Four Degrees of Feminism

If Hillary Clinton were elected president, she’d be the second feminist to hold that office. The first was her husband Bill. (If this seems a questionable proposition, hold on. I’ll defend it later.)
But “feminism” is an equivocal term, having at least four distinct but related meanings, each of them indicative of a somewhat more radical variety of feminism than the one preceding.
Egalitarian feminism (EF). This is the original kind, the kind you find inspiring Betty Friedan’s landmark 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique. According to EF, all positions in academic institutions, the workplace, the military, sports, etc., should be equally open to males and females on the basis of merit. There must be no more male-only or female-only occupations or activities.
This kind of feminism has triumphed completely since Friedan wrote her book. Today, no one objects to the ideal of gender equality. (Well, maybe a few people here and there object, but they are prudent enough not to say anything in public.) Nixon used to say, “We are all Keynesians now.” When it comes to EF, we are all feminists now.
Liberation feminism (LF). One of the traditional privileges of men was that they were permitted by society to have more freedom than women. So if you wanted men and women to be equal, it followed that you would also want women to have as much freedom as men have. In practice, LF became mainly a demand for sexual freedom. If social conventions allowed men to sleep around, then women should be allowed to sleep around, too — down with the “double standard.” But if women were to indulge in sexual freedom, contraception would have to be readily available; so let’s have government-paid-for contraception for unmarried girls and women. And of course let’s have abortion, for you can’t very well have a regime of sexual freedom without legal abortion to take care of “mistakes.”
LF was able to win a lot of fans, but not nearly as many as EF was able to win. Many people, including many women, remain opposed to the principle of sexual freedom. And of course they also remain opposed to abortion. When it comes to LF, the nation is divided.
Anti-male feminism (AMF). If throughout history women have not been allowed equality and freedom, this must be somebody’s fault. Somebody must be the enemy, the oppressor of women. But who? Men, of course. For thousands and thousands of years, men have organized society on a patriarchal basis, allowing themselves to occupy a socially superior position, placing women in an inferior, second-class position. And this system of patriarchy continues to this day; despite the feminist movement, men are still lording it over women.
And it’s not just this man or that man, it’s virtually all men who are guilty of the sin of patriarchy. To the degree that a man doesn’t fight against patriarchy, he is complicit in it, and he profits from his sin. Men are the enemy. From this it follows that marriage is to be avoided. A certain amount of sexual contact with men is allowable, provided you keep in mind that you are not giving yourself to the man; you are simply using him. Better still, become a lesbian. And if you don’t feel inclined to lesbianism, you can do the next best thing; that is, you can admire and applaud lesbians, and defend their cause.
Some feminists, but not very many, have been of the AMF variety. Not many women have found themselves able to hate men with the same ferocity the old Communist had when hating the capitalist enemy. But AMF feminists, being more radical and more intense than EF and LF feminists, have won a disproportionate amount of attention both inside and outside feminist circles. Though small in numbers, their influence has been great.
Quasi-religious feminism (QRF). In an age in which traditional religion is losing its hold in some sections of society, persons who find they can no longer believe in, say, Christianity or Judaism will often look for some other moral community that will give meaning to their lives. If they cannot find a new religion, they will turn to what may be called a quasi-religion, that is, a secular community or movement that provides them with the satisfactions that religion provides religious believers. Nazism was such a quasi-religion, and so was Communism.
For decades now, feminism has been a quasi-religion for some women. Most women, of course, have no use for feminism as a quasi-religion; indeed, most feminists themselves don’t want their feminism to be a quasi-religion. But for some feminists, feminism provides what other people get out of religion: a feeling that life is meaningful, a code of ethics, an object of devotion that is larger than oneself, and a “sacred” community (a quasi-church) made up of people who share one’s beliefs and values.
Hillary is clearly a feminist of the EF kind. But who isn’t? She’s also a feminist of the LF kind. I don’t mean by this that she herself is a sexually liberated woman, as her husband is a sexually liberated man. But she approves of sexual liberation. More to the point, she approves of the inseparable partner of sexual liberation: the legal right to abortion. She appears not to be a feminist of the AMF type, and there is little or no evidence that she is a feminist of the QRF kind.
As for my earlier assertion that Bill Clinton was the first feminist president: Clearly this is true when it comes to EF, and it is also true when it comes to LF insofar as LF cannot be separated from abortion rights; for, as president, Bill Clinton was a thoroughly reliable supporter of abortion rights, going to such an extreme as to veto bans on partial-birth abortion.
Some people, however, have held that Bill Clinton’s sexual attitude to women was pre-feminist and patriarchal, that he used women (e.g., Monica Lewinsky) as mere means to satisfy his sexual cravings. Maybe so. But I think a plausible alternative reading can be given to his adventures with women. He can be seen as a believer in LF: Just as he felt free to use women for his sexual ends, so he respected their right to use him for sexual ends. Even when president of the country, he had so much regard for a young woman that he allowed her to use him sexually.
For this is what gender-equality sexual freedom means: We use one another. And this is why, I suspect, Bill Clinton, after the Lewinsky affair, became more popular than ever among persons with “progressive” sexual attitudes. He had demonstrated that he was one of them; that is, he showed that he believed in sexual freedom, not just for men, but for women, too.
Bill Clinton, then, is at least as much of a feminist as Hillary, and probably even more so.


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

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