Alongside the fierce debate happening within modern feminism between so-called “trans-exclusionary” gender-critical feminists and “trans-inclusive” radical feminists over whether to embrace or repudiate transgenderism (the so-called “TERF Wars”), there is an emerging “FemWar” within American conservatism.

All the parties to this conservative debate agree that modern feminism, with its denial of natural differences between men and women, its cultural, political, and economic pressure on women to delay or abandon both marriage and motherhood for professional careers, its celebration of the sexual revolution and commitment to abortion on demand, and its denigration of men, or at least “manly” men who express typical masculine virtue, is a false ideology that has deeply damaged both our social fabric and countless individual women, men, and children, born and unborn.

They disagree on the best response to modern feminism. On one side of the debate are traditionalist antifeminists (we might call them AntiFems) who argue that the entire feminist project is misguided and should be jettisoned. On the other side are advocates of a more authentic form of feminism. Some of these advocates have organized themselves under the title Sex Realist Feminism, but I shall call them here “NewFems” after John Paul II’s call for a “New Feminism.” Some of this debate has occurred in these pages (see Erika Bachiochi, Abigail Favale, Rachel Lu, and Carrie Gress).

I have two reasons to be interested in this debate. First, every year I teach a course on the Philosophy of Love, Sex, and Marriage at Hillsdale College. One of my goals is to prepare young men and women to understand and navigate the challenges to a right understanding of human sexuality in our culture. I also want to prepare my own nine children to meet these challenges. But secondly, this debate closely parallels the liberalism–postliberalism debate, in which I have participated (for example, see here). This is not surprising, since first-wave feminism grew out of conceptions of justice similar to those that animated early classical liberalism: the abolition of slavery, the elimination of arbitrary privileges of title and birth, the protection of civil and religious liberty, rule by consent, and others.      

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However, both of these debates are not only about substance. They are also about the quality of our reasoning and arguments. PostLibs and AntiFems often abuse reason in similar ways.

First, they both tend to rely on equivocal, simplistic, or question-begging definitions that obscure clear thinking about the subject matter. Any treatment of liberalism that cannot account for the vast difference between the American and French Revolutions is deeply suspect. So is any account of feminism that cannot account for the difference between supporting women’s suffrage and abortion on demand. 

Second, they both tend to either ignore or misrepresent the past in ways that prevent an accurate assessment of both the present and the future. Instead of providing sound historical analysis, PostLib and AntiFem histories are often rife with informal association fallacies.

Finally, they both fail to offer feasible prudential responses to the problems they identify. How does a good and just society understand, provide for, and promote the truth about our common human nature and sexual difference? And what is the most effective means for pursuing this goal in our own culture?

These tendencies undermine careful reasoning and feed confirmation biases. They also contribute to a toxic combination of alienation from one’s own tradition, rage at the present, and hopelessness toward the future.

To illustrate these tendencies, I would like to highlight Carrie Gress’s recent book The End of Woman: How Smashing the Patriarchy Has Destroyed Us. Gress’s writings, including her eloquent co-written book on the beauty and value of homemaking, have rightly gained her a wide audience. But although I welcome attacks on modern feminism, Gress’s treatment is so blunt and flawed that I fear it is a source of more harm than good. The defense of the truth, especially in today’s culture, demands sound reasoning and careful scholarship, for the benefit of both friends and adversaries.  

The book has already received some sharp criticism from Nina Power, Rachel Lu, Elizabeth Grace Mathew, and Beatrice Scudeler. And although Lila Rose gently presses Gress with the right questions (note her replies), Matt Fradd, sadly, does not. In her replies, Gress has not acknowledged any defects in her arguments, and they are greater than her critics have so far pointed out. In identifying those defects, I hope to help readers be more careful about how they read and writers to be more careful in how they write. I also hope to indicate a way forward in the “FemWar” on the right.    

The Past: Clear Definitions, Good Arguments

The first rule of responsible argument is to be clear about one’s terms. A common abuse of this rule is to leave your target undefined and amorphous so that you don’t have to be too careful about the weapons you use, or your aim. This also provides a wide avenue for retreat when you are challenged. 

A second rule of responsible writing is to support one’s claims with sound evidence and arguments. A common abuse of this rule is to appeal to irrelevant but sensational associations to support one’s claims and to ignore or misrepresent the direct evidence. This second kind of abuse is exemplified by association fallacies. Association fallaciesad hominem, non sequitur, post hoc ergo propter hoc, begging the questionappeal to the strong passions of fear, anger, or desire that lie behind our motivated reasoning. 

Gress’s book is a case study in violating both rules.

Gress never defines feminism. It’s not that Gress doesn’t know how to define. Early in the book she provides the reader with Merriam-Webster’s definition of “patriarchy,” although as we shall see she ignores what this means in practice. Why doesn’t she similarly give Webster’s definition of feminism? This might have caused her to reflect on what “the equality and rights of women” means, and to give more attention to the disputes within feminism over its meaning and aims, both historically and today. She might then have offered the kind of complex and nuanced account of feminism one finds in The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory by Abigail Favale, a Catholic convert with an advanced degree in gender theory. (This is one of many important books Gress might have learned from but that she never references or cites.) 

Instead of defining feminism, Gress associates it with three ideas that she falsely claims were part of feminism from the beginning, starting with Mary Wollstonecraft (whom she calls “the first feminist”): free love, the occult, and “smash the patriarchy.” Gress never supports these claims by examining Wollstonecraft’s actual writings, nor could she, since none of these ideas can be found in Wollstonecraft’s work. Instead, she dwells on a host of irrelevant but sensational associations: Wollstonecraft’s tragic life, her acquaintance (not “friendship”) with Thomas Paine, her late marriage to the radical William Godwin, the horrors of the French Revolution, the depravity of the Marquis de Sade (this association is particularly dubious), and lesser depredations of her son-in-law Percy Bysse Shelley. Ad hominem fallacies abound. Careful examination of Wollstonecraft’s concerns and writings does not.

Even Gress’s more direct associations are misleading in ways that undermine her credibility as a writer on feminism. For example, she correctly writes that Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written in 1792, was dedicated to the French statesman Talleyrand, noting that Talleyrand was a “former bishop laicized by Pope Pius VII for his commitment to free love and support of the French Revolution.” The casual reader will come away with the impression that Wollstonecraft dedicated her book to Talleyrand because of his advocacy for free love, when nowhere in her dedication, or anywhere else in her book, does Wollstonecraft even mention free love. If Wollstonecraft ever endorsed free love, Gress never shows it. And it is worth pointing out that Talleyrand was not laicized until ten years after the publication of Vindication.

Rather than commending him for supporting free love, Wollstonecraft scolds Talleyrand (and French society more generally) for ignoring the proper education of women. Why does she think such an education is valuable? So that “marriage may become more sacred: your young men may choose wives from motives of affection, and your maidens allow love to root out vanity . . . And the mother will not neglect her children to practice the arts of coquetry, when sense and modesty secure her the friendship of her husband.” There are dozens of passages like this in Vindication, and many others that strongly promote chastity. Does this sound like a modern feminist? Like other “first-wave” feminists, Wollstonecraft was pro-life, pro-marriage, and pro-motherhood and fatherhood. Again, Gress might have avoided these and other errors if she had read her colleague Erika Bachiochi’s recent book The Rights of Women, which was a finalist for ISI’s Conservative Book of the Year award, but which she never acknowledges.

As I mentioned, Gress does provide Merriam-Webster’s definition of “patriarchy,” which includes “the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line” and “broadly: control by men of a disproportionately large share of power.” She then correctly observes: “There exists an unbreakable tension between feminism’s efforts and the patriarchy’s existence. Feminism fights on as an effort to restructure society by erasing the patriarchy.” 

Is Gress in favor of patriarchy? Are her readers? Does opposition to patriarchy make one a modern free-loving gender-neutral pro-abortion feminist? Isn’t this a false dichotomy? And isn’t Gress simply begging the question about the justice and desirability of patriarchy?

Of course, Gress is welcome to defend patriarchy, but then she owes it to her readers, especially her young female readers, to at least explain what patriarchy practically means in terms of laws, institutions, practices, and opportunities for women. But she never does. 

For example, in a treatment of the Seneca Falls Declaration of 1848, one would expect at least some thoughtful attention to its concrete list of grievances. Gress doesn’t mention even one. Instead, she goes into detail on the influence of “spirit tables” on early feminist thought. Even if this influence were real, it is an obvious genetic fallacy that has no bearing on the soundness of the Declaration itself. While some women will doubtless be satisfied to dismiss the Declaration as a work of Satan, many intelligent young women will want to know the substantive merits of its appeal, to wit: 

Is it just to deprive all women of the right to vote? 

Is it just for a married woman to be under the complete legal dominion of her husband in marriage, with no right to work without his permission, no right to acquire property or to use her own property without his permission, no right to refuse sexual intercourse, even by force? 

Is it just that the husband, even an abusive husband, automatically receives the guardianship of the children in case of separation or divorce? 

Is it just for all women to be excluded from higher education? 

Is it just for all women to be excluded from most professions, including law and medicine? 

Is it just that women are required to be chaste while men are permitted to be promiscuous?

This is “the patriarchy” in America in 1848. Is this the world Gress is advocating when she exhorts her readers near the end of her book to “restore the patriarchy”? If you find this world troubling, you are beginning to understand the complex history and reality of feminism. But if you want to make sense of that reality, Gress’s book will not help you.

The explicit appropriation of the tone and principles of the Declaration of Independence in the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration is not best explained by “occult spirit tables.” It is rather an appeal for a just extension of the logic of the Declaration of Independence to a new state of affairs. Whether that appeal was sound or not is one of the issues in the dispute between AntiFems and NewFems, but Gress does nothing to help her reader figure it out.

The Future: Patriarchy or New Feminism?

True, in her introduction, Gress acknowledges that “there have been many advances under feminism, such as laws against sex and pregnancy discrimination, custody laws for mothers, and many social and economic opportunities.” And she concedes that “there were (and remain) injustices to women that needed rectifying. . . . This book is not arguing that we as a society should go back to the 1780s, or even the 1950s. I remain grateful for the opportunities I have as a woman.”

But these brief acknowledgments are so incongruous with the rest of her argument that they seem perfunctory and insincere. The issue is not whether Gress is grateful for her opportunities as a modern woman. She clearly is. The issue is that she never acknowledges where these opportunities came from. The answer is: Feminism. Such an acknowledgment would undermine her whole argument. Like the PostLibs, AntiFem women want to saw off the branch they are sitting on while keeping their seats.

By poisoning the very idea of feminism without suggesting a more usable term, Gress threatens to erase from memory, and from present view, the real injustices suffered by women. However, if one endorses the gains of first-wave feminism, as Gress seems to do, then why the vicious attack on first-wave feminism itself? And why avoid addressing the real challenges downstream from those gains? If women are included in higher education, business, the professions, and political life, how will they work alongside men (and men alongside them)? How will these opportunities affect their decisions to marry and have children? How will it affect their actual marriages and children? What kind of cultural forms should guide them in this new arrangement?

Unless one is prepared to advocate the retrenchment of these gains, and so far not many AntiFems are, one is obliged to show how men and women can safely navigate this new world instead of merely ranting against it. Here again, Gress’s book is not very helpful.

Unless one is prepared to advocate the retrenchment of these gains, and so far not many AntiFems are, one is obliged to show how men and women can safely navigate this new world instead of merely ranting against it.


The last section of her book, in which she attempts to point a way forward, is also the shortest. The final chapter is entitled “Mother,” and in it, she affirms something like what John Paul II called “the feminine ‘genius’.” But she does not anywhere in the book acknowledge the shared human nature and essential equality and dignity of men and women created in God’s image that are a central feature of JPII’s New Feminism. Instead, she falsely interprets every assertion of this truth by first-wave feminists to mean that they want “women to be like men.” This is a non sequitur, as John Paul II’s own treatment makes clear. And this affirmation of equality is not merely a metaphysical gesture; it is the basis for John Paul II’s criticism of the historical abuse and mistreatment of women in Section 10 of Mulieris dignitatem, “He shall rule over you.” 

Moreover, her treatment of the “mother genius” is focused exclusively on the activities of childbearing and rearing. It is an important appeal to the great dignity of motherhood. But the problem is what is not in it. What my bright, educated female students would really like to know is how Gress herself combines her motherhood with her other work. Would Gress discourage those students from following the path she herself has chosen? What are the challenges? How does she meet those challenges? 

Finally, what about the men? I’ve long thought that if men behaved better most of the problems with feminism would go away. Or at least half the problem. AntiFems tend to place all the blame on feminism itself, but they say very little about men. Whatever the case for women, men blaming feminism for their problems is, well, unmanly.

Women want men to be men, men that are neither “wimps nor barbarians” but gentlemenwhat Plato and Aristotle call the kaloskagathos or “beautiful and good” man. We might follow John Paul II in identifying Christ as the true gentleman, and in his respectful treatment of women, as the first NewFem. We don’t hear anything about him, but I suspect that behind Mrs. Gress is a Mr. Gress, a gentleman. 

A gentleman is a man who does not need to make a show of his strength and spiritedness but channels them into the defense of what is true, good, and beautiful. He longs to commit his life to noble goods such as marriage and fatherhood and takes those commitments seriously. Gentlemen take joy in sacrifice when it is required, and they are eager to resist bad men who use their strength to exploit the weak and the vulnerable. (Thus the “man” in “gentleman.”)

Gentlemen also put the needs of others above their own desires. They know how to lead by example and are not afraid to do lowly tasks in service to others. They are chaste because self-control is strong and noble and taking advantage of women is weak and ugly. (Thus the “gentle” in “gentleman”). 

Gentlemen don’t feel threatened by strong, intelligent, talented, and spirited women. The Virgin Mary, Yes! But also Judith, Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc, and Gianna Molla. Gentlemen admire strong women, and they are unafraid to work alongside them, to honor their “feminine genius,” and to support the unique burdens and challenges that go with that genius. And just as women want to marry real men, real men want to marry real women with whom they can share a fullness of life, friendship, adventure, and challenge.

As Bachiochi’s book shows, this is exactly what Wollstonecraft and other first-wave feminists were fighting for: the flourishing of women, protection against bad men, and for good men to become chaste, loving husbands, caring fathers, and companions with their wives in the difficult duty of raising children. This, and not patriarchy, should be the goal of men, and women. 

AntiFems face a dilemma. On one hand, they want to affirm, protect, and promote the distinctiveness of women. On the other hand, they oppose what at present seems like the only viable strategy for achieving that end, the recovery and extension of an authentic feminism. 

In the end, I don’t know if the words “liberalism” or “feminism” can be redeemed from their accumulated and often contradictory baggage and made usable for conservative purposes, but I do know that the authentic realities these words express need defending, and until someone circulates a better vocabulary to capture those realities, these words will have to do. Antifeminism is not enough. 

I also know that America, like the rest of the West, faces a deep cultural, spiritual, and political crisis. In meeting that crisis, conservatism cannot afford to throw the baby out with the bathwater, abandoning the best of its own tradition and promoting dreams of an impossible future. And conservatism especially cannot afford careless reasoning that plays to the already committed while alienating the many whose minds must be changed if we are to have any hope of winning this war.

Image by Halfpoint and licensed via Adobe Stock.