Who Is Saving Feminism?

OVER THE PAST 35 YEARS, women’s happiness has “declined both absolutely and relative to men,” according to a well-publicized Wharton business school study called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.” The paradox, according to the authors, is that female happiness has declined while feminism has concurrently achieved great shifts of rights and bargaining power from men to women. How could that be?

The 2010 National Conference of the Network of enlightened Women (the group deliberately chooses not to capitalize the “e” in “enlightened”) offers the young women attending a provocative answer: Something has gone wrong with feminism. One of the keynote speakers at the conference is Christina Hoff Sommers, who 15 years ago famously tweaked the likes of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan with her book Who Stole Feminism?

The problem with the feminist movement, Sommers tells the conference, is that it subscribes to a radical egalitarian ideology that tries to deny there are important differences between men and women. That ideology is the result of trying to adapt the civil rights idea that separate but equal is racist. In this formula, explains Sommers, “separate but equal is sexist” which leads to the conclusion that “if more women are staying home with children, that’s sexist.”

Sommers is both an academic and a leading light in a movement that seeks to take back feminism from the radical egalitarians. She calls her alternative “equity feminism,” the aim of which is “equality of opportunity … not sameness.” Sommers explains: “We [shouldn’t] judge the world based on whether men and women are indistinguishable; that is fanaticism.”

Sommers’s host, the Network of enlightened Women (NeW), has carved out a place for this culturally conservative version of feminism on college campuses around the country. The group, founded by Karin Agness at the University of Virginia in 2004, now boasts chapters at 24 colleges and universities. The conference at which Sommers speaks is the group’s fifth national conference, and the group plans to hold another next year.

NeW Executive Director Holly Hall Carter says college women “are seeking an outlet to understand what their principles are, and the typical college women’s centers with feminist agendas are not providing the answers.” Carter says radical feminism focuses too much on women as minorities, “paralyzing women and enforcing a victim mentality.” That mindset “contradicts the conservative principle of individual responsibility,” she says.

The victim mindset, Sommers explains, can’t assimilate important facts about women’s prospects today. She notes that women now earn 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees. Feminists insist that sexual discrimination must be taking place because women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math. But women, notes Sommers, are also underrepresented in the prison system and are less likely to take jobs as garbage collectors. And they are overrepresented in teaching and nursing. It may be that some fields simply align better with feminine nature. Radical feminists reject this notion out of hand, preferring instead to believe in a grand patriarchal plot.

When Agness sought out an alternative to the radical feminist groups at the University of Virginia in 2004, she was astonished by the lack of intellectual diversity. Agness says: “All of the women’s groups at UVA were dedicated to promoting a liberal agenda.” After it became clear that Agness would have to start her own club, she asked one of the faculty members at the Women’s Center whether the Center would co-sponsor a club for conservative women. Agness recalls: “She looked at me like I was crazy, chuckled, and said: ‘Not here.’”

Disappointed by the lack of resources available for culturally conservative women, Agness founded NeW for those women who “embraced romance instead of the crude hookup culture, recognized sex differences, valued motherhood and families, and rejected the victim mentality that has come to dominate feminism.” Agness says: “Modern radical feminists don’t represent all women, a majority of women, or even a large minority. Although groups such as the National Organization for Women are organized and loudly project their voice, it is not a voice that resonates with many women.”

NeW was originally conceived as a book club. Members meet regularly to discuss books such as The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism, A Return to Modesty, and Letters to a Young Conservative. Their discussions usually lead to deeper conversations addressing more complex political and cultural issues.

Among NeW’s priorities is helping college women grapple with the “hook up” culture. On college campuses today, young men and women don’t date, they “hook up” for a good time without any sort of emotional commitment. Radical feminism, with its notion that women should behave like men, offers little to women turned off by the emotional and physical costs of the “hook up” culture.

These young women, explains Carter, say “that they have given into this culture, but this isn’t something they want; this isn’t fulfilling.” NeW provides a positive alternative to, and directly challenges, the “hook up” culture by promoting mutual respect between the sexes. A popular NeW event on many campuses is the Gentlemen’s Showcase, for which women nominate men of integrity. Agness explains: “Since the emergence of the sexual liberation movement in the 1970s, women have been told that self-sufficiency and independence should be a woman’s top goals. Meanwhile, men receive the message that chivalrous acts are demeaning toward women. Young men are too often the target of women’s groups, who cast men as oppressors and women as the victims.”

The NeW chapter at Arizona State University held the first Gentlemen’s Showcase. NeW leader Blayne Bennett had no idea how successful it would be. Bennett says: “When we were shooting the [promotional] video and asking if students thought chivalry was dead, we received a resounding ‘Yes!’ from the women, and the men seemed to be confused as to what even characterized chivalrous behavior.” By the end of the year’s Showcase, NeW had received more than 300 nominations of ASU gentlemen.

Another issue important to NeW women is the relationship between family and career. “I realized that I didn’t have to make a choice,” says Carter. “The neat thing about NeW is that every woman has a unique experience coming in and different goals. That’s a great thing that really unites women, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum.” While radical feminists undervalue the choice to be a mother, women increasingly want more options. NeW offers women a forum in which they can learn how to balance being a mother and having a successful career, so that they can ultimately define success on their own terms.

NeW’s message resonates with women past their college years, and the organization plans to expand its reach beyond campus grounds. Alumni groups are forming as the network widens and graduates become activists within their communities. Experienced women in the conservative movement are taking notice. Along with Sommers, former First Lady of Virginia Susan Allen attended the 2010 National Conference.

“Mainstream women are going to have to rescue feminism from the feminists,” says Sommers. The women of NeW are hard at work on that rescue mission and on the task of bringing intellectual diversity back to campus.

Ms. Goizueta and Ms. Kopec are members of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation.