Are things getting worse for women?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

Interesting article in the Guardian about Joan Wallach Scott.

Given the rise of Trump, and especially the rise of outfits such as Wikileaks, I’ve been rethinking a lot of what I thought I knew about the era since 1960.

Organizations such as Wikileaks uses the language of progressives (expose the facts, speak truth to power, attack the elites, shake up the government) while in fact working as a propaganda outfit for an authoritarian regime (Russia). Yet people are drawn to Wikileaks by precisely the same line of thought that used to leave me thinking that I must of course be loyal to some of the ideals that were espoused during the political upheavals of the 1960s.

Actually, I’ve been rethinking most of this for several years, although something like Trump and Wikileaks have accelerated the process. My attitude towards the men of the New Left of the 1960s has become much more suspicious.

Consider the way that the conservative movement has changed its own relationship to religion and women. The percentage of people who go to church on the weekend has crashed. While I know many entrepreneurs who vote Republican and articulate a set of spiritual beliefs that are in line with New Age thought, I know very few people who still go to mainline churches, Protestant or Catholic. Especially among whites, the decline in church attendance has been dramatic.

Yet consider how conservative leaders talk about religion and sex. I recently saw Newt Gingrich on Fox News, where he was critical of the #MeToo movement against sexual assault. He suggested that “they” started out advocating free love and have now ossified into some kind of frigid prudes.

Gingrich is an exemplary case. He argues for restrictions on abortions because we must respect traditional values while he is known to have cheated on his wives, he divorced one while she was in the hospital recovering from chemotherapy, and he is now on his third marriage.

All of the mainline religions imposed some restrictions on men. In particular, all of the mainline religions insisted on monogamy, and faithfulness during marriage. The modern movement to secularism has been a time when restrictions on men have been dropped, even while the men continue to invoke religious, traditional values to justify maintaining old limits on women. And indeed, nowadays, most religions are kept going by women, who are far more likely to actually go to church than the men. Maybe the women feel that secularism has high costs for women?

Obviously all of the mainline religions have a deep vein of misogyny. No one questions that. But in a world where women only have bad options, perhaps religion is one of the least bad options. There are many situations in life where there are no good options, and some women might be loyal to old mainline religions simply because they feel that everything else is worse. Andrea Dworkin once wrote a book called “Right Wing Women” where she tried to figure out why some women were right wing. Acknowledging that giving up on traditional restraints on behavior, including traditional restraints on male behavior, might have some costs, might explain why some women remain worried about the change.

There is also the issue of lost time, which can be thought of as a lost investment. I sense it among what my Polish friends tell me about their families in Poland. The older generation of women put up with hell, and their only possible reward was the future promise of grandchildren. Now many of their daughters flee to the West as soon as they can, and postpone children as long as possible. The older generation, lost in a fever dream of nostalgia and regret, vote for an ultra-right nightmare in hopes someone can revive the past.

Religion also offers a sense of community, a fact which leaves me suspicious of this line from the article: “the best bet is to reform secularism”. Maybe. Another good bet might be to reform religion. There will always be religion, but we can hope to push it in happier directions than what we’ve known for the last few thousand years.

In some sense, the #MeToo movement can be thought of as a moment when women are saying “We are tired of having to chose among bad options, from now on, we want to have an abundance of good option, and we will chose among those.” In that sense, the rhetoric around empowerment is real. If sexual harassment is primarily about the abuse of power at work, then it needs to end, so women can have the careers they want.

So The Guardian is talking to Joan Wallach Scott about her book, which triggered these thoughts. From the article:

Yet the famed gender historian Joan Wallach Scott, in her new book, Sex and Secularism, claims the opposite is true. “The notion that equality between the sexes is inherent to the logic of secularism”, she argues, “is false”. “Gender inequality”, she states, “is not simply the byproduct of the emergence of modern Western nations; rather, that inequality is at its very heart”. Secularism, she adds, has served to account for this fact.

More troubling, Scott affirms that secularism has most often been used to justify the claims of white, western and Christian racial and religious superiority in the present as well the past. Strangely, the biggest threat to gender equality in the modern era, according to her argument, has been neither the Catholic church, Protestant fundamentalism, fascist movements, etc, but secularism.

Grasping Scott’s counterintuitive argument requires an understanding of her approach to the history of secularism. The traditional view sees secularism as a long and gradual historical march to greater equality between men and women that began with the French Revolution and continues on today. She doesn’t see it that way.

Scott says she does not take issue with secularism as a legal and political reality, but rather with secularism’s champions who smugly claim that it is inherently good for women. Her book aims to dismantle such arguments by showing just how sexist the history of the secular west has been. By focusing on debates about the self-congratulatory benefits of secularism Scott offers a history of it that precludes any necessary relationship to gender equality.

Her approach leads to several excellent observations about the origins of modern gender inequality. The book is at its strongest when showing how secularism in 19th-century Europe was used as a weapon to oppose the threat of institutionalized Christianity, while also serving as a defense of imperial rule over the “uncivilized” peoples of Africa and Asia.

The repudiation of religion during this time, Scott argues, was predicated on idealized distinctions between what belongs in the public sphere (men, markets, politics, and bureaucracy) and the private sphere (women, family, religion and sexual intimacy).

“These distinctions had nothing in them of gender equality,” Scott rightly observes; “rather, they were marked by a presumption of gender inequality.” They were, in fact, used as justifications for not giving women the right to vote, which in secular France – out of fear women would vote for the church party – did not happen until 1944.

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