The imminent rise of ‘civic feminism’

By Medicine Men

A year ago, the words “civic feminism” would have seemed a contradiction in terms, and a bitter one at that. After so many decades of gimme-gimme-gimme and boy-am-I-pissed, of men-are-the-enemy and lawsuits-lawsuits-lawsuits, feminism – what’s left of it – seems to have reached an unpleasant climacteric of viciousness and absurdity. Yet now comes a potential revival, avowing that the real end of feminism must be equality in civic responsibility and civic virtue.

Especially in time of war.

Philip Gold, a historian of American culture better known for his prescient defense work, is one of the first to notice this new wave. For decades, Gold described himself as a Keynesian feminist (after economist, John Maynard Keynes). “A Keynesian feminist,” he explains, “holds that the supply of angry women vastly exceeds the demand.” But that era, he feels, is fading.

According to Dr. Phil, until the 1960s, feminism tried to be about more than women. The suffrage part of the movement held that giving women the vote would improve society as a whole. Ditto feminist participation in the peace movement. It was naive and anti-militarist, but not anti-male or necessarily anti-military. Feminist Godmother Betty Friedan, in her 1963 “The Feminine Mystique,” argued that feminism, to be valid, must ultimately benefit more than women. By 1981, in “The Second Stage,” (the book that got her drummed out of The Sisterhood), she was deploring feminism’s new and self-destructive selfishness.

So what went wrong? In a word, the ’60s and ’70s, which transmuted feminism into the politics of self-obsessed consciousness-raising, of dismissal of authority per se, and of a virulent man-hating bigotry that reduced the military to the last bastion of machismo, a nut to be cracked for the sake of the cracking. Lost in the obsession: the real needs of real women, the notions that authority and force can be legitimate, and that civilization is worth defending.

The new civic feminists are young. In many ways, they’re far from conservative. But they’re dead serious about one thing: the equality that comes from discharging their responsibilities as citizens.

One of the most articulate exemplars of this new wave is a radical feminist and former Army officer named Erin Solaro, 35. She’s working on a book of essays on women and citizenship in time of war called, “The Woman Soldier.” The standard screed this is not.

We recently spoke with Solaro and found her to be one of the most interesting and delightful persons we’ve ever interviewed. Her premise is simple. “We’re in this together. Male, female, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, we all have a stake in this civilization. Women, too, have a political stake in its survival, not just a physical one. As citizens, we have a responsibility for the common defense, which we must discharge together with men, not expect men to do this for us.”

Solaro, as expected, holds that women should serve in the combat arms. But the war on terror means that defense may take many forms, and women must not be excluded from these, either.

So what got her going? In essence, she discovered that the people who take her seriously are conservative men, often with military backgrounds, while The Sisterhood calls her a fascist and believes that feminists don’t have to know anything about the military, just sneer at it. This led her to the realization that, although she remains liberal on personal and social issues, conservatism has a new relevance where matters of legitimate authority and communal defense are involved.

Erin and her compatriots hold that empowerment means more than just living their lives as they choose. It means full participation in a civilization under attack. And in the end, that common danger should affect private relationships as well, and for the better.

“We can view relationships between the sexes as a war, in which we live at each others’ expense. Or we can build relationships, sexual and non-sexual alike, in which we do not live at each other’s expense, in which we share equally, giving to and receiving from each other.

“It is genetically impossible for us to be opposites, and we have nearly eliminated that ancient tragedy of death in childbirth that is probably the root of so much bitterness between men and women.”

Solaro concludes that there is nothing inherently incompatible with military service and femininity. Women with a military calling need not be forced to choose between their calling and their womanhood.

At this point, we can almost hear some muttering about new wine in old bottles. Nonetheless, there is something important here. Erin Solaro’s brand of “civic feminism,” insofar as it avows that we’re all in this together and all responsible, is a far healthier alternative for the entire country than the weary, dreary, America-hating spitefulness of decades past.

It merits consideration.