Cultural Marxism is an ideology in which radical subjectivity and determinism is a form of self-actualization reaching beyond every normal boundary and taboo to achieve sexual liberation and social transformation. Gender feminism is an ideology that considers gender identity to be determined by culturally accepted individual feeling and will (subjectivism) rather than biological sex at birth. Both ideologies melded with Modern Thought through the American academy of the 1960s.
Together, cultural Marxism and gender feminism were driving forces behind the sexual revolution and the emasculation of traditional marriage. Their most significant effects have been to seriously weaken the lower-middle-class American nuclear family and its underlying mores and to betray the future of many children now born in single-parent families.
Gender feminism also underlies the present-day transgender movement, along with related fields such as academic queer theory and gender-identity politics.
The earliest members of the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer asserted in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) that Western civilization has been distorted from its outset by a conception of rationality that aims at the conquest and control of nature, which reached its height with the triumph of scientific technology, the capitalist marketplace, and the modern administrative state and its perfection of the impulse toward domination. In Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955) and One-Dimensional Man (1964), Herbert Marcuse discussed how the economic exploitation of people under capitalism is made possible by Western society’s instinctual and psychic repression of the individual.
In general, cultural Marxism sees domination as repression of eros and the need for release of radical, socially transformative, sexual subjectivism. Radical subjectivity refers to the development of a form of self-consciousness that finds present social and economic conditions intolerable. The radical act is a refusal of these conditions and an orientation toward social transformation.
The student protests of the 1960s were saying “no” to multiple forms of repression—the established forms of subjectivity of existing systems of domination—and replacing them with new forms of subjectivity based on liberating the libido—the achievement of a “libidinal rationality”—and having a world of “polymorphous perversity,” in which you can “do you own thing.” This was a wonderful message for spoiled, adolescent, affluent student radicals who were only too happy to carry out Marcuse’s agenda.
Marcuse utilized Freud but went well beyond him in much of his work. He considered Freud’s theory of the superego, the internalization of the values of some authority figure (such as fathers), obsolete. Marcuse instead argued that such authority figures had gradually disappeared behind, or had been replaced by, administrative institutions.
Marcuse died in 1975, but his academic disciples, characterizing Western society as irredeemably sick and oppressive, developed a sweeping program of human self-actualization reaching beyond every “normal” boundary or taboo: gender, class, race, sexual preference. Unfettered individual choice was extended into nearly every realm, from lifestyle to relations between the sexes. “Liberation” was now understood as freedom from responsibility.
In the same time frame, the Pill, backed by newly legalized, largely unrestricted abortion, became widely available and American attitudes about sexual relations progressively changed.
One of the new forms of counterculture protests against all forms of American institutions and authority in the 1960s was radical feminism, spearheaded by the young, by highly educated upper-middle-class women, and by the academy. Part of the protests stemmed from the civil rights movements of the time, seeking equal rights for women as well as for minorities. Another part stemmed from bored middle-class women with abundant leisure time believing that work was a better choice than home. Ironically at that very time, many men were being urged to spend less time on the job and seek more leisure time. Before going further, let me define the kind of feminism that our discussion is addressing.
Equity feminism is a moral doctrine that opposes the unequal treatment of women in all aspects of life. Since the 1960s It has obtained reforms that largely assure the equal rights and treatment of women so that they may have equal opportunity for freedom, self-realization, independence, and reward. It was a welcome and long-overdue outcome with a continuing need for further improvement. Its goals were eminently reasonable. But gender feminism, not equity feminism, is the subject of this article, and it is something quite different.
Gender feminism denies human nature and seeks to culturally or socially construct new gender identities unlike any in previous human history. Moreover, human interactions are considered to arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals, but derive instead from the struggle among social groups for ascendancy and domination over each other—in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.
The American feminist movement began with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), which took as its theme the emptiness of consumer culture, the frustrations of being a dutiful parent, and the wife’s lack of freedom within the family and opportunity for personal self-realization. Friedan was not at all a normal suburban housewife, although she deceptively sought to portray herself as one. She was in reality a left-wing journalist and political activist steeped in Marxist theories of psychological alienation and oppression and bourgeois ennui (a fact she later sought to conceal). She characterized housewives as prisoners of “comfortable concentration camps.”
But the intellectual godmother of gender feminism was Simone de Beauvoir, who set out a feminist existentialism to prescribe a moral revolution in Le Deuxieme Sexe (The Second Sex) (1949). Beauvoir accepted Jean Paul Sartre’s precept that “existence precedes essence”; hence her famous phrase, “One is not born, but becomes, a woman,” which rejects the idea of human nature. The book is a complaint against male domination; hitherto women have been defined by men; henceforth they must be defined by women. Beauvoir sees salvation in complete sexual liberation; she condemns traditional marriage and the family and compares childbearing and nurturing to slavery. The book ends with a quotation from Marx affirming the brotherhood of men and women in a new realm of liberty in the utopia that the communist future will bring. Beauvoir’s idea of a society without sexual roles or a division of labor came from Marx. The communist utopia is an individualist utopia in which, everyone will have what he or she needs, free of dependence on any other.
After initially gaining momentum in the 1960s and the 1970s, gender feminism and its allies in the women’s movement, and academic social science worked hard to bring about the sexual and cultural revolution. Together, they sought to devise a wholly new gender identity and autonomy, and a gender-neutral society, in which women were independent of morality and nature, and made great progress in that direction. Sexual liberation and obsession with gender identity, relativism, and self-centered expressive individualism (choice over commitment) spread from the counterculture and academic precincts to all levels of society.
Transgender rights—for those whose gender identity is not considered to correspond to that person’s biological sex at birth—has become the latest movement within gender feminism and gender-identity politics. In its most extreme form, transgender rights—self-determination—would emancipate children of any age from parental control, setting them free to declare for themselves their gender or “who they really are” and have that required to be recognized by the state. Peter Wood has written of the U. S. Department of Education’s overreach in its mandate (subsequently reversed by the Trump administration) for transgender restrooms, illustrating the continuing influence of gender feminism and gender-identity politics.
Cultural Marxism, Gender Feminism, and the Family
The ideologies of Cultural Marxism and gender feminism combined to emasculate traditional marriage and the patriarchal family in America. Marriage was seen by both as the “cradle of women’s oppression” and the source of “repressive sexual morality” and needed to be converted to forms more suitable to sexual liberation and female choice and empowerment.
Herbert Marcuse had argued that Freudian “polymorphous perversity” was wrongly being channeled into only monogamous marriage, which enforced submission to social rules and the patriarchal compulsion to work. Cultural Marxism converged on the theory that the patriarchal, authoritarian family and its repressive morality served the interests of the dominant class. Accompanying this was the belief that strict parenting predisposed children to right-wing ideology and that Christianity, capitalism, and the traditional family created a personal character prone to racism and fascism.
Gender feminism redefined the role of women and warred against the very idea of male and female. It rejected the “patriarchal” marriage and family and maternal responsibility for child rearing. It sought to transform the union of a man and woman into a vehicle for realization of adult lifestyle choices and desires. It denied the legitimacy of gender-based divisions of labor within marriage, derided as “the cult of domesticity,” (Friedan’s formulation) in which care for children is work fit only for servants. It substituted social science and the state as the developers of the faculties of children undermining the ethic of parental responsibility.
Academic social science enthusiastically embraced these tenets. College texts exaggerated the costs of marriage to adults, particularly women, and downplayed or ignored the benefits of marriage and the well-being of children. Social science sought to construct maximum individual freedom unencumbered by all forms of obligation and commitment in relationships. Those academically inspired beliefs, along with a welfare state that subsidized only unmarried recipients until 1996, instigated a massive disintegration of marriage and the nuclear family. The greatest effect has been a widespread betrayal of children and their potential future.
The proportion of children living in single-parent or cohabiting households has increased twelvefold since 1970 and is at an all-time high. Such children are vastly more likely to lack parenting, perform poorly in school (the achievement gap), have behavioral and psychological problems, live in poverty, and go on to have out-of-wedlock families themselves. Children raised in unmarried families have diminished social capital and mobility, increasing inequality and social stratification. But “more than two-thirds of Millennial women” are opposed to the idea of women returning to traditional roles in a nuclear family that so benefited children throughout earlier American history. Reflecting that belief, 63 percent of births to Millennial women without college educations are now out-of-wedlock.
Ironically, no turn away from Western thought has had a greater effect on the lives and futures of common people than the contribution to Modern Thought of cultural Marxism and gender feminism, especially in their emasculation of the nuclear family as part of the subjectivism and determinism of the sexual revolution.
Modern thought has come to have radically different ideas about sexual mores, marriage, personal commitment, childbearing, parenting, impulse or self-control, self-indulgence, and work ethic, with highly educated, affluent career women as its chief beneficiaries. Its largely negative effects have fallen on lower-middle and working-class families and their children.
The next article will address postmodern subjectivism, the social construction of knowledge and reality, which emerged as a fundamental basis for Modern thought over the last half of the twentieth century.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).
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