism, better-adjusted and higher-achieving, more ambitious and happier. Even sports, the most guy-ish of all the guy things, has been overrun by women — thanks in no small part to a feminist-inspired legal apparatus devoted to leveling the playing field in colleges and universities, even if it means bulldozing successful male athletic programs in the process.

And women have achieved all this while shaking off much — though not all, admittedly — of the old sexual double standard. Yesterday's sluts are today's healthy, empowered young women, today's sluts are celebrities (insert obligatory Paris Hilton joke here), and even the raunchiest guy-magazines take time out from the leering and the dirty jokes to instruct readers on how to satisfy their girlfriends in bed.