A Feminist Post-Liberal Future

This week in North Philly Notes, Judith Baer, author of Feminist Post-Liberalism,  writes about how feminists and liberals can correct each other’s characteristic errors.

Basketball great Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020. Early media coverage consisted mostly of eulogies. They stressed his five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, his two Olympic gold medals, and his commitment to equality in race relations and women’s sports. These stories, like the one in my local paper, ignored the worst incident on his record: an accusation of rape in 2003. (Criminal charges were dropped; a civil suit was settled out of court.)

Once this information emerged in postmortem coverage, all hell broke loose on social media. Fans accused critical commentators of bad taste and cruelty to the families of the crash victims. Bryant’s defenders also pointed out that he had made restitution and apologized, urging critics to put the episode behind them. Some, assuming without evidence that all women who criticized Bryant were white, accused them of ignoring the fact that black men are more likely than white men to be punished for rape and the long history of white women’s false accusations of black men. These commentators urged the critics to confront their own racism.

What does all this have to do with feminist post-liberalism? In my book, I suggest how these two belief systems can correct each other’s characteristic errors and how feminist ideas can break the connection between liberalism and male supremacy. The issues I explore include mass incarceration and cultural appropriation, both of which are relevant to the Kobe Bryant discussion.

Feminist Post-LiberalismA 40-year “war on crime” that began when Richard Nixon became president gave the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. (We used to be third, after the USSR and the Union of South Africa.) This mass incarceration, which many liberals supported,  disproportionately harms African Americans. So many lose the right to vote that a “new Jim Crow” negates the effects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Twenty-first century liberals want to end mass incarceration. But they fail to ask how fewer and shorter sentences might affect victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Most rapists, whatever their race, get away with it. Feminism gets lost in the dialogue.

Cultural appropriation occurs when writers or artists use material from a culture not their own, especially without understanding or respect. Those who advised Kobe Bryant’s critics to face their own racism echoed the accusations an argument that goes back at least to 1932, when the poet Langston Hughes criticized the children’s book Little Black Sambo. Feminist critics of male authors have done likewise. Critics of Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt have accused the African American author of appropriating the experience of undocumented Mexican immigrants—accused her so angrily that the publisher canceled Cummins’s promotion tour in fear for her safety.

Commentators who have jumped on the cultural appropriation bandwagon have abandoned a central tenet of liberalism: its commitment to reason. Passion does not turn an opinion into a fact or a difference of degree into a difference of kind. To lose these distinctions frustrates rational discourse.

Feminism and liberalism are distinct but tangled philosophies. Modern Western feminism developed logically and historically from liberalism. A belief system that replaced faith with reason, divine right with representative government, and hierarchy with equality invited critical scrutiny of male supremacy. Defenses of women’s rights appeared in Great Britain, France, and North America during and after the democratic revolutions in these countries. So did anti-feminist tracts. Jean-Jacques Rousseau found gender equality incompatible with motherhood. Some anti-revolutionary Frenchwomen opposed equality on religious grounds. French radicals rejected feminism because they considered a decent standard of living more important than legal rights. All these arguments existed by 1800 and still thrive today. Conservative critiques of feminism continue to emphasize religion and the family. Radical critiques insist that class and/or race is the primary, and gender a secondary, determinant of inequality.

Feminism and liberalism are compatible belief systems, but not all feminists are liberals and not all liberals are feminists. Both belief systems are complex and diverse. Feminists do not all think alike. Neither do all liberals. Differences of opinion and emphasis exist within both groups, as they do among conservatives and radicals. I devoted much time and space to distinguishing among various types of feminism and liberalism.

My first draft envisioned a feminist post-liberalism free of male supremacy and misogyny. I argued that the two sets of theories could correct characteristic errors, like some liberals’ emphasis on human rights at the expense of human needs and some feminists’ acceptance of gender roles. I also discussed characteristic errors that feminist and liberals shared, like a predisposition to guilt. My optimistic tone jarred with reality in the form of the 2016 election, which decisively rebuffed both feminism and liberalism.

A progressive feminist woman lost the presidency to a billionaire outsider. A coalition of conservatives, capitalists, and fundamentalist Christians was born. Enough people in enough states preferred a misogynist to a woman and a political novice to a seasoned legislator and diplomat. Enough people in enough states sat out the election to give Donald Trump the victory. Enough voters wanted change, and did not see a woman insider as an agent of change. Instead, we got reactionary change. Conservative ideas dominate the executive and judicial branches of the federal government. Feminists and liberals have a great deal of work to do.

Lessons from the juicy details of a protracted legal battle

This week in North Philly Notes, Jean Elson, author of Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness—about the notorious divorce between Nina and James Walker in early twentieth-century Rhode Island—provides some keen observations about the issues raised during the sensational trial. 

The events leading up to and taking place throughout the Walker divorce hearings raised issues that were not solely individual matters; they signified social changes evolving in American culture at the time. Acrimonious testimony often focused on incompatible views of gender, family, and class—ideas that characterized broader cultural debates of the Progressive Era. The trials raised many questions including the following:

§  Must a wife obey her husband’s orders?
James Walker viewed his opinion as the only one to be taken into consideration, and his wife, Nina, began to rebel against this.

§  Is a wife required to submit to her husband’s sexual desires?
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sex meant the risk of pregnancy for women, and pregnancy was a dangerous undertaking at the time, with a high mortality and morbidity rate.

§  Are children the property of their father?
During the early 20th century courts were just beginning to award custody to mothers in divorce cases. The judicial philosophy changed from viewing children (and wives) as property of the father and husband to considering a mother’s love and devotion to children as more important. Nina was fortunate that enlightened judges awarded her custody throughout the long divorce proceedings, as well as when the divorce became final.

§  Should fathers provide their children with emotional, as well as financial, support?
The new view of fathers at the time of the divorce was that they could provide love and companionship for children, rather than just moral education. This is currently taken for granted. Nina and James, as well as witnesses for each side disputed whether James was capable of providing emotional support.

§  Is corporal punishment of children to be condoned?
An important issue in the Walker case was Nina’s charge that James physically punished the children, a situation that would not have been as seriously questioned prior to the Progressive period.

Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness_sm§  Must a husband be faithful to his wife?
Nina charged James with adultery, as well as “gross misbehavior and wickedness” (a charge only acceptable in Rhode Island) with the children’s governess. Previous generations of upper class women may have been more likely to accept that their husbands had mistresses. The issue of whether James engaged in extra-marital sex was so important that James’s purported mistress was examined by doctors to determine whether she was a virgin.

§  Must a wife remain with her husband when doing so endangers her physical or mental health?
Nina claimed that her marriage endangered both of these. Whereas endangerment of physical health by a husband had long been an acceptable ground for divorce, it was only in the early 20th century that judges began to accept endangerment of mental health as a valid reason for divorce.

§  Is a wife obliged to be more loyal to her husband and his family than to her own?
James claimed that Nina’s family constantly influenced her in a way that was detrimental to the marriage, and Nina resented James’s family’s interference in their married life.

§  Should a feminist always support the woman when a husband and wife argue?
James’s sister Susan was a well-known feminist and suffragist, but took her brother’s side in the divorce dispute. She did not see the connection between the public rights of women she upheld and her own sister-in-law’s powerlessness in her own home. Nina did not make this connection between public and private rights either, and she was vehemently against giving women the right to vote, although she wanted more power in her marriage.

§  How involved should parents be in a grown child’s marriage?
Both Nina’s and James’s family were very involved in the couple’s married life, to the detriment of the couple’s relationship with each other.

§  Is it proper for a single working-class woman to befriend a married upper- class man?
Nina’s side claimed that it was completely inappropriate for James to be on friendly terms with the family governess and to correspond with her (their letters are a very interesting part of the story).

§  Is divorce the appropriate solution for a troubled marriage?
Divorce was probably the right solution for Nina and James Walker, but the Walker children were cut off forever from their father and his side of the family.

We continue to grapple with most of the above questions in contemporary American society.

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