Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Independent Women's Forum.
The America that gave us Betty Friedan and her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, is not the America we live in today. So why, I ask, do veteran feminists remain lodged in a past that no longer exists? To millions of American women and men, whether conservative, liberal, or libertarian, feminism seems like an outdated part of the American lexicon that most simply cannot identify with.
Yet the term feminism once expressed an important concept, which is why, as much as I deplore today's understanding of the word, I understand the reluctance to give it up.
Classical feminism understands that the commonalities of women and men far outweigh their differences. We are partners, not antagonists. Pure, nonpoliticized, nonradicalized feminism means protecting women as individuals—their lives, liberties, and pursuit of happiness, as highlighted by the Declaration of Independence.
Classical feminism is rooted in the abolitionist movement, which promoted human rights, not male rights. By declaring that all individuals had a natural, inalienable right to be free, abolitionism helped spawn the American feminist movement.
The first feminists supported the values of liberty and opportunity. They naturally demanded the right to vote. Feministing.com's Jessica Valenti complains when "conservative" feminists embrace the suffrage movement, but suffragists demanded equal rights as individuals.
These feminists did not wallow in victimhood. Rather, they gloried in the possibilities of freedom. In Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, Wendy McElroy argued the goal of these women was "not to be protected by a paternalistic state but to be granted equal status with men under the laws that respected these rights." In 1926, Suzanne LaFollette wrote Concerning Women, a book that defended free markets and laissez-faire capitalism and maintained that the industrial revolution provided women with much of the freedom they then enjoyed. Was she not a feminist?
Women like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem helped set the stage for further advances by women. But too many second-wave feminists lost sight of liberty as the principle vehicle of liberation.
Instead, second-wave feminism relied on the power of government instead of the power of the individual. These feminists also refused to acknowledge that there are differences between men and women. Recognizing this fact is an affirmation of a biological reality, not patriarchy.
Unfortunately, these attitudes incline second-wave feminists towards victimhood. And that attitude makes the genuine equality which we all desire harder to achieve.
For example, Valenti disapproves of the Independent Women's Forum, pointing to evidence that some of the wage gap between men and women reflects career choices. In particular, women are far more likely to take time off to care for children.
Second-wave feminists prefer to blame discrimination. However, sometimes, discrimination is not to blame, and so-called "solutions" predicated on an assumption of discrimination and that expand government power would do more harm than good to millions of American women. Is it really that hard to believe there are women who knowingly take jobs that pay less so they can have more time to care for aging parents or spend more time with their children and families?
The best way to advance women—which should be the goal of all self-described feminists—is to educate women about the consequences of the personal decisions women make. Another goal should be to liberate the marketplace to offer more and better opportunities for women. Finally, a goal of all self-described feminists should be to promote equal opportunity for women and men so that none of us are ever denied what abolitionist and suffragist Sara Grimke referred to as our "essential rights."
Certainly, in the United States, women's essential rights are secure. American women clearly face sexism on occasion (which society should seek to minimize and ultimately eliminate), but it's silly to claim that American women are "oppressed."
Look at education. Girls now do better than boys in school. More women than men go to university. Women are free to compete for any job and are increasingly leading companies as well as earning public office. It is foolish to compare the status of women here to women in the countries like Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq. I have worked with women living in these countries. They know the meaning of oppression.
Attempts to position American women as a victim class marginalize us. Politicians and pundits often speak of "women's issues," but there is no reason for "women's issues" to revolve solely around our breasts and ovaries.
American women are first and foremost citizens. At the Independent Women's Forum, our mantra is that "all issues are women's issues," from nuclear nonproliferation to financial regulation, education reform, healthcare reform and terrorism.
Call it free market feminism if you like, but women do not have to be liberals, Democrats, or socialists to be feminists. True feminists should be committed to taking charge of both their own lives and their nation's destiny. They need to shape the future rather than fight the past.
Given the gains women have made and the country we live in today—and the counterproductive agenda embraced by the most vocal self-proclaimed "feminists" of today, maybe it is time to simply retire the word from the American lexicon.