Home Book Review Where Feminism Failed

Where Feminism Failed

Book by: Mona Charen
Reviewed by: Shoshana Bryen Fall 2018

Sex matters. Really. It does. Sex matters.  But Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love and Common Sense by Mona Charen is not exactly about sex. Really. It’s not. OK, it is about sexes, two of them, and their differences—and differences matter. It is also about culture—and culture matters. But mostly, it is about reality.

Feminist writer Ayushi Roy told women:

The cost of any form of self-policing—not walking alone in the dark, watching what you drink and what you wear—is that you live under a self-inflicted form of fear. You are living in this fear that drinking, of letting yourself go, is a bad thing.

Her contemporary, Rebecca Nagle, agreed:

As a woman, I’m told not to go out alone at night, to watch my drink, to do all of these things. That way, rape isn’t just controlling me while I’m actually being assaulted—it controls me 24/7 because it limits my behavior. Solutions like these actually just recreate that. I don’t want to f**ing test my drink when I’m at the bar. That’s not the world I want to live in.

Most of us, it should be said, have problems with the world we live in and wish the world to be otherwise. Most of us have dreams about walking safely down dark alleys or drinking ourselves into oblivion without rape or a hangover, eating cheesecake every day without getting fat, or living in a villa in Positano on our middle-class salaries. Most of us know this isn’t happening, so we do what we must to stay safe and out of bankruptcy—and limit the cheesecake.

Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, a New York Times bestselling author, a syndicated columnist, and a frequent radio and television guest. She is also, to the point here, a wife and the mother of three young men. Living in a house full of men and raising boys into men gave her an appreciation for “maleness” and the myriad differences between men and women. She recognizes that hers is a politically difficult position today, and she approaches it with seriousness, leavened with gentle humor and irony, and copious footnotes.

Necessary disclaimer: Charen makes the point—several times—that a) a return to the “olden days” is neither possible nor in any way desirable, b) increasing pay equality and wider opportunities for women are to be applauded and encouraged, c) human beings are neither appendages or chattel, d) rape, sexual abuse, and assault are real, and e) single mothers are often heroic figures.

The essential core that she wants to come to, however, is this:

Sexual differentiation has been a feature of life on Earth for millennia. In human history, too much has arguably been made of sexual distinctions, and men have frequently controlled and even stunted their daughters and wives, out of a misguided belief in male superiority. But the pendulum has swung way too far in the other direction. It is now a borderline thought crime even to broach the matter of inborn sexual differences in aptitudes and interests, though biologists continue to illuminate the thousands of influences that chromosomes exert on our bodies and minds.

She enthusiastically jumps into the breach.

To set the stage, Charen goes to early American feminism—noting that the single biggest example of female power was the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU), not the contemporaneous suffrage movement. With 150,000 members, the WCTU was not focused on the morality of drinking as such, but rather on the nefarious effects of excessive drinking almost exclusively by men—on families. In other words, it was an attempt to rein in the excesses of men. The National American Woman Suffrage Association, by contrast, had only about 7,000 members.

If you think much of history consists of women’s attempts to rein in the excesses of men, she would agree with you—and then wonder why some women are so keen to prove themselves “equal” by taking on men’s most unappealing excesses, most particularly drinking and loose sex. (See Roy, above.) Only Betty Friedan, of the dozens of mid-20th century feminists cited, recalculated the trajectory of the movement’s understanding of women not as the equal of men, but as the same as men. She came to believe that too many women had “turned their backs on the ‘life-serving core of feminine identity.’” In 1981, she wrote:

From the totality of our own experience as women—and our knowledge of psychology, anthropology, biology—many feminists knew all along that the extremist rhetoric of sexual politics defied and denied the profound, complex human reality of the sexual, social psychological, economic, and yes, biological relationship between woman and man. It denied the reality of women’s own sexuality, her child-bearing, her roots, and life connection in the family.

Many of Friedan’s peers and successors didn’t get the message. The chapter on biology is informative and thoroughly documents what you learned in high school. Females are XX and males are XY. Removing the male sex organ does not make men XX. Giving women male hormones to induce a beard does not make them XY. (And giving children hormones to do either is tantamount to child abuse.)

Many of the same people who are fully certain that global warming is proven by science, and that the climatic fate of our planet can be limned within inches and degrees a hundred years out are, in the name of “gender,” quick to dismiss biology and the chromosomal difference between men and women as a “construct.”

Pointing to the “vast literature about sexual differentiation in neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and other fields,” Charen acknowledges, “The truth frightens feminists because they worry that biology, anthropology, or neurology will be cited as proof of women’s inferiority to men. Their fear is not groundless, but it is outdated… In times past, many also believed in slavery, witches, child labor, executing horse thieves and the unhealthful effects of night air.”

If there is no scientific construct that makes men into women and vice versa, there is certainly a cultural one that tries its best to rearrange both sides. If you have college-aged children—or are in college—start with Chapter 5, “The Campus Rape Mess.” The increase in young women drinking to excess and engaging willingly or under pressure in the “hook-up culture” on campuses has led to a lot of unhappy women, a lot of sex that is regretted the next morning, and a lot of confusion about personal control, personal safety, and love. The vast unhappiness of women across campuses has led universities on occasion to abandon the American legal system for Star Chambers and various sorts of punishments meted out to young men who believed Rebecca Nagle.

The belief that women should have no particular responsibility for their own safety in a community that expects excesses of the male half of its members, writes Charen, actually makes it more difficult to understand and prosecute rape on campus—which is a real, frightening criminal activity.

Marriage Matters; Happiness Does Too

The “Family” chapter is worth the price of the book. In the face of a society that often “defames the traditional family,” Charen shows how the roles of fathers and mothers differ, how stepparents differ from biological ones, how single mothers—and she gives them their due as often-heroic figures—have more trouble than married ones, and how married people are happier and healthier than singles.

According to a University of Virginia report, “Thirty-five percent of single men and cohabiting men report they are ‘highly satisfied’ with their lives, compared to 52 percent of married men. Likewise, 33 percent of single women and 29 percent of cohabiting women are ‘highly satisfied,’ compared to 47 percent of married women.” Discussing the report more broadly, she notes:

We can glean from the data that married people are much healthier, wealthier, less prone to suicide, less likely to be drug abusers or alcoholics, less likely to be unemployed, and more likely to have broad networks of friends and relatives than single or divorced people. Married people are also less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and are even more likely to survive a cancer diagnosis and other serious illnesses.

While she often quotes Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in this chapter Charen channels her inner Representative Jack Kemp, citing statistics on the poverty rate for people who take the “life script” for which the congressman and Housing and Urban Develoment secretary was famous: high school graduation, then marriage, then children. “The poverty rate among married black couples today is 8 percent, or half the national rate of 16 percent. Among black single mothers, 46 percent live in poverty. The ratios [Ed. Although not the numbers] are similar for whites. The poverty rate for married white couples is 3.1 percent and for single white parents, it’s 22 percent.”

Charen deals with the sticky issues of race and class in these statistics as she does everything else in the book—with a kind heart and a lot of carefully documented academic research. The section on “Lost Men” is an eye-opener.

African American husbands [Emphasis in the original] participate in the labor force at higher rates than never-married white men. And married men with high school diplomas are more likely to be employed than single men with some college or even an associate’s degree. The caste of men who don’t work, don’t marry, and don’t support children is worrying. They spend an average of five and a-half hours a day watching TV and movies, and less time caring for household members than either unemployed men who are married, or employed women.


The takeaways are:

• Mid-20th century sexual “liberation” was a fraud that damaged “the best instincts of men and the best interests of women.”

• Children are not a burden to be managed, but a treasure to be cherished.

• Any step that reconnects us to lifelong love, commitment, and tenderness will make us personally happier and move society closer to the ideals we all prize.

And, since humans are learning organisms, we can get there by accepting who we are, differences and all, “not in the world of work but in our homes and families.” This book is a keeper.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Quarterly.