James Poulos posted a much commented upon essay in The Daily Caller the other day, entitled, “What are Women for?”
Poulos has a kind of oracular and circuitous prose style (takes one to know one), and it’s sometimes hard to understand exactly what he’s trying to argue. And sometimes oracular devolves into just terrible and weird writing as when he intones, “The purpose of lifting the left’s Potemkin skirts is not to score tits for tats.” Um…I lost him between the skirts, the tits and the tats, and I don’t even want to know where he ended up.
But, allowing for his affectedness, Poulos is actually up to something at once deeply derivative and banal, yet astonishing in the residual, reactionary power he brings to it. For evidence, see this second “response to critics” essay of his. The argument—once Poulos has dispensed with some pretty tedious “plague on the right and left (but mostly left)” throat clearing—comes down to this: he thinks that women are closer to nature because they are able to give birth, i.e they have a “privileged relationship to the natural world.” And, therefore, “what they are for”, as he argues in the second essay (which is actually the more lucid of the two) is to civilize those who “fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.” That would be men. After all, as he says in essay one, “a civilization of men, for men, and by men is no civilization at all, a monstrously barbaric, bloody, and brutal enterprise.”
This is a pretty old and very trite argument, of course—men have been saying this should be women’s obligation for a very long time (Didn’t Reagan say almost exactly this without Poulos’s allusions to Rousseau and Heidegger? Something about “we men would all be wearing loin cloths without the women”? ) And, for a very long time, some women have also said this should be women’s obligation. Unfortunately, I’ve even seen examples of this thinking in my daughter’s elementary school—the teachers would sometimes surround one of the high strung boys with a cordon of well-behaved girls so as to “calm” him. But Poulos roasts these old chestnuts until they incinerate: he’s worried that a culture war over the purpose of women could trigger “…a fundamental crisis of governance that Americans won’t be able to successfully recover from.”
Poulos imagines that reworking Reagan’s cave man rhetoric with enough subordinate clauses means that he has hit upon some cutting edge analysis; He further thinks he has made an “ironic” point on the terms of his political adversaries by employing what he calls the “strain of left feminism that insists an inherently unique female “voice” actually exists. That’s a claim about nature.”
But Poulos doesn’t know anything about the taxonomy of feminism. The difference feminism of Carol Gilligan (or, if you prefer Holly Near and Chris Williamson) isn’t at all “left feminism”, although he is right to say it makes a “claim about nature”: The left, including most versions of feminism, makes it stand with history—that which, by definition, contains the possibility of social change (for better or worse) and human agency over time and space. Poulos wishes to affirm nature—that, which, by definition, is ascertained to be eternally fixed, immune to human agency, over time and space. But by affirming nature, he cannot also affirm even a normative equality between the sexes—only history chronicles equality as an obtainable, and not a static, condition. Nature begins and ends with women in a state of inequality.
And by including just a bit of boilerplate—a lazy, rhetorical nod to the struggles and aspirations of women—Poulos unintentionally destroys the logical basis of his argument entirely. After giving women their marching orders to tame the “barbaric, brutal, and bloody” world that men have created, Poulos writes that, “Difference doesn’t presume or ordain inequality.” But how can women take on such a mission without becoming, by definition, less equal than men? Is there a corresponding mission that men would have, and thus equalize between the sexes the burdens of nurturing a humane civilization? Well, no, I guess there isn’t because only women have the connectedness to nature via their wombs that, according to Poulos, ratifies their mission. And, as Poulos notes earlier in the second essay, “….the root of the [culture war] battle is over reaching — and enforcing — a consensus about the relationship between what women do and who women are.” (Emphasis added)
Enforce? Who would enforce women’s duty to civilize men? Who else could enforce it except men? Maybe some women—the legatees of Cary Nation—would help the men to enforce this consensus. Does this enforcement happen thru the institutions of civil society or it would be done thru a highly coercive State composed overwhelmingly of men? Or both? How else, exactly, do you enforce what Poulos calls women’s unique ability “to help humanity avoid becoming enthralled to the more sterile cultural creations of men.” And since when is a “consensus” enforced anyway? Once a consensus is reached, enforcement is gratuitous. To introduce the element of enforcement is to smuggle coercion and thus inequality back into the formulation.
How does that any of this work, therefore, without profoundly abridging the freedom of women to do, well, pretty much have the same life possibilities as men (this is what Poulos calls “what women do” part of the relational equation with “who they are.”) And if that freedom is abridged—“what women do”—and then an attempt is made to “enforce” (by whom?) a faux consensus in support of that abridgement, then doesn’t that, in fact, “ordain inequality”? There can be no other conclusion but that the core, natural difference between men and women—the state of nature to which women are closer than men—also defines a form of inequality. And thus, in Poulos’s inadvertent and confused telling, nature must trump history and the inequality between the sexes becomes a comprehensive and final one, the one that establishes “women’s choices about how to live” once and for all. How could it not? The inequality is linked to women’s connection to the natural world, and that connection—again, their wombs—is trans-historical. Poulos has ushered women to their final destination for all time and place. Is this the end of history? For women, it must be.
Even as Poulos inflates women’s “purpose,” he degrades their humanity. Katha Pollitt entitled her brilliant first collection of essays, Reasonable Creatures. The reference is to a quote from the founding text of Western feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Women. In it, Wollstonecraft observes that a few fortunate women have obtained “courage and resolution” as a result of their “masculine education.” (That is to say, the opportunity for formal education that, for the most part, only men had). Still, she wishes not to judge most women by the, as yet, all too rare lives of these fit, though few exceptions. She writes:
In tracing the causes that in my opinion, have degraded woman…I have not laid any great stress upon the example of a few women (Sappho, Eloisa, Mrs. Macaulay, the Empress of Russia, Madame d’Eon, etc). These, and many more, may be reckoned exceptions; and, are not all heroes, as well as heroines, exceptions to general rules? I wish to see women neither heroines nor brutes; but reasonable creatures.
Neither heroines nor brutes—just reasonable creatures, just like men, no more, no less. Wollstonecraft wrote these words in 1790. Perhaps we should consider them as a prod to imagine not a barbaric civilization of men ministered to by superior, yet subordinate, women, but, rather, more simply: a civilization of women and men.
But that’s not Poulos’s goal. Instead, I am depressed to note that, more than two hundred years after Wollstonecraft wrote her great book, James Poulos thinks that he is respecting women by hoisting them onto a grand pedestal far above the barbarism of men. The pedestal is incredibly high—so high that the women can never climb down from it. Poulos must think that the view is great up there. He must think that it would be unreasonable for these creatures ever to wish to come down.