“In Training for the Derby,” William Henry Knight. Public Domain.

Sexual Politics on the American Right

Carrie Gress, The End of Woman: How Smashing the Patriarchy has Destroyed Us (Regnery, 2023)

Josh Hawley, Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs (Regnery, 2023)

Nancy R. Pearcey, The Toxic War on Masculinity: How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes (Baker Books, 2023)

The past half-century has seen widespread confusion over the correct roles for men and women. In the eternal present, it is tempting to look for the single moment, or the specific group, that we can blame for everything we don’t like about the current state of sexual politics. Discussion of the faults and merits of men and women, and how (or even if) we should get along, never ends: and how could it? Running through contemporary conversation is a patchy and uncertain relation to our past: were things really worse then? Better in some ways? In a proximate world in which we never seem to be out of each other’s presence, can we maintain a sense of wonder at the sheer existence of one another, or are we doomed to an uneasy antagonism?

A trio of new books offers a window into current thinking about the relationship between the sexes on the American right. The best of the three argues that we should strive to see things realistically, but also optimistically, as there is much to love and preserve in the relationships between men and women and their children. Life is difficult; relationships are hard; parenting is tough. But anything worth doing well always was. The modern man and woman is increasingly encouraged to forget this.

But to begin, where are we? While many people throughout the world remain religious and have families in the context of a shared commitment to God, the majority culture in the West is secular and promotes a series of contradictory ideas around “happiness,” “individual truth,” and the centrality of desire. There is a generalized sense of lost direction and meaning. We lack normative trajectories for men and women; there is no longer a shared set of narratives to announce, even broadly, who we are, what we should do, and how we should act towards and with one another. Liberalism’s freedom for some has meant confusion for many, and the freedom to “pursue one’s desires” can easily end up in new traps—loneliness, addiction, and the loss of meaningful human relationships altogether.

Substantively speaking, we could say that the dominant liberal culture has a rough idea of equality between the sexes—but this largely and ultimately translates into equality on the terms of the market, as economic agents. The liberal feminist goal of market equality has diminished the recognition of biological difference between men and women, particularly when it comes to pregnancy and motherhood. Thus, both men and women are treated as almost sexless, neutered, interchangeable agents. Sexual activity is largely reduced to pleasure-seeking, and much sex is casual and disconnected from reproduction. An increasing number of young people, mired in the virtual spaces of the internet, pornography, and gaming, are not engaging in sexual activity with other people at all.

The normalising of contraception and the mass entry of women into the workforce has severed the historic link between home and the outside world. Yet this historic shift, as Nancy R. Pearcey points out in The Toxic War on Masculinity, is older than we often think. Prior to Western woman’s economic supposed emancipation, it was the father who was first forced out of the home. The industrial revolution pushed fathers away from the farm and homestead, and thus, “the integration of life and labor was lost.” We are a long way into an uneasy modernity.  

Beginning a family today, with all its attendant responsibilities and trials, seems like a faraway prospect for many. There is a general prolongation of adolescence into adulthood, as well as a collapse in the birth-rate almost everywhere. Young men, in particular, are lost, failing in academia and unable to find meaningful work, issues that I address in my 2022 book, What Do Men Want? Their loss of status and role is reflected in the increasing number of unmarried men, who, whether fathers or (more likely) not, are perceived to be useless from the standpoint of the women who bear or might bear their children. (For a detailed look at the statistics and material reality of what economist Melissa S. Kearney calls the “two-parent privilege,” please see my recent article).    

Online discussion of the relationship between men and women is not, of course, the best place to receive a balanced impression of the reality of life for those seeking a partner, or to understand how things are going for those already married with children. (The latter—excluding those performing “traditional” life via postmodern technologies—are largely too busy to give advice or enter into the deranged fray). As an aside, it is probably not a good idea to take relationship advice from someone who has never been in a long-term partnership, or who is notable only for holding extremist views, and yet these voices often shout the loudest. Who wants to compromise when there are brickbats to be thrown?

Against the dominant liberal trend, nevertheless, we can identify two primary counter-currents. Both seek to blame the opposite sex, or trends associated with them, for the current state of things. Put simply, we have (some) men blaming women and (some) women blaming men.

The pro-male alternative, as celebrated online, promotes a hyper-masculinity that sees no need for women, a kind of adventurism against the modern world where masculinity is best imagined as a kind of pirate-life, free from worldly constraints. For those men who still want the company of women and/or children, there’s (largely fantastical) traditionalism, where the woman assumes the submissive role. There are atheistic versions of this, as well as religious ones. The atheistic version invokes conceptions of natural male dominance and female weakness. Rather than a subtle and gracious recognition of difference, this often manifests as mere oppression and disrespect.

There are women, too, who seek to censure feminism tout court. One recent example is Carrie Gress. Via a series of largely unflattering portraits of figures of the first and second wave, The End of Woman suggests that feminism is, above all, a pathological movement, founded and driven by unhappy women. This is an ahistorical claim, one that neglects the reality that feminism—which Gress nowhere defines—is frequently responding to shifts in the economy, rather than actively responsible for them.

“Feminism has pitted the sexes against each other,” she states, promising to outline “a little-known story, with elements concealed for fear that the truth might become widely known.” This conspiratorial approach does not pay off—and it’s simply not true that the women she mentions haven’t already been covered in detail. For a far superior take on Mary Wollstonecraft, in particular, see Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (2021). There, Bachiochi challenges the idea of an “unbroken line” between early women’s discussion of their rights to what calls itself “feminism” today, a mistake that Gress unfortunately cleaves to.

Gress is indiscriminate in ascribing both unity and malign power to the feminist movement. While she acknowledges that feminism has pushed for “laws against sex and pregnancy discrimination, custody laws for mothers, and many social and economic opportunities,” she nevertheless seeks to blame feminism for “free love” and casual sex. This is simply wrong. There were many second wave feminists who were critical of the sexual revolution. Likewise, many women of the first wave were vocally anti-abortion, because they felt it made it too easy for men to abdicate responsibility for the consequences of their actions, and because of their commitment to human life as such. As Alice Paul, author of the original Equal Rights Amendment put it, “Abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women.”

From today’s vantage point, we can say that the sexual revolution has benefitted—above all—the male cad. It has not benefitted women and children. Nevertheless, Gress argues that all feminism is a bid to ultimately erase womanhood and its attendant vulnerability in favour of making women “more like men.” She claims that Wollstonecraft’s defence of female humanity ultimately culminates in the complete erasure of the concept of “woman.”

As the history of political and philosophical ideas teaches us, not only are ideas extremely powerful, but they often have unforeseen consequences. It may well be the case that some feminist ideas have led to less than optimal outcomes for women (and children) themselves. We can see, for example, how calls for work/life balance for mothers translates economically into poorly paid, zero hours contracts. But in understanding how ideas have affected reality and vice versa, it is incumbent on us to trace the genealogy of ideas with great care. This is not Gress’s approach.

The Marquis de Sade, to take one example, is portrayed by Gress as the direct antecedent of Mary Wollstonecraft. Given the latter’s poverty and her desperate desire to protect her mother from the violent physical and sexual abuse of her alcoholic father, this seems unjust, to say the least. In any case, tracing a line from Wollstonecraft’s defence of women’s moral and rational capacity in the name of their humanity (which took place in a historical context in which “equality” was anything but practiced) to the erasure of women as a class in language and law (as we are seeing today) is deeply unconvincing.

Gress is correct to say that the words “feminism” and “patriarchy” do not appear in Wollstonecraft’s writing, but to use her own biography—her violent father and the unhappy end of her relationships with Gilbert Imlay and William Godwin—as proof that her ideas are rotten is a low blow. Though even this is not, perhaps, quite as low as Gress’s attempt to tie Wollstonecraft, via her daughter, Mary Godwin Shelley, and the latter’s novel, Frankenstein—and so, somehow, feminism as a whole—to the occult. At points, Gress seems to blame women for their own suffering, or at least reductively attributes feminism to feminist women’s suffering: “nearly every woman involved in feminist thought… [was] broken—broken either by parental abuse, sexual trauma, drug use and abuse, or mental illness.”

The making-sinister of feminism continues in Gress’s account of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s spirit table, where the latter composed the “Declaration of Sentiments” in 1848. Spiritualism is tied by Gress to free love, Theosophy, Wicca, and goddess worship, which in turn she ties to Madonna, J.Lo, Beyonce and other famous female pop stars. Such causal profligacy is present in her chapter on Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique. There, a paragraph from Engels copied out into one of Friedan’s journals, combined with the Nazi slogan Arbeit Macht Frei (which, presumably, Friedan did not copy out into one of her journals), is presented as proof that women’s desire to work outside the home was Communist, fascist, and also not what women really want. Feminism, already infected by Satanism, is by the middle of the twentieth century, in Gress’s presentation, also thoroughly authoritarian.   

Kate Millett and Shulamith Firestone’s mental health struggles are rolled out as proof of their extremism; feminism since the ‘80s is comprised of “mean girls” and “Queen Bees” who apparently believe that “not only are we as good as men, we are in fact better at being men than they are.” This sentiment, Gress explains, is predicated on the female envy of men. Gress radically misreads Simone de Beauvoir’s phrase “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” as if it implies that men can “become” women, rather than stressing the (often painful) process of socialisation that turns a human female into a “woman,” as de Beauvoir clearly intended. The attempt to blame feminism for transgenderism and even pornography (by tracing a line from “free love” to the infinite and easily accessible amount of online sexual imagery) again neglects the rather more dominant reality that it is male desire, not to mention the economic incentives that push the “demand” for both. According to Gress, feminism is weak, misguided, and led by broken women, yet somehow also intensely powerful. Both things cannot really be true at the same time.  

Gress’s unwillingness to define feminism (or patriarchy, despite her evident desire to “restore” it) is superficial, as is her suggestion that the overriding goal of “feminism” (despite its myriad offshoots, contradictions, and waves) is to make women “into men.” The book completely ignores the biologically realist aspects of the movement, such as the Boston women’s health reading collective, the eco- and green feminists, and all the many sex-realist feminists fighting transgender ideology now (no, the campaign did not begin and end with Matt Walsh). If feminism really were, as Gress claims, the “second most powerful brand” in the world (after Marxism), wouldn’t those extremely committed feminists (i.e. true feminists, rather than their liberal pretenders) who dedicate themselves to the distinctive interests of women be listened to when they say that humans can’t change sex and that transgenderism is sterilising and mutilating children?

It is disordered male desire that is centred in transgenderism—the desire to roll back women’s rights, to frighten women, and to steal their image (or at least the pornified version of it). The fact that many women have been frightened into supporting this regressive movement does not indicate that women or feminism are “to blame” for this development, which has been heavily promoted by corporations and governments, despite the resistance of other—often socially, economically, and even legally punished—women who dare to point out the clash of rights over single-sex spaces and events.  

Fortunately, there is serious work to be found, that seeks neither to blame men or women, but rather to fight for the shared life that we can build together. 

Nancy Pearcey’s The Toxic War on Masculinity and Senator Hawley’s Manhood form a useful pair. The former seeks to trace the history of the secularization of the relationship between men and women through historical shifts in the economy and culture. Pearcey begins by challenging the now-prevalent idea that men are oppressive merely by the fact of their being male. This pushes young men into the “secular script” which further alienates young men from any positive vision of life. Josh Hawley, too, begins by stating that “all is not well with men in America.” Both emphasise a Christian approach to solving the problems of contemporary life. Pearcey intertwines the history of the church with shifts in how masculinity features in church life and in the secular world beyond, with reference to Biblical terms. She is very good on the meaning of “helper” (ezer) in Genesis, for example, as meaning something closer to “ally” rather than servant. Hawley, too, draws directly on scripture, telling stories that centre the overcoming of suffering, the dignity of labor, and other attributes of positive male role models. Both approaches are effective. 

In spite of her faith, Pearcey does not shy away from criticism of the church, and this adds strength to her account. The religious version of the male supremacist worldview exists, and abuse takes place in Christian families too. She notes a rather shocking fact: while churchgoing Protestant family men are the least violent of any group in America, “nominal Protestant men,” that is to say, men whose family or cultural background means they identify with a denomination, but who do not attend church, are the most violent of all groups in America. Not only this, but they also have the highest divorce rates.

This extraordinary situation can be explained, Pearcey suggests, by situations where men “hang around the fringes of the Christian world just enough to hear the language of headship and submission without learning the biblical meaning of those terms.” There will naturally be oppressive men in all communities, but Pearcey—herself the daughter of an abusive religious man—offers an extraordinary image of hope. She does this not only through her own story of reconversion to Christianity via Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri ministry, but also in her telling of the way in which “the God-given pattern for manhood” has played out over the centuries. Her argument that Christianity “has the power to overcome toxic behaviour in men and reconcile the sexes” is well made. What is also genuinely informative is the history of men, women, the economy and religion she tells in the bulk of the book, from the industrial revolution onwards. Tracing work from family industry to today’s atomised, interchangeable worker sheds great light on the way in which masculinity has at times stressed sacrifice, at others heroism, at times distance, at times family leadership. By understanding these transformations we can see what our ancestors understood but that we have since forgotten, and learn too from their mistakes.

Hawley’s Manhood, aimed more obviously at men, particularly young men, is nevertheless useful for everyone. Taking repeated aim at “androgyny” and “Epicureanism,” Hawley indicts both the liberal attempt to downplay sexual difference and the horizonless emphasis on individual desire, which comes at the expense of building “temples” (homes, families, a good reputation, and so on). While Hawley’s approach sometimes seems a little hokey—he even includes stories of his pioneer ancestors—it is nevertheless a powerful call for meaning and a restoration of a positive vision of masculinity. Men must work; they must struggle. Hawley writes earnestly:

Genesis encourages every man who struggles to see the point of his life, who feels that his work is a waste, or who wonders whether he will amount to anything to think again. Your work matters. Your life matters. Your character matters. You can help the world become what it was meant to be.

This is a far cry from the embarrassed, apologetic existence that many men feel they have to live in order to avoid being deemed “toxic” today. Pearcey similarly blends religious belief with a practical approach. Men and women are different but are equally potentially virtuous in their difference. Christianity is, she says, “subversive of the surrounding culture.”

And perhaps that is the key. For all of its emphasis on transgression, liberal, secular life is boring, stale, and miserable. What is radical is hope, a return to the recognition of sexual difference, and the belief in something higher: family, God, and the time that remains.