University of Rochester’s John Mueller contends that war has become “obsolete” because it has become less and less effective as a means to achieve desired political outcome. As a result, Mueller argues that the world now sees fewer and fewer wars – especially between states – and lower casualty rates. Perhaps he forgot about the war between the sexes.
Conservative feminism, a gender discourse to which NeW largely subscribes, draws much of its ideological strength from the rejection of the victim mentality associated with the so-called “war on women.” Essentially, this line of thinking refutes the idea that small government and the promotion of liberty somehow drafts women into a war in which they play the helpless damsel in distress. (It is indeed ironic that the alleged female empowering, women’s lib movement touting the “war on women” rhetoric has chosen to belittle women’s capabilities by framing them as helpless). Rather, conservative feminism truly empowers women by celebrating them as inherently and uniquely capable individuals.
What has developed from this conservative discourse, however, is not just a rejection of the “war on women,” but a counter-strike: the “war on men.” In her recent article, “The War on Men,” Suzanne Venker makes a compelling argument that women are no longer the victims of society; men are. She presents statistics from the Pew Research Center that shows that the number of women ages eighteen to thirty-four who say that having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in their lives rose from 28 percent to 37 percent since 1997. However, the percentage of men who claimed to have the same desire dropped from 35 percent to 29
percent. Base on this data, Venker argues that modern women (believe it or not) want to get married, but men do not. After asking men why, she has concluded that men feel that “women aren’t women anymore.”
Venker contends that the radical feminist movement, in its competition with men, has turned men away from loving women – something she claims is what men truly want to do. It is this ongoing competition that has turned men away from marriage. She asks: “But what if the dearth of good men and ongoing battle of the sexes is – hold on to your seats – women’s fault?” The “war on women” is out and the “war on men” is trending. But should it be?
While Venker makes some long overdue arguments – mainly reinforcing the age old yet oft-forgotten fact that men and women are indeed different – she takes gender discourse down a dangerous path. War, in both its symbolic and literal senses, is by no means an illegitimate tool, given appropriate cause and timing. In the context of gender debate, however, by continually reinforcing the rhetoric of “war” between the sexes, Venker perpetuates the unending male vs. female framework.
This is unproductive for several reasons:
“War” rhetoric is uncreative. Today a “war” against something exists in every facet of the public sphere. Whether it is a war on women, drugs, terror, or coal, the “war” argument is overused, and, hence, ineffective. For a while, labeling something as a “war” on fill-in-the-blank was the thing to do, but so was having a mullet, responding with “groovy,” and collecting pet rocks. (Mueller likens the obsolescence of war in its literal sense to the elimination of dueling and slavery as public institutions). In other words, we can do better.
Declaring “war” creates victims. The strength of conservative feminism is that it refutes the idea that women are victims of a societal war. Labeling someone as a victim does nothing but remove strength. It does not empower anybody to face a challenge, but rather promotes inaction. When one becomes a victim, she, and now he, becomes incapable, vulnerable, and weak. The waging of the war that was meant to empower, instead renders victims powerless.
Declaring “war” creates offenders. Just as “war” rhetoric creates victims, it also creates aggressors. In the process of labeling one gender the victim, “war” rhetoric condemns the other. This becomes nothing more than a blame game. Rather than seeking solutions or understanding, labeling something a “war,” preserves enemy mentality and, in the case of gender, prolongs the “he versus she” model.
The strength of Venker’s article rests in its identification of the unintended consequences of radical feminism, but its weakness rests in its overused, ineffective framework. Although the article generated much discussion, which is certainly a positive, it may have further entrenched ideological differences as Washington Post opinion writer Alexandra Petri’s response demonstrates.
Petri, “irate” at the idea that the women’s lib movement may have produced some unforeseen results, fired back with a sarcastic, unattractive retort that completely misses the value of Venker’s argument. At the end of Petri’s arguments she concedes that men who no longer wish to marry because they see women as no longer women are indeed casualties. The problem, however, is that the use of the term “casualty,” is proof that the language of “war” onward wages.
If Mueller’s argument holds for the symbolic sense of war – the jury is still out for the literal sense – then the use of “war” rhetoric is obsolete in achieving political change. It is time for genuine dialogue that explores gender differences in the context of freedom. Men and women can be equal and different but only if each is free. Is it really inconceivable for men and women to lay down their rhetorical weapons, establish a ceasefire of respect, and discuss the terms of a future peace involving mutual understanding and cooperation? It is indeed inconceivable if the paradigm for gender debate occurs absent the concept of “pursuit of happiness” – which empowers individuals with personal decision rights – and only in the presence of a vitriolic, “I’ve been wronged” mindset. By promoting liberty, rather than war, each man and each woman can pursue life as each wishes, and perhaps respect each other in the mean time.