In her latest book, Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense, syndicated columnist and bestselling author Mona Charen synthesizes history and social science with philosophical and cultural analysis. The result is an interesting, readable, and compelling narrative.
In the book’s lengthy (though excellent) first chapter, “The Feminist Mistake,” Charen critically examines the second-wave feminist narrative of women’s historic oppression and their subsequent empowerment by the sexual revolution. Looking back beyond even “first-wave” feminists (Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, etc.), Charen explores the work of lesser-known women like Hannah More (1745–1833), who “didn’t deny differences between the sexes but urged women to use their special abilities to improve the world.” This, according to Charen, reveals the key problem with contemporary feminism: it has forgotten that “equal” does not have to mean “the same.”
Charen contrasts this earlier understanding of femininity with the “grievance mongering” of second-wave feminists like Betty Friedan, who hijacked the moral high ground of the civil rights movement by comparing the plight of women to the suffering of African Americans. Charen has no patience for this move (which many others have since imitated). As she puts it, “no group in American history has suffered the kind of dehumanization, persecution, exclusion, terror, and discrimination that blacks were subjected to for more than three hundred years,” and it is offensive to pretend otherwise.
When Charen turns to Betty Friedan’s 1973 The Feminist Mystique, she delivers a decisive critique. Following Friedan’s motto that “the personal is political,” Charen fills in the biographical background of Friedan’s manifesto, including Friedan’s unhappy, mutually abusive marriage. More importantly, as Charen demonstrates, the book and its hyperbolic claims are based upon shoddy, inaccurate, and even fraudulent research. Sadly, that hasn’t stopped its message—in particular, its stigmatization of full-time motherhood and exaltation of paid work outside the home—from permeating and shaping our culture.
After examining the (largely negative) impact of other influential feminists, Charen spends several chapters covering topics that will be familiar to readers of Public Discourse: the contemporary quest to abolish sex differences, the widespread conflation of pro-woman with pro-abortion ideals, the rise of the hook-up culture, and what Charen calls “the campus rape mess.” Here Charen is characteristically unafraid of political incorrectness. She decries the “kangaroo courts erected by universities” that “have dispensed with sacred rights protecting the accused, including the right to be represented by counsel, the right to confront witnesses, and the presumption of innocence.”
In her last two chapters, Charen surveys the changing landscape of marriage and childbearing trends in the United States, focusing particularly on women who must choose how to divide their time between motherhood and careers. Charen emphasizes that parenthood necessarily comes with sacrifices. Still, as fulfilling as meaningful work can be, she concludes, the “best and most important sources of identity, meaning, and joy, for men and women, are to be found not in the world of work but in our homes and families.”
The book’s middle sections revisit well-trod ground, and they lag somewhat in comparison to its compelling introductory and closing chapters. Still, all in all, Sex Matters is a worthwhile and informative read.