When contemporary feminism arrived on the scene some four decades ago it did not brand itself a recruiting tool for radical political causes.
Quite the contrary. It promised that if women became feminists, and if they worked to undermine the gender inequalities that pervaded American culture, they would be rewarded with rich, more satisfying, and happier relationships.
It convinced them that their relationships were oppressing them, and that they were of little real value. It's easier to walk away from something that is worthless.
Relationships based on inequality were intrinsically oppressive, and any woman who was enjoying her oppression was a tool of the patriarchy... sorely in need of liberation.
Yet, traditional relationships were all that most women knew. Women who refused to honor the traditional and unspoken relationship contract might find themselves alone. How could feminists persuade women to live according to its precepts?
Whether they understood it this way or not, feminists chose to offer women a wager. Women were told, and many were convinced, that if they gave up something of little value they might possibly discover bliss in a new egalitarian relationship.
Feminists seemed to suggest that even if this heavenly relationship was not attainable, women were wrong not to take the chance. How could you hang on to something that was making you miserable when that meant foreclosing the possibility of finding something that would make you ecstatic?
Perhaps you have guessed where I am going with this. To my mind, this resembles what is now commonly called Pascal's wager. Link here.
Named after its author, seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, it was originally addressed to people who refused to believe in God because they could not know rationally whether or not God existed.
If God did not exist they could do what they pleased, because the promise of Heaven and the threat of Hell were removed. But if God did exist, and if God could grant them eternal life, they would do better to behave like good Christians... even if that meant not succumbing to each and every transitory temptation.
In his effort to convince people to be better Christians, Pascal posited that they could see their choice as a wager. They would wager a finite amount of mundane pleasures, pleasures that would not be that difficult to abandon because they were really not a very good thing, against the hope and promise of eternal life.
Wagering a finite loss against the possibility of an infinite gain would seem like a good bet. Even if there is no God and there is no Heaven, all you have lost is a few minor pleasures that are, in truth, not really very enjoyable anyway.
The feminist wager is a variation on this theme. Women were persuaded to abandon old fashioned relationship behavior, which was not really worth very much and which was not making them happy, in order to open themselves to the possibility that they could find relationships that would be perfectly egalitarian and fully satisfying.
Of course, feminists could not promise that such heavenly bliss existed; only that it might exist. A woman who maintained her identity as a traditional housewife could never gain access to that bliss. A woman who was liberated might.
The feminist wager was based on hope and a prayer. It was also sustained by fictional representations of good relationships, happy endings, and couples living in egalitarian harmony.
The new Jack and the new Jill both had careers; they shared child rearing tasks; they both had orgasms; they worked side by side making dinner, doing laundry, and cleaning the dishes.
To say that it has not worked out as feminists promised begs the question. They were not promising bliss; they were promising the possibility of bliss.
But how would women go about preparing for this possibility. Of course, they would have to step outside of traditional gender roles. If they had careers they would not be dependent on men. They would not be a burden; they would not represent a financial obligation. This would make it possible for men to love them for who they really were.
In reality, this dream of equality, or of sameness, does not lead to better relationships. It precludes them. When a woman tells a man that all she wants from him is love, he will feel like less of a man. And if she makes him feel like less of a man, he is going to find someone who is going to make him feel more like a man.
When a woman declares her independence and autonomy, a man will hear her saying that her only true loyalty is to herself. He will fear that her independence will lead her to abandon him.
Feminists have been especially interested in women's sexual behavior. They have taken grievous offense at the fact that women are more modest and reserved about the expression of their sexuality, that they are less aware of what gives them pleasure, and that they are generally sexually deprived. Especially when compared with men.
If it is impossible to maintain modesty and at the same time have a satisfying sex life-- such was the feminist contention-- then women could improve their chances at having blissful relationships by having sex as men did.
They should have multiple partners, and undertake to explore their sexuality fully. In this way they could be great lovers for their future husbands.
A marriage of sexual equals would bring both partners bliss between the sheets, and thus would be more durable than the old style marriages that were being sacrificed on the altar of infidelity.
Is this true? Apparently not. According to the available research a woman who has more sexual partners before her marriage will be more likely to experience marital disruption than will a woman who has had fewer sexual partners. Link here.
Of course, there are many possible reasons for this phenomenon. Many feminists will attribute it to unenlightened attitudes and vestigial patriarchal tendencies. On the other hand, these statistics do explain why so many young women are so concerned about what is called their: "number."
Feminism tried to open the possibility for a relationship utopia. True believing feminists will never give up the dream because they do not care whether it comes about this century or next.
Most women, however, are more concerned with their everyday lives.
Many have discovered that the relationships and marriages that they abandoned were better than the difficulties of being a single parent with a career.
Too many women bought the promise of utopia only to find themselves living in a feminist dystopia.