Threading the Feminist Needle

Published January 22, 2024

Law & Liberty

I recently published the book The End of Woman. In it, I drilled down into first-wave feminism to demonstrate that many of the defining characteristics of feminism we live with today emerged earlier than most realize. My fundamental critique of feminism is that it started with the wrong question, asking: “How to make women more like men?” As a result, this centuries-old misstep has deeply harmed our culture, marriage, the family, and the unborn. It has not increased women’s happiness and often undermined the dignity of women. The book has been praised by many as innovative, insightful, and perhaps, most importantly, it is changing women’s lives—women who have done all the feminist culture prescribed but still could not figure out why they were miserable. The overwhelming response is generally one of surprise. Many are shocked to see the dark underbelly of a movement most of us have been convinced is good for women.

In her recent review of The End of WomanElizabeth Grace Matthew makes it clear that there are many things upon which we both agree, but she nevertheless believes that I make several significant errors. First, is that I don’t give enough credit or attention to the vast and varied work of first-wave feminists. She writes: “Gress offers an inaccurate and incomplete understanding of the historical women’s movement and where it went off course. Her reading of Wollstonecraft’s writing is flawed, and her portrayal of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s cultural influence is partial at best.” (A detailed analysis of the thought of Mary Wollstonecraft, long considered the grandmother of feminism, goes beyond the scope of this essay and I will save mention of the specifics of Wollstonecraft virtue theory articulated by my colleague, Erika Bachiochi for a future discussion.)

Matthew continues in the same historical thread, asserting that I insist “that feminism has been one monolith of androgyny and nihilism from its earliest instantiation.” Matthew makes here a common criticism, which arises, I believe, from a misunderstanding of the purpose of my book. The End of Woman is not a history book. My goal was not to follow the more minor characters, many of whom say lovely and edifying things about womanhood and motherhood. Nor was it within the book’s scope to be concerned about the many trends and historical events associated with the movement in great detail, particularly given that the latter half of the 1800s was a messy blend of the suffrage and temperance movements, deep Christian piety, the advent of electricity, spiritualism, the expansion of the industrial revolution, and coming to terms with the aftermath of the Civil War. Some of these elements come up in my analysis of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony but chronicling them was not essential for the book’s goal.

While the book engages deeply with history, it is fundamentally a work of philosophy, distilling historical events and realities to extract intellectual trends and patterns that underpin much of the feminist movement from almost its inception up to today. Three of these include egalitarianism from Wollstonecraft, free love and the end of monogamy from her husband, William Godwin, and the occult. These three elements evidenced in modern feminism are discernable at the earliest stages. There is no doubt that a variety of opinions and viewpoints existed among first-wave feminists, and there is certainly some truth among them, but this does not change the fundamental problem that feminism, almost from its beginning, was asking how to make women more like men, an error that has had serious impact, and can be seen in Matthew’s own argument which I will discuss below.

The second major flaw Matthew views is “[Gress’] … failure to depart from the myopia of her feminist antagonists in defining womanhood. Instead, she merely turns the same reductive, gendered lens toward a different end.” By way of explanation, she continues: “Gress, for her part, extols the kind of women modern feminism degrades: the ‘mothers, nourishers, and holders’ whom she terms ‘fly-over women.’ So, like her feminist interlocutors, Gress believes that there is one way—her way—to be a ‘true woman.’”

Matthew seems to be saying that my articulation of womanhood is the housewife stereotype. What I am doing is much deeper and will be explained shortly, but with this point, Matthew unwittingly grasps at one of the most effective tactics used by radical feminists for decades, that is, to create a false binary. One half is of their kind of woman, the good woman, the independent savvy woman. The other half is what they have deemed the savvy woman’s opposite, a submissive and deeply unthinking human being, akin to a doormat who can’t do anything else but take care of her home and children. This is why the handmaids in red robes and bonnets are paraded out for every female culture clash event. Matthew says that “any practicable, pluralistic, and true view of womanhood must move beyond both the feminist and antifeminist sides of this false binary.” To this, I would concur, but I believe her analysis of my work succumbs to the same false binary. 

One of my goals in The End of Woman is to go beyond an understanding of woman as more than an “adult female human.” This is true of course, but it is not sufficient. I offer the long-held idea of motherhood (including psychological and spiritual) as a defining characteristic of womanhood. Matthew says, however, that calling women mothers is reductionist. Yet this ultimately denies the possibility to effectively speak of the nature of things. There must be a starting place. To say that women are mothers does not mean that women are only mothers or that motherhood looks the same for every woman. That would reduce a woman to doing. What needs to be captured is the essential nature of something, what something is, as being, and to move forward from that starting place. Ethics, which is the study of what we do, must start from what something is, from metaphysics, or the study of being. Thomas Aquinas, when speaking of the natural law, begins with human nature to derive the natural law precepts. Without a robust metaphysics to articulate what a woman is, defining womanhood can only come from what a woman does, which can usher in a host of dangers, particularly relativism, and the claim that men, too, can be women because they can do what women do.

Perhaps the reason for Matthew’s belief that attributing motherhood to women is “reductive and fundamentally infantilizing” is because feminism, for fifty years, has restricted our culture to saying precious little about the goodness of motherhood. Since the early 1900s, the word “drudgery” was used synonymously with motherhood by many feminists, with a masculine style of behavior given preference; again, the idea, “How do we make women more like men?” Matthew reveals this point at the end of her review when she declares that she is “the primary caregiver” to her three young sons. What is striking is that she somehow considers motherhood, in the form of loving and nurturing, to be reductive and infantilizing but calling herself a primary caregiver is somehow not reductive and infantilizing. The commonality of masculine idolization has been so absorbed by our culture that we can scarcely discern how much we are destroying womanhood by trying to avoid the concept of motherhood. 

Primary caregiver is a pallid replacement for the word mother, as we can see in the example of Mary Godwin Shelley’s life. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died 10 days after Mary Godwin was born. Her father, William Godwin, later remarried, giving Mary Godwin a primary caregiver. However, the hole left by her mother’s death was one that never seemed to be filled, even by her primary caregiver: Mary Godwin Shelley’s writing skills were born as she learned the alphabet by tracing the letters on her mother’s tomb and culminated in her most famous work, Frankenstein, which some argue was about losses in her life, particularly that of her mother. This is certainly not to say that adoptive mothers are somehow not mothers, but that Mary Jane Godwin could never fill the hole left by Mary Wollstonecraft in her daughter’s life. Regardless, mothers are not simply workers to do things for us, but unique individuals with whom we are meant to be in deep and meaningful relationships.

Motherhood’s lean reputation developed as feminists emphasized the service and demands it requires, even presenting it as a form of codependency or simplemindedness. As Matthew appreciates, however, motherhood—to be done well—requires growth in virtue and a turning away from our vicious self-centeredness, as we witness in the mature Jo March of Little Women, of whom Matthew conjectures I would disapprove. I take no issue with what Matthew calls March’s unwomanly heart, having sought many of the same things Jo pursued in her young life. In the end, as many women do among the various seasons of life, Jo finds her deepest flourishing not only in her writing, but in her marriage to Mr. Baer, raising her children, and creating a warm home for boys where she exercises not only her intellectual gifts but nurturing and care. 

The German Philosopher Max Scheler captured well the idea of serving others, which motherhood quintessentially exhibits, saying, “This great urge to love, to serve, to bend down, is God’s own essence.” What else is motherhood but to pour ourselves out to the small, the tiny, the needy, the helpless? While Matthew might view these as infantilizing, Scheler reminds us that they, in fact, make us more like God.

Carrie Gress, Ph.D., is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she co-directs EPPC’s Theology of Home Project. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America and is the co-editor at the online women’s magazine Theology of Home.

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